The bears who became test pilots during the Cold War

The B-58 Hustler was the world's first supersonic jet bomber, a delta-winged marvel of Cold War design created in the 1950s solely to deliver nuclear weapons to the U.S.S.R. And the "pilot" used to test the capsule ejection system was a live bear.

The bears who became test pilots during the Cold War

The B-58 is an interesting plane on its own merits (and a certain quirk of pop culture has since ensured that there will never be another plane called the Hustler ever again). The delta wing, four jet engine design makes it instantly recognizable as a Cold War relic. It was created in the brief period when the U.S. Air Force wanted planes that could fly higher and faster than Russian planes to ensure superiority in any nuclear conflict, before intercontinental missiles made the whole idea obsolete. The Hustler's entire period of service spanned less than a decade, from 1962 to 1970.

The bears who became test pilots during the Cold War

It boasted remarkable performance, with the fastest climb rate of its era and the ability to cruise above Mach 2. A first-of-its-kind voice warning system detected 50 different electronic faults and informed the crew in the soothing voice of a Northrop secretary. The plane was fraught with problems, though – it was difficult to control and expensive to maintain. Designers also learned that emergency ejections above Mach 2 were deadly. After losing an entire crew, they began work on a new ejection system that would protect the occupants even in extreme circumstances.

The bears who became test pilots during the Cold War

In the new system, a pre-ejection handle yanked the pilot's legs in close and closed a scalloped shell that enclosed him while still allowing rudimentary control of the plane. The actual ejection handle sent the capsule up with a rocket burst, automatically deploying a parachute. The capsule was designed to float, and contained food and survival supplies.

Researchers started out testing the system on the ground, with acceleration sleds. The first subjects were people recruited from the unemployment lines, but the ground tests moved on to chimps and bears. Yes, bears. It seems that Himalayan and American black bears were readily available and approximated the mass and body shape of a human.

The bears who became test pilots during the Cold War

When testing moved to the sky, the bears went too. Living bears were sedated, then strapped into the capsules. The capsules were ejected from planes at various speeds and altitudes to determine how well the system worked. The bears were later examined to see if they were injured. None of the bears were killed in the tests, though they did suffer some broken bones, muscle damage and internal injuries.

This Air Force video about the program tries to put a smile on the whole situation, describing how the post-flight bears hung out for a few days munching on food until they were subjected to "the usual complete medical examination." This white paper of the era makes it clear that the usual medical examination involved euthanasia and autopsy. (Note: if you are an animal lover, the video may be disturbing in some parts).

On one hand, using bears as human analogues for these tests was an extremely practical solution to the problem. The Air Force was working on a fix for something that had already caused human deaths, and they didn't have Buster to help them do the testing (if you want to get into the ethics of the fact that they were building a flying death machine intended to incinerate or irradiate Russians by the tens of thousands, that's a whole other story). On the other hand, it's hard not to cringe when you imagine the terror and confusion these animals experienced. Luckily, the bear testing program didn't last very long, and as a bonus we managed to not obliterate the planet with nuclear hellfire.

Sources: Ejection History. "Convair B-58 Hustler."

Griswold, Wesley S. "The back-seat driver of the B-58." Popular Science, July 1962.

National Academy of Sciences. "Impact Acceleration Stress." 1962.

Photos: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.