A Brief History of Convair and its Big, Fast and Innovative Aircraft: 240, 990, F-102, F-106, B-36, B-58 and More.
What is Convair?
Convair was an American aircraft, rocket and spacecraft manufacturing company formed in 1943 and ultimately dissolved by 1996. Based in the San Diego area, Convair was known for its high tech research, development and production of innovative and often pioneering aircraft. The merger of Vultee Aircraft and Consolidated Aircraft created The Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corportation. Known informally as "Convair" at first, the portmanteau later became official.
B.C. ~ Before Convair...
The Vultee Aircraft Corporation had its beginnings as the Airplane Development Corporation in 1932 after American Airlines expressed interest in the V-1, a six passenger airliner designed by Jerry Vultee and Vance Breese. Transportation mogul E.L. Cord took over soon after. Cord formed the Cord Corporation in 1929 which was a holding company for numerous transportation companies including Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg automobiles, Lycoming engines, American Airways (later American Airlines) and Stinson Aircraft.
Also in 1929 Aviation Corparation (AVCO), a holding company, was formed. In 1934 AVCO acquired the Airplane Development Corporation from Cord forming the Aviation Manufacturing Corporation or AMC, not to be confused with American Motors Corporation. In 1936 AMC was liquidated forming the Vultee Aircraft Division, a subsidiary of AVCO. In 1939, the Vultee Aircraft Division was reorganized into an independent company: Vultee Aircraft, Inc.
The Consolidated Aircraft Corporation was formed in 1923 by aviation pioneer and WWI Army Aviatior, Major Reuben Fleet. Major Fleet purchased the Dayton-Wright Company after it was closed by its parent company, General Motors and the liquidated Gallaudet Aircraft Company; whom he worked for after leaving the Army.
Consolidated went on to produce successful trainers and seaplanes, however they were best known for producing the B-24 Liberator and the PBY Catalina flying boat. Both of these very successful aircraft played important roles in WWII.
The Rest is History
Once Convair was formed, it was still controlled by AVCO until 1947 when it was acquired by the Atlas Corporation. In 1953, Convair was acquired by the large defense conglomorate, General Dynamics becoming the "Convair Division" of General Dynamics. In 1994, General Dynamics divided, selling the Convair Division and other units to McDonnell Douglas. Their factory and associated interests in Fort Worth, Texas was sold to Lockheed. All remaining entities were officially deactivated by 1996. Now on to the planes!
XF-92A Dart: America's First Delta Wing
In 1945, the USAAF proposed an interceptor capable of exceeding 700 MPH and reaching 50,000 feet in 4 minutes. Convair won with their proposed design, however wind tunnel testing showed the design to be flawed. Convair then sought the work of German delta wing pioneer, Dr. Alexander Lippisch. Dr. Lippisch was brought to the U.S. after WWII under Operation Paperclip.
Convair completed its testing and turned the aircraft over to the USAAF in 1949. Chuck Yeager was the first Air Force pilot to fly the XF-92A and managed to achieve Mach 1.05. The test pilots did not give good overall reviews of this aircraft however it did show some exceptional characteristics over traditional planforms. There was potential and it paved the way for Convair to further develop the delta wing.
XFY - Pogo
During the advent of the Cold War, the U.S. took interest in design studies of a Vertical Take Off and Landing aircraft (VTOL) and awarded contracts to both Convair and Lockheed to design and test VTOL fighter aircraft. The idea was that small VTOL fighters could be placed anywhere space was limited, including ships that were not aircraft carriers. These planes would serve as fast scrambling 1st responders to protect fleets and convoys or perform quick demand reconaissance. Convair's result was the funky XFY Pogo.
Innovative for 1954, the light weight Pogo had a delta wing and was powered by a 5500 HP Allison T-40 turboprop driving contra-rotating propellers. The Pogo could achieve 610 MPH once in horizontal flight however it proved tricky to slow down maneuver back to vertical flight for landing. These technical challenges and superior performance of jets rendered the VTOL not feasable at the time.
F2Y Sea Dart
After WWII, the Navy had interest in supersonic interceptor aircraft, however there were concerns of operating these aircraft from carriers. Early supersonic aircraft had higher approach speeds and poor low speed maneuverability which could be dangerous for carrier operations. Convair proposed the F2Y Sea Dart in 1948 to the Navy for a contest.
The Navy ordered 2 prototypes in 1951 and 12 production aircraft before the prototypes ever flew. The delta winged Sea Dart had a watertight hull and would float while stationary and below 10 MPH. Once on its take-off run, a pair of retractable skis would deploy. Convair experimented with the skis in an effort to alleviate violent shaking that was present during take-off and landing. Another unique feature was the unusually high mounted engine intakes to prevent water from being ingested into the engines.
The plane originally called for a pair of Westinghouse J46 afterburning turbojets but they were not ready in time for the prototypes so the first was initially fitted with J34 engines. The performance with the J34 was so poor, the 2nd prototype was cancelled. The first production plane was fitted with the J46 and testing resumed. It still did not live up to its performance expectations however it was able to exceed Mach 1.
During a flight demonstration in 1954, Sea Dart broke up in mid-air killing the pilot. The initial concerns with carriers was resolved and the Navy lost interest. The fatal crash sealed the program's fate. Two more aircraft were complete but never flew. Reaching 825 MPH, the Sea Dart remains as the first and only seaplane to break the sound barrier.
F-102 Delta Dagger
In the late 1940s, The US Air Force asked for an all new interceptor that would be designed around a new weapons system. In a separate competition, Hughes Aircraft won the contract to produce the MA-1 fire control system. Convair subsequently won the contract for their design with production models using the MA-3 and later MA-10 systems. With design elements of the XF-92, the F-102 Delta Dagger was the US's first supersonic interceptor and first delta wing fighter. With an internal weapons bay, it was also the first to have an all missle weapons system. Initially the plane could not achieve Mach 1. Along with other tweaks and airframe lightening, the fuselage was redesigned with "area ruling" which is essentially a Coke bottle shape that reduces trans-sonic drag. The F-102 was the first with area ruling. With an after-burning Pratt & Whitney J57 engine, the "Deuce" could achieve Mach 1.25 or around 825 MPH.
Entering service in 1956, the F-102 was an important staple for the Air Force through the mid 60's. It's primary role was to "intercept" an invasion of Soviet bombers. The Deuce served in Vietnam as a bomber escort and flew patrol runs. The fleet later served in Air National Guard units until 1976. After retirment, many were converted to target drones. As all of the "Century Series" fighters, the F-102 was an important plane of the Cold War era.
F-106 Delta Dart
Originally designated the F-102B, the sharp looking F-106 Delta Dart was actually an evolution of the F-102. The engine intakes were redesigned and the delta wing and fuselage were given a makeover to clean things up. The redesign was extensive enough to constitute the new desgination. The "Six" was powered by the mighty Pratt & Whitney J75 engine allowing it to exceed Mach 2.3 or around 1525 MPH, with some rumors of Mach 2.5. In fact, the F-106 set a world speed record in 1959 at 1525 MPH.
Entering service in 1959, the Six continued the F-102's role and served as the US's primary all-weather interceptor against Soviet bomber attacks; however it did not serve in Southeast Asia. Around 1981, the F-15 began replacing the Sixes and they were moved to Air National Guard units until 1988. Many of these aircraft met there fate as target drones as did the F-102. The F-106 Delta Dagger was the last dedicated interceptor of the US Air Force as their needs changed with the end of the Cold War.
Convairliners: CV-240 Family
The Convair 240 and its expansions have been such a success that it is worthy of its own book. The 240 was initially developed to meet a request from American Airlines for a pressurized aircraft to replace the venerable Douglas DC-3. Equipped with a pair of Pratt & Whitney R2800 radial piston engines, the 240 evolved into the CV-340 and CV-440. The US Air Force used versions of this plane and was known as the C-131 Samaritan. Over the years, there have been numerous airframe modifications -stretches- and turbine engine conversions that have brought the "Convairliner" into the 21st century. Designated CV-540, CV-600, CV-640 and CV-5800, some of these aircraft continue to serve as passenger airliners but many have had a great second career as cargo planes.
880 and 990 Coronado Jet-Liners
Convair designed the 880 as smaller and faster competiton against the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. The design did not earn a demand from airlines but it was certainly fast. Powered by 4 very smokey General Electric CJ-805-3s, a civilian variation of the J-79; the 880 could top 615 MPH or 880 feet per second and cruised 25-35 MPH faster than its rivals. A Delta 880 set a transcontinental speed record from San Diego to Miami in just over 3.5 hours averaging 647 MPH.
The 990 Coronado was a stretched and faster 880. The engines were more powerful and the 990 had visible shock bodies, also known as "Kuchemann carrots," on top of the wing which serve as aerodynamic aids. The 990 had a maximum speed of Mach .91 which is over 690 MPH!
In spite of the blistering speed, the Convair jetliners were more expensive and used more fuel. The intended market just was not there and it resulted in a historically significant corporate loss for General Dynamics. Only 102 total airframes were produced and none remain in service today.
"Magnesium Overcast" would be a good way to describe the massive B-36 Peacemaker. With a wingspan of 230', length of 162' 1" and combat weight exceeding 260,000 pounds, it was the largest mass-produced piston powered plane ever made. The wingspan remains the widest of any military combat aircraft. She was powered by 10 engines: 6 Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major radials and 4 General Electric J47 turbojets. The 28 cylinder, 3800 HP (per engine) radials were mounted as "pushers" aft of the wing. The jet engines were added later (D models) to imporove the plane's take-off performance and "dash" over targets; otherwise it cruised with the jets off for better range.
The B-36 was concieved just prior to the start of WWII as the US saw the upcoming need for a bomber with an "intercontinental" reach. With a ranged exceeding 6000 miles and a 72,000 pound payload, the Peace Maker definitely had long arms. Development was delayed numerous times, starting with the US entry into the war, and it did not enter service until 1949. She was the first manned bomber with intercontinental range and the first that could carry any of the US's nuclear weapons without modifications.
By the time the B-36 entered service, it was already becoming obsolete. With new jet fighters on the rise and surface-to-air missles, slow piston bombers would have become potentially easy targets. She was also very high maintenance. The big radials gulped oil and were prone to overheating and engine fires. Carburetor icing was common as a result of the unconventional pusher layout. Mechanics had 336 foul prone spark plugs to contend with as well. Engine failure on a B-36 contributed to the US's first loss of a nuclear weapon, also known as a Broken Arrow, in 1950. In spite of this the B-36 served as part of the Strategic Air Command through the 1950s. There were some variants that played a role in strategic reconnaissance prior to the development of high altitude spy planes and satellite technology.
The B-36 Peace Maker was retired in 1959. Most aircraft were scrapped, however there are a few survivors on display. This is one Big Mama that must be seen in person to appreciate.
The very fast and very sexy B-58 Hustler is a favorite among aviation fans everywhere. Convair was awarded the contract for a supersonic bomber after participating in a study and design competition initially launched in 1949 by the Air Research and Development Command. Developed through the 1950s, it entered service in 1960.
The Mach 2 (1300+ MPH) Hustler featured Convair's delta wing and 4 General Electric J79 turbojet engines, each capable of 15,600 pounds of thrust. The original offensive ordnance would be a single nuclear weapon in an aerodynamic pod attached under the fuselage. This pod also contained fuel tanks which were prone to leak. This configuration was changed to 2 independent pods and additional nuclear weapons could be attached under the wings allowing for a total of 5 weapons. Only the best pilots were considered for the challenging Hustler and the F-102 was often used as a transitional trainer into a delta winged aircraft. The planes were equipped with 3 unique ejection pods that would allow the crew to eject at high altitudes (70,000 feet) and Mach 2 flight.
The advent of Soviet surface-to-air missles, rendered the high level penetration role of the B-58 obsolete. Other aircraft, particularly the F-111, were more cost effective and better suited for a low level role. With that and the extremely high cost of maintenance, the fleet was retired in 1970.
The legacy of the B-58 Hustler is its blistering record setting performance. Within a 2 year period, this aircraft set 14 world records, many which stand today. It also won 5 prestigious aviation trophies: Thompson, Bleriot, Harmon, Mackay and Bendix. What sets this one aside from other aircraft is that this one was fast with a payload.
Missles, Rockets & Space
Convair was resposible for builiding the SM-65 Atlas which was the 1st American Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). This was capable of taking a nuclear weapon to any target on earth. Fortunately that never happened.
In a friendlier role, Convair built the Atlas rockets that sent 10 of the Project Mercury missions into space. Some of the former missiles were also converted to space vehicle launch platforms. The Atlas-Centaur development powered 61 launches between 1962 and 1983. Launches have continued through the present time with the Atlas family with cargo ranging from satellites to space exporation vehicles.
All in all...
Convair was never as large as the giants, Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed but it made significant contributions to aviation, the Cold War Arms Race and the Space Race. There were some failures but they were in times of aggressive research and development. There were long term successes as well. The CV-240 airliner is still in service and there was great success with the Atlas rocket programs. They also profitted over the years from building aircraft components for other companies. More than anything, Convair built the hot B-58 Hustler.