The Record-Breaking Flight of Greased Lightning By Jonathan Sayers
As some of you know, I run a website dedicated to the history of RAF Greenham Common. Since launching the site in September 2001, I have been contacted by hundreds of people based there over the years, some as far back as 1944 when the base was used by gliders ready for the liberation of Europe.
So many interesting things happened at Greenham over the years besides the obvious deployment of Cruise Missiles and the B-47 Stratojets. Few people are aware that a record-breaking flight was made to the base in October 1963 by one of the USAF’s most outstanding planes of the age.
From 1954 until June 1964, the base was used for temporary duty (TDY) visits by the USAF Strategic Air Command’s B-47s and KC-97 tankers. The base was occasionally visited by other aircraft such as B-57s, B-36s and C-47s. By 1956, it had one of the longest runways in Europe at 12,000 feet.
The Convair B-58 first flew in November 1956 and was a remarkable aircraft for its time in that it was the world’s first supersonic bomber. This delta winged aircraft was powered by four General Electric J79-5B turbojets producing 15,600lb of thrust each; not only was this a noisy beast but it consumed fuel at huge rate. The B-58 was also the first plane to carry a central airborne computer. Its mach 2 speed meant that it could outrun most Soviet MiGs when it entered service in August 1960. It carried its payload in a single pod beneath the fuselage.
The lifespan of the B-58 was a short one. A total of 116 planes were made serving from 1969 until retirement on 31 December 1969. It operated from just two bases: Little Rock AFB in Arkansas and Bunker Hill AFB in Indiana. During the first few years of its service, the plane broke many records. On March 23 1960, a B-58 broke an endurance record of 18 hours 10 minutes, covering 11,000 miles at an average speed of 620mph. On January 11 1961, the plane carried out Operation Quick Step when it set three world payload records flying a 2,000 mile closed circuit course at an average speed of 1,061mph. In May that same year, a B-58 flew from New York to Paris in 3 hours 19 minutes. It seemed that US Air Force Strategic Air Command was keen to demonstrate the capabilities of this plane to the world. Without doubt, part of the intention was to show the Soviets what this plane could achieve.
On October 16 1963, B-58A Hustler 61-2059, assigned to the 305th Bomb Wing and with Major Sidney Kubesch, Major John Barrett, and Captain Gerard Williamson as crew, flew supersonically from Tokyo to London during Operation Greased Lightning. Four days were spent at Kadena, Okinawa, preparing for the flight, and on October 16th, the mission was cleared for take off. The route included five in-flight refuelings between Tokyo (at which point the aircraft would accelerate to supersonic speeds) and the Aleutian Islands; over Shemya; over Anchorage, Alaska; near Thule, Greenland; and off the south eastern coast of Greenland. The plane flew over London on the final stage and then came in to land at Greenham Common. The crew set a new world record time of 8 hours 35 minutes and 20 seconds, flying 8,028 miles, spending five hours at supersonic speed. The plane left Greenham on October 19th followed by KC-135A tanker that had visited the base at the same time.
The flight set five world absolute records. It also made it the world’s longest supersonic flight to that point and halved the fastest flight between Japan and Britain set previously by an RAF Canberra in 1955. The mission drew much praise from Air Force chiefs and President Kennedy himself.
After locating a few ex-B-58 crews on the internet, I managed to track down Maj. Sidney Kubesch and his wife Joey who now run a farm in Indiana. Maj. Kubesch said that his greatest memory of his brief stay at Greenham Common was that he awoke the following morning to find that his shoes had been polished bright clean outside his room!
His wife Joey very kindly sent me some pictures of the plane, crew and some news articles.
Alas, all but seven examples of this great plane were scrapped at Davis Monthan, Arizona in 1977. However, I am pleased to say that B-58 Greased Lighting was saved as one of the examples and can be seen at the SAC Museum at Omaha, Nebraska.
My thanks to Joey Kubesch and Clifford Bossie for the pictures of Greased Lightning and crew.
If you want to learn more about RAF Greenham Common and its amazing history, the second edition of my book In Defense of Freedom, a History of RAF Greenham Common is now available for £15 plus delivery.
It can be ordered from: tinyurl.com/m8ux3ir1