THE 456th FIGHTER INTERCEPTOR SQUADRON
THE PROTECTORS OF S. A. C.
The Convair Division of General Dynamics
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Convair YF-102 at the Convair assembly plant. October 2, 1953, was the date of completion for the first airframe. The primary mission of the Convair F-102A Delta Dagger was to intercept and destroy enemy aircraft. It was the world's first supersonic all-weather jet interceptor and the U.S. Air Force's first operational delta-wing aircraft. The Convair F-106A "Delta Dart" first flew on December 26, 1956. The delta-wing Hustler was the first U.S. Air Force supersonic operational bomber. It made its initial flight on November 11, 1956 and flew supersonically on December 30, 1956.
Convair had been formed in 1943 from the merger of Consolidated Aircraft and Vultee Aircraft corporations. It formally became a division of General Dynamics in April 1954, with plants in San Diego and Pomona, California, and in Fort Worth, Texas, following a stock purchase of the year before by John Jay Hopkins, president and chief operating officer of General Dynamics. The Convair division would operate over the next half century primarily as an independent company under the General Dynamics corporate umbrella.
General Dynamics had been formed in 1952 from the Electric Boat Company. In the two years before it acquired Convair, General Dynamics' sole aircraft manufacturing unit had been Canadair, a Canadian company. But because U.S. law prevented American aerospace contracts from being fulfilled outside the United States, General Dynamics had not been involved in the U.S. aerospace market. With the acquisition of Convair, General Dynamics could now bid on U.S. aerospace contracts, perhaps the greatest benefit of the acquisition.
Convair's first large undertaking as part of General Dynamics was the Model 880 jetliner. In the mid-1950s, the jetliner age was fast approaching and Convair lagged behind. Boeing and Douglas Aircraft companies had cornered the long-range jet market, but Convair believed that the medium-range jetliner market was yet untapped. After meeting with Howard Hughes of Trans World Airlines, Convair set out to build a medium-range jetliner to meet TWA's needs. The final design was the Model 880.
The 880 was racked with problems from the start, as much to do with Hughes' meddling as anything else, and turned out to be only a few feet shorter than the Douglas DC-8, lumbering along with four large engines. Despite the plane's shortcomings, Hughes ordered 30 in June 1956. Hughes also got Convair to sign a one-year exclusive contract that effectively prohibited sales of the Model 880 to other companies even though, at the time, Hughes did not have the money to pay for the planes. This contract allowed Boeing to launch the very successful 720, which United Airlines ordered, essentially killing the 880. Finally, in December 1960, after Hughes obtained financing to pay for the 880s, the planes were delivered to TWA.
Convair also developed a bigger, more advanced version of the 880, the 990. American Airlines ordered the 990, but because it fell a few miles-per-hour short of the speed requirement, American canceled the entire order. Eventually, American relented and ordered 15 planes.
In all, only 102 Model 880/990 airplanes were ordered, and Convair's losses from the series totaled $425 million. It turned out to be the largest loss by a company up to that time in United States history, surpassing the loss by Ford on the Edsel. The 880/990 series came to be known as "The Flying Edsel."
In 1951, the Air Material Command of the U.S. Air Force awarded Convair Project MX-1593, a contract to develop an intercontinental military rocket, later known as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Convair engineer Karl Bossart named the project "Project Atlas" and Convair began to develop America's first ICBM. However, the project was not well funded and progressed slowly.
In 1953, the Soviets exploded a thermonuclear device and were supposedly working on ICBMs to carry uranium and hydrogen warheads. In reaction to this, in March 1954, the Western Development Division, a special missile command agency created by the Air Research and Development Command, awarded Convair its first long-term contract for engineering and fabrication of an ICBM.
For the Atlas, Convair developed a new kind of airframe, nicknamed the "gas bag." Made of stainless steel sections that were thinner than paper, it achieved rigidity through helium pressurization, similar to the way a football keeps its shape. The powerplant, contracted to the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation, was a three-engine design with Rocketdyne responsible for the two booster engines and Convair responsible for the sustainer engine. Together, the engines produced more than 360,000 pounds (1.6 kilonewtons) of thrust, equivalent to about five times the power generated by the Hoover Dam. In comparison with other missiles of its time, Thor, Redstone, and Titan, Atlas was a rather fat rocket, ranging from 16 feet (five meters) in diameter at the base to 10 feet (three meters) at its fuel tank. With its original nose cone, it stood nearly 76 feet (23 meters) tall.
The first configuration of the Atlas, series A, was used solely for research and development, but the B series was much closer to operational specifications. On December 18, 1958, the Atlas 10-B successfully delivered the Project SCORE payload, the world's first communications satellite, into orbit, becoming the first Atlas rocket to be used as a space launch vehicle. The subsequent Atlas D, E, and F series rockets were designed to be used by the Strategic Air Command as ICBMs with a nuclear payload. The final qualification flight test of the Atlas D, called "Big Joe," took place on September 9, 1959.
On July 29, 1960, the Atlas-Mercury One (MA-1) launched, but the rocket exploded roughly one minute after launch. On February 21, 1961, using a strengthened Atlas rocket, MA-2 was successfully launched and recovered. A few more tests followed. Finally, on February 20, 1962, aboard Atlas rocket-powered Friendship 7 (MA-6), the first American astronaut, John Glenn, lifted into orbital flight.
In 1957, General Dynamics/Astronautics Corporation, which had broken off from and then rejoined the Convair Division, submitted a proposal to the Air Force to develop the Centaur, a new space launch vehicle that could lift heavy payloads into orbit. This vehicle was a high-energy second-stage rocket with a new liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen propulsion system that could boost payloads as great as 8,500 pounds (3,856 kilograms) into orbit.
On May 8, 1962, the first Centaur, developed by the Air Force and assembled at the Convair plant in San Diego, was launched but exploded 54 seconds after takeoff. NASA's Lewis Research Center (later the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field) was assigned the task of correcting the rocket's problems and, on November 23, 1963, the first successful launch of the Atlas first stage, Centaur second stage (Atlas/Centaur) rocket took place.
For the next 30 years, the Atlas/Centaur rocket would be the U.S. workhorse in space. In May 1966, Surveyor 1, the first soft lander on the Moon, was launched aboard an Atlas/Centaur rocket and throughout the 1970s, the Atlas/Centaur rocket was used for launching probes and fly-by's to other planets, including the Pioneer 10, which flew to Jupiter. Also planned for use with Space Shuttle-launched payloads, NASA scrapped that use after the 1986 Challenger accident due to increased safety concerns.
Meanwhile, while Convair was developing the Atlas and assembling the Centaur, it was also developing new fighter jets and bombers. The YF-102A, the first plane using the new "area-rule" fuselage, first flew in December 1954, and went into production in 1956 as the F-102A Delta Dagger. The more advanced F-106 Delta Dart (originally the F-102B) followed and first flew on December 26, 1956. It was capable of initiating a "zoom climb," arching up 70,000 feet (21,336 meters) in the thin upper atmosphere to attack hostile bombers. Its air-to-air missiles were controlled by a digital computer that guided the interceptor to its target using information from ground equipment until the target was in radar range of the plane, when the plane's radar would take over. It was produced until 1961.
In 1952, Convair received a contract to develop a supersonic bomber to succeed the Boeing B-47. The XB-58 Hustler exploited Convair's delta-wing expertise, used four GE J79 engines, and carried all weaponry in a jettisonable streamlined pod beneath the fuselage. Most significantly, under the new comprehensive "weapon system" policy, Convair was responsible for the performance of all systems, including electronics, weaponry, and subcontracted components.
The XB-58 first flew in November 1956, and entered production at Fort Worth in 1960, becoming the first supersonic bomber. However, only 116 were ordered due to strategic reassessments and questions about the aircraft's performance. In 1965, General Dynamics decided to build all future planes at its Fort Worth location, ending Convair Division's production of complete airplanes.
The Convair Division continued, however, to be involved with space and delivered the first Space Shuttle Orbiter mid-section fuselage to North American Rockwell, producer of the Orbiter, in 1975. Convair also developed and eventually produced the Tomahawk cruise missile, which was still in use in 2001.
In 1985, Convair's space program was split off to form General Dynamics Space Systems Division. In 1987, Convair began producing the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 fuselage and continued producing it until late 1995. In 1994, the Aircraft Structure unit was sold to McDonnell Douglas and in 1996, Convair division operations were discontinued.
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Bilstein, Roger E. Flight In America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts Revised Edition. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Franklin, Roger. The Defender: The Story of General Dynamics. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986.
Pattillo, Donald M. Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.Swenson, Jr., Loyd S., Grimwood, James M., and Alexander, Charles C. This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury. Washington, D.C.: NASA SP-4201, 1966, reprinted 1999.
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