JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
(Editor's Note: This article is the final installment in a five-part monthly series celebrating Kelly Field's centennial. Continue checking for information about the upcoming JBSA Air Show and Open House at Kelly Field this November, which is expected to draw more than 350,000 visitors.)
In the 1960s, the air forces of the United States and the Soviet Union vied for supersonic speed, sending planes rocketing across the Earth’s continents in a back-and-forth game of one-upmanship.
Kelly Field, which is celebrating its centennial this November with an air show and open house, is the home to the supersonic B-58 Hustler bomber that put America back in front of the speed race for good.
At a ceremony held June 7, 2017, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Weir, the plane’s navigator was honored for his role in a series of record-breaking flights out of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. back in 1961.
Weir’s plane was the first American bomber to break Mach 2, or 1,584 mph, which is twice the speed of sound. It now sits at Port San Antonio, Texas, formerly part of Kelly AFB. On the side of the sleek, shining craft, Weir also has his name printed on it.
“Having my name on this plane surprised me,” said Weir who, like Kelly Field, also turned 100 this year. “I didn’t even know this was coming. I’m very impressed; I’m very honored.”
Weir joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942. He saw the branch become the Army Air Force, then to the U.S. Air Force in 1947. He retired in 1975 after serving 32 years of active duty service.
On the B-58, Weir flew second station as a navigator-bombardier, responsible for both the plane’s orientation and payload. Since no American B-58 ever dropped a nuclear bomb in combat, the majority of Weir’s job included managing the plane’s midair hookups with massive KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircrafts.
THE SPEED RUN
In 1961, Weir’s B-58 crew prepared themselves for the plane’s first-ever trip past Mach 2.
This attempt was about more than bragging rights. It would demonstrate the United States’ nigh-unstoppable first strike ability to the rest of the world. In the event of war, the B-58 had to be able to penetrate Soviet airspace with enough speed to deliver a payload before the enemy had time to intercept the plane.
During the speed run launched on a course at Edwards AFB, Weir’s plane wasn’t carrying a nuclear payload, but was weighted down with replica pods that effectively forced the crew to fly with a similar burden that they’d carry on a combat mission.
This was a requirement by the French Aéronautique, a certification board that documented and confirmed speed records for militaries across the world in the 20th century. This board oversaw the installation of measuring instruments on the plane, and made sure everything was in accordance with arms treaties and government regulations.
“It seems like a lot of red tape,” Weir recalled, “But those were the parameters for recovering these world supersonic speed records from the Soviets.”
For all this preparation, the record was no guarantee nor was Weir’s safety during the speed run. Of the Air Force’s 116 total B-58 aircrafts, 26 were eventually lost to accidents on similar training missions and trial runs.
But Weir’s flight, fortunately, went peacefully.
“Strangely enough, traveling (at supersonic speeds) is very quiet,” Weir recalled. “Sound can’t keep up with you, and with the air splitting open, travel is very smooth.”
The B-58 eventually blew past Mach 2, the 1,584 mph barrier, hitting a top speed of 2,095 mph.
“You could see, if you looked out the little window, this little shockwave over the nose and the wingtips of the plane,” Weir continued. “It looked like the tip of a pencil at first, but the faster you went, it got even thinner.”
While smaller, fleeter fighter jets had already broken the Mach 2 barrier before the 1961 run, the fact that a B-58 could match that speed – carrying immense bombs to boot – was a game-changer, Weir said.
SUPPORT AT KELLY FIELD
While the record-setting day happened at Edwards AFB, the plane was supported through maintenance and repairs at Kelly Field.
Weir’s plane, along with a large part of the Air Force’s B-58 fleet, required near-constant management and weapons systems support through engineers, commanders and other personnel at Kelly Field. These service members made modifications, upgrades, and even provided logistics support to the craft.
One of these personnel, retired Maj. Gen. Lew Curtis, eventually became the commander of the San Antonio Air Logistics Center at Kelly AFB. During the 1960s, at the time of Weir’s record-setting speed run, Curtis worked on the B-58 fleet, first as flight fine avionics maintenance officer and then a maintenance staff officer assigned to the Aircraft Maintenance Division.
“Those craft kept you on your toes,” Curtis said. “They needed a lot of love.”
In less diplomatic terms, the B-58 ended up with one of the shorter-lived lifespans of 20th century American bombers.
With the advent of missile-based nuclear payloads on land and submarine-based platforms, the B-58 became obsolete in 1965, and was fully retired in 1970 after just a decade of service. Not as versatile as the Air Force’s preferred B-52 Stratofortress, the B-58 remained typecast as a nuclear-only bomber that only functioned well at high-altitude, rather being capable of delivering conventional bombing payloads at more challenging, lower altitudes.
“The Air Force has always valued versatility,” Curtis explained. “The B-58, great speed, but she really wasn’t able to excel down low.”
The B-58 even made a brief cameo as a civilian high-speed commercial jet, but never latched on in the civilian world, either.
A TEAM EFFORT
Still, Weir’s crew will be remembered for their record-setting day. At the June 7 ceremony, dozens of former pilots and Air Force personnel crowded around the stationary craft, inspecting the plane and the small plaque at its base.
The plane itself is an unusual sight, considering these types of memorial aircraft typically just bear the pilot’s name. However, prior to his death, Curtis insisted that the entire crew have their names printed on the plane too.
“I knew that’s the way he felt about his crew,” Weir said of Curtisr. “He knew that if we were all crammed up into that thing during our missions for as long as he was, then we might as well have our names stuck on there together too.”