PERU — A Miami County Air Force pilot became an overnight celebrity 50 years ago today after he flew a supersonic bomber jet on a record-shattering flight from Tokyo to London that captured the attention of the world.
Sidney J. Kubesch, a Texas native who ended up moving to Miami County after marrying a Peru woman, completed the 8,028-mile trip in a B-58 Hustler nicknamed “Greased Lightning” in 8 hours, 35 minutes at an average speed of 938 miles an hour.
It was the longest supersonic flight in history. It still holds that record.
Although the bomber had to slow down five times for in-flight refueling during its dash halfway around the world, it still managed to halve the previous west-to-east record of 17 hours, 42 minutes set by a British Canberra jet in 1955.
Kubesch, who’s now 83 years old and farmed in the county for decades after retiring from the Air Force, made the flight with two other crew members on Oct. 16, 1963.
The crew and the B-58 bomber were stationed at then-Bunker Hill Air Force Base, and the achievement brought international media attention to the area.
It also turned Kubesch, who was a major in the Air Force at the time, into a worldwide celebrity.
President John F. Kennedy announced the record flight from Washington after the Hustler touched down on the airfield at Greenham Common, England, at 10:34 p.m. Japan time.
“I congratulate the Air Force crew which flew this operation and the men who supported it on the ground,” Kennedy said in an issued statement. “I know that the success of this flight is due to the high competence and dedication of all involved.”
A year later at Bunker Hill Air Force Base, President Lyndon B. Johnson vigorously shook hands with Kubesch during a tour of the base.
Newspapers and other media outlets covered the story for months. One article even discussed what Kubesch and the crew ate during the flight.
“Supersonic steak dinners over three continents and the Arctic Ocean fortified the three record-breaking American airmen who flew from Tokyo to London,” the Chicago Tribune press service reported.
“We had steak before we left Okinawa air base, bite-sized steak along the way over Japan, Alaska, and the polar ice cap, and steak when we landed,” Kubesch said in the article. “This flight is the biggest thing in my life — except my wedding, of course — but, boy, I don’t think I could look at another steak for a long, long time.”
One newspaper reported Kubesch lit up a pipe inside the bomber streaking over Tokyo, and lit a second pipe full of tobacco near the end of the trip, which some dubbed “the two-pipe flight.”
Kubesch and his wife, Joanne, who at the time was an English teacher at Logansport High School, made a trip to New York to appear on several TV shows.
The flight wasn’t just a big deal because of its record-setting achievement. It was also meant to serve as a public display of America’s strength during the Cold War.
“The flight provided an operational test of sustained supersonic flight in the Arctic region,” said an Air Force spokesperson in an article in The Houston Post. “It was a demonstration of the rapid reaction possible with the manned weapons defense systems of the U.S. Air Force, capable of responding to an act of aggression anywhere in the world within a minimum amount of time.”
Talking to reporters, Kubesch said the B-58 “performed magnificently” and called the flight “routine.”
It was anything but routine. It took five inflight refuelings near Japan, Alaska, Greenland and Iceland to keep the plane going, and Kubesch recalled flying right through the middle of the Northern Lights.
“We saw ‘em after Anchorage. They were really there. All ‘round us, bright and changing and continuous,” he said in a newspaper article. “The whole night was only about 3 hours 45 minutes long.”
“It was early afternoon Oct. 16 when we left Japan,” he said. “We passed the international dateline about Shemya and it was then the early evening of the 15th – we were back in yesterday. Over Anchorage it was near midnight local time and so we went back into the 16th again. And finally we saw the second sunrise of Oct. 16 near Thule.”
That’s what happens when you’re flying Mach 2 to the east and the sun is only doing Mach 1 to the west, Kubesch said.
Now, 50 years later, the historic B-58 bomber has a prominent place in the Strategic Aerospace Museum in Ashland, Neb. The flight suit and helmet Kubesch wore is on display at the Grissom Air Museum.
Polly Dobbs, Kubesch’s daughter, said her father recently had surgery and was unavailable for comment for this story.
Dobbs said her dad moved to several different Air Force bases before settling down on a farm in Miami County after leaving the military, but continued to fly planes privately into his 70s.
Family and friends will get together this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kubesch’s achievement, she said.
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.