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Operation Heat Rise

The museum's B-58A set three speed records on March 5, 1962, and in the process won both the Mackay and Bendix Trophies for that year. The following is the story of Operation Heat Rise as told to the museum by the flight's Defensive Systems Operator, Capt. John T. Walton.

Museum: Capt. Walton, let's start with the basics. Who were the crew members for the record flight?

Capt. Walton: The pilot was Capt. Robert G. Sowers, the navigator was Capt. Robert MacDonald and I flew as DSO.

Museum: Was there any particular reason your crew was chosen?

Capt. Walton: Actually no. The crew was picked off a roster in a normal rotation. There were so many special flights and record attempts, eventually most crews got a chance to participate in one kind of record-breaking flight or another.

Museum: So you were flying with an operational bomb wing at the time.

Capt. Walton: Yes, the 43rd Bomb Wing, 65th Squadron out of Carswell AFB, Texas.

Museum: How much training and preparation was done before the flight?

Capt. Walton: We trained for about four months prior to the flight, practicing aerial refueling and things of that nature. Preparation and planning was done by the 43rd Bomb Wing staff and the Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt AFB.

Museum: How was the B-58 prepared?

Capt. Walton: The aircraft was a standard production version with no special modifications of any kind. The ground crew waxed and polished the aircraft until it shined, but other than that it was flown like any other mission.

Museum: Because you were going for a speed record, the aircraft must have been inspected.

Capt. Walton: Yes, of course. The certification folks went over the aircraft with a fine tooth comb. They actually recorded the serial numbers on the engines before we took off so they could check them after we landed and be absolutely certain the aircraft wasn't switched en route. They also watched as we boarded the aircraft and didn't leave until we taxied out from the flightline at Carswell.

Museum: Didn't the flight begin in Los Angeles?

Capt. Walton: Yes, but we took off from Carswell and didn't land again until we reached LA for the second time.

Museum: After returning from New York?

Capt. Walton: Yes.

Museum: Can you tell us about your role during the flight?

Capt. Walton: Sure. The DSO (Defensive System Operator) sits in the aft most crew position; the three crewmen sit in tandem with the pilot up front, the navigator in the middle and the DSO in back. The DSO is responsible for flight engineering, electronic countermeasures (ECM), radio communications and gunnery. On the Bendix flight, my primary job was to carefully monitor the center of gravity and make adjustments to gain the maximum performance for the speed run.

Museum: The Bendix Trophy was awarded for the winner of a transcontinental race. Were there other aircraft flying?

Capt. Walton: Yes, a second aircraft was flying against us.

Museum: Another B-58?

Capt. Walton: Yes.

Museum: So you took off from Carswell AFB and flew to Los Angeles. I assume you did an in-flight refueling (IFR) prior to the beginning of the race.

Capt. Walton: Yes, we flew out over the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles and transferred enough fuel to get us to the halfway point over Kansas where we needed to refuel again.

Museum: So you had to refuel a total of four times during the flight, including the IFR over LA prior to the beginning of the Bendix Race?

Capt. Walton: Well, actually we refueled three times during the record flight. Over Kansas twice, once while we were eastbound and again on the trip back westbound. We also refueled over the Atlantic Ocean after reaching New York. We had to refuel twice prior to the start because of a problem on the ground.

Museum: Can you tell us a little more about the "problem?"

Capt. Walton: Well, after we completed the first IFR over the Pacific, we turned and accelerated up to Mach 2 and passed directly over the ground station recording the official start time of the flight. However, the aircraft was lost in the ground clutter and we got called back because we hadn't been officially verified. We flew back out to rendezvous with the tanker and topped off the fuel and flew over the starting point again, this time for visual validation.

Museum: You flew at about Mach 2, is that right?

Capt. Walton: Actually we were able to go a bit faster. When we were planning the flight, we asked the engineers "How hot can we go?" You see the maximum speed wasn't the major concern, but the maximum skin temperature. An aircraft traveling at Mach 2 generates a tremendous amount of heat due to air friction. The limiting skin temperature "by the book" was 115 degrees centigrade, but the engineers told us we go probably get away with temps up to 125 degrees centigrade. This would allow us to exceed the maximum design speed of 1,325 mph and push the plane up past 1,400 mph. We had skin temperature gauges on board so we could closely monitor the skin temperature. The engineers warned us not to go higher than 125 degrees. As you may know, the skin of the B-58 is actually an aluminum honeycomb sandwich. Two sheets of aluminum are bonded to a center core of aluminum honeycomb material. The engineers told us that the skin panels which covered the wings would tend to unbond at higher temperatures.

Museum: This was how the operation was named, wasn't it?

Capt. Walton: Yes, the name was Operation Heat Rise because we were pushing the ram air temp above the normal operating limit approaching the point where the aircraft tended to melt.

Museum: How high did you fly?

Capt. Walton: Depending on what we were doing, anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 feet. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) cleared the airspace between 25,000 and 50,000 feet in a wide corridor all the way from Los Angeles to New York for 5 hours.

Museum: You also were assigned a single radio frequency for the entire flight, weren't you?

Capt. Walton: Yes, no one was supposed to use the frequency, but during our first IFR over Kansas, a ground controller and a commercial flight were using the frequency. This slowed our first IFR which was already slow because we lost the navigation radar earlier.

Museum: You lost the nav radar? Can you tell us more about that?

Capt. Walton: Yes, outbound from LA in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon, the nav radar went out. We found out later an antenna pin sheared and the radar dish ran away.

Museum: How did you manage the IFR rendezvous without radar?

Capt. Walton: We were flying at approximately 45,000 feet eastbound at Mach 2+. The KC-135 was closing head on at about .9 Mach. The KC-135 does a 180 degree turn about 70 miles out and we descend for the join up. This part should have taken about 6.5 minutes, but took a bit longer because of the malfunctioning radar. The KC-135 had to relay navigational commands to us and the commercial traffic on our restricted frequency delayed the process even more. After join up, we would take on about 85,000 lbs. of fuel being transferred at 4,000 pounds per minute. After about 21 minutes, we had enough fuel to get to New York and off we went.

Museum: Was there just one tanker or were there back up KC-135s as well?

Capt. Walton: As I recall, there were 10 KC-135s supporting both B-58s.

Museum: So after refueling, it was basically a speed run to New York?

Capt. Walton: Not exactly. After the IFR we had to climb back to our optimal cruising altitude of about 45,000 feet. However, we encountered a temperature inversion over the Kansas City area which slowed our climb to altitude. We crossed the finish line at New York in 2 hours, 58.71 seconds. We really wanted to break the 2 hour LA to New York barrier, but it was not to be. We did beat Tall Man Five Six -- by all of one minute.

Museum: Tall Man Five Six was the call sign of the other B-58?

Capt. Walton: Yes, and we were Tall Man Five Five.

Museum: You didn't land in New York...

Capt. Walton: Oh no. We hit the tanker out over the Atlantic to prepare for the run back to Los Angeles.

Museum: This wasn't part of the Bendix Race was it?

Capt Walton: No. We planned to combine the LA to NY Bendix Race with additional record attempt for the fastest trip from New York to Los Angeles and the fastest round trip from Los Angeles to New York and back.

Museum: You were still competing again the second B-58?

Capt. Walton: Yes, but mechanical trouble forced them out of the race soon after leaving the New York area.

Museum: You were flying again the sun then?

Capt. Walton: Literally yes. The B-58 could fly faster than the rotational speed of the earth. We actually beat the sun by about three quarters of an hour in the New York to Los Angeles race.

Museum: Were there any significant problems of the return flight?

Capt. Walton: We encountered the same temperature inversion on the way back, but the last IFR over Kansas actually went much better than the first refueling. We had partial navigational radar by this time.

Museum: How long was the flight back?

Capt Walton: The official time for the New York to Los Angeles flight was 2 hours, 15 minutes, and 50.08 seconds. The total round trip time was 4 hours, 41 minutes, 14.98 seconds. We averaged 1214.71 miles per hour for the duration of the flight.

Museum: You were awarded the Mackay trophy for the most meritorious flight of 1962 also.

Capt. Walton: Yes, the three of us and 458 (the B-58) won the Bendix Trophy race and were awarded the Mackay Trophy for 1962.

Museum: The flight was 5 March.

Capt. Walton: Yes, we were actually ready to go earlier, but the Air Force wanted to wait until John Glenn's Mercury flight was over.

Museum: His space flight was 20 February 1962.

Capt. Walton: Yes. The Air Force was hungry for records and publicity to enhance the prestige of the service and gain favor for more funding of high speed bomber projects. This is why we used a standard, unmodified, production aircraft. It proved the capabilities of the first line SAC bomber force. In any case, we had to wait for the first US orbital space flight to end because we couldn't compete with this event. Remember the United States was attempting to catch up to the Russians at this point in the space race.

Museum: The museum has your B-58A on display in the Modern Flight Hangar. What do you think of when you look at her?

Capt. Walton: Beautiful. Prettiest plane in the museum. It looks great all polished. The decals commemorating the Bendix and Mackay Trophies are impressive and bring back a lot of memories. Of course, most of the decals were missing on our flight. The heat would have burned them off.

Museum: Thank you. We appreciate you taking the time to give us the inside story of your flight.

Capt. Walton: You're welcome.

Note: This story is based on a number of E-mail and telephone interviews, not any single conversation. The museum questions and Capt. Walton's responses have been altered for readability, but are otherwise correct.