Friday, August 26, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLVII

The 1950s were a fine time to be an aeronautical engineer. There was so much new ground to be covered. There were so many new ideas to try. Many of those ideas were pretty weird, and there are plenty of perfectly good reasons we don't try them anymore, but no one knew those reasons ... yet. And there was only one way to find out. Which made that era, from approximately 1940 to 1960, such a rewarding time to work at places like Convair, Lockheed, Bell, or North American.

Some of the ideas to come out of that era shaped the way we still build airplanes to this day. Others, not so much. Some really peculiar aircraft parted company with their shadows in those years. For example, did you hear the one about the supersonic seaplane?

This beautiful craft was a contemporary of Convair's other delta-wing fighters, the F-102 and F-106, adapted to take off and land on the open ocean. The basic problem was this: the Navy wanted a supersonic fighter for fleet defense. But, there were serious doubts about being able to launch and recover supersonic fighters from aircraft carriers. So, Convair came up with the idea of adapting the Delta Dart with skids, so that it could take off and land at sea. The F2Y was a stunningly beautiful aircraft, and to this day is the only seaplane to break the sound barrier. That said, landing a delta-wing aircraft on water without hurting yourself is damn hard. They never built more than the one F2Y prototype.

Now, the Navy's designation F2Y leads to a question. Pre-1962, the Navy system for aircraft designation was first, a letter or letters for the mission; second, a series number; and third, a letter for the manufacturer. The numeral "1" was usually omitted. So, the Grumman F4F Wildcat was the fourth Navy fighter built by the Grumman corporation. And the Convair F2Y would have been the second Navy fighter built by Convair. What was the first, you ask?

Hoo boy ... Here was another solution to the problem of basing aircraft on ships. The Convair XFY was to be a VTOL fighter that could take off and land on any ship, meaning that any task force at all could have fighter support, even without a flat-top present. Lockheed also had an entry in this category, the XFV, but it never actually achieved full transition from vertical to horizontal flight, and never flew without a protective undercarriage. The Pogo managed several such transitions. The concept had a serious flaw, though. Imagine, for a moment, trying to land this thing on the fantail of a frigate, pitching and heaving in the middle of the ocean.

Yeah. No one else thought it was a good idea, either. You have to love a flight test report that ends, "We think it highly inadvisable to land this airplane."

We can look back and laugh now, but still ... this would have been a fine time to be a staff engineer at Convair. They got to work on some incredible stuff. For every crazy idea that didn't work, they had one or two that did. Designs that were cutting-edge when conceived were sometimes obsolete by the time they entered production. It was a wild, crazy time, and I'm kind of sorry to have missed it.

No comments: