The Department of Never Mind
A collection of six inventions that prompt a single question: What the…?
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
NASM (SI Neg. #SI 91-1833)
We are convinced that technology's advance would have been smoother if now and then an inventor's best friend had stepped forward to say, "That is not a good idea." We've picked six examples of ideas that probably would have benefited from a little more reflection before the metal was bent. —The Editors
It was pure James Bond: A supersonic fighter that took off from and landed on water. Just three years after World War II, Convair (Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation) of San Diego, California, entered a U.S. Navy contest to build a water-based interceptor. Its XF2Y-1 Sea Dart was a midnight blue, delta-wing, twin-engine, supersonic jet with retractable skis for landing gear. The engine intakes sat high to avoid sea spray, giving the craft the appearance of a bodybuilder with rippling shoulder muscles.
Right away, the Sea Dart was treading water. Underpowered by a pair of Westinghouse non-afterburning J-34 engines, each coughing out 3,400 pounds of thrust, the jet stayed stubbornly below Mach 1. Worse, it bounced hard on the waves, and the resulting vibrations jack-hammered the pilot. Convair’s chief test pilot, E.D. “Sam” Shannon, reported that at near-takeoff speeds, the vibrations impaired his vision. Shannon did take off in the XF2Y-1 for the first time on January 14, 1953 — accidentally — on a high-speed taxi that went airborne for about 1,000 feet. The official first flight took place three months later, on April 9.
In August of the following year, Convair test pilot Charlie Richbourg flew a second Sea Dart, the YF2Y-1, powered by stronger Westinghouse J-46 afterburning turbojets, each with 6,000 pounds of thrust, through the sound barrier in a shallow dive at 34,000 feet. The Sea Dart became the only seaplane ever to go supersonic. But even with the more powerful engines, it never broke the sound barrier in level flight.
By then, the Navy was coming around to the realization that carrier-based jets were an all-around better option than seaplanes. In the midst of this shift, on November 4, 1954, Richbourg made a high-speed pass in the Sea Dart for some reporters and Navy brass assembled along the San Diego Bay. Rocketing by at 575 mph, he lit the afterburners. The kick from the high-mounted engines pitched the airplane's nose down. When Richbourg tugged back on the stick to correct it, the jet entered a divergent, or progressively severe, pitch oscillation, and broke up almost immediately. The accident killed him and the rest of the dwindling support for the program. Though the Navy granted the Sea Dart three more years of experimental status with dual and single skis of various designs, it cancelled orders for production versions.
Convair pilot B.J. Long, the Sea Dart’s lone surviving test pilot, recalls his final flight, made on January 16, 1956. “It just about broke my back,” he says by phone from his home in southern California. Taking off on the calm water of the bay, he flew out to open sea, where the test called for setting the seaplane down in swells ranging from six to 12 feet. As he did so, his helmet smashed the interior of the cockpit with such force that he thought he tasted blood (later, he found that the impacts had driven mucus from his sinuses into his mouth). The ensuing takeoff was almost catastrophic. Keeping the nose high to avoid piercing the waves, he ricocheted off their crests, a ride that slammed him ruthlessly at 9 Gs and left him dazed as the airplane took flight.
Now 86, he says a heart attack and bypass surgery late in life are unrelated to his 187 landings in the Sea Dart. “But that final flight,” he jokes, “that gave me my brain damage.”
Does This Make Me Look Fast?
In September 2008, airline pilot and skydiver Yves Rossy exited a Pilatus Porter at around 9,000 feet, unfolded an eight-foot composite wing strapped to his back, fired the wing’s four small turbines, and screamed 22 miles across the English Channel, reaching 186 mph. After 10 minutes, nearing the White Cliffs of Dover, Rossy deployed a parachute and fluttered down into a field near the South Foreland lighthouse, which Louis Blériot had targeted in his historic 1909 cross-channel flight in a wobbly monoplane.
Five years before Rossy’s flight, Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, wearing a six-foot composite wing and an oxygen tank, exited an airplane at 30,000 feet and free-fell across the channel, reaching 220 mph.
Like father and son Knievel’s motorcycle jumps, these latest channel crossings have made great videos and, in the YouTube era, have entertained thousands. But now that the channel has been crossed by all conceivable modes of transport — thanks anyway, we’ll take the Chunnel.
In Case of Emergency…
In his 2006 book Riding Rockets, NASA mission specialist and three-time space traveler Mike Mullane expresses unvarnished skepticism over the bailout system created for the orbiters after the Challenger tragedy. “We would jump out the side hatch just like B-17 crewmembers did in WWII,” Mullane writes. “Good freakin’ luck!”
Early escape concepts employed rocket-propelled lanyards to yank astronauts from the hatch, a technology affectionately called the Yankee Extraction System when it was used in Vietnam to uncork pilots from ejection seat-less A-1 Skyraiders. But having rockets sitting around on the shuttle was too dangerous, and the idea was scrapped in favor of a curved, telescoping pole fixed to the ceiling of the mid-deck that the crew would extend out of the hatch. Each astronaut would clip the harness on his suit to a ring on the pole and slide off the end, passing beneath the wing of the orbiter. A backpack parachute would then open automatically.
The system was realistic only for an orbiter in controlled, gliding flight at subsonic speeds and below 50,000 feet. It’s difficult to imagine failure scenarios in such a benign profile that would cause a crew to ditch a $2 billion orbiter.
Former mission specialist Tom Jones can think of a few. Over the course of four shuttle flights, he was sometimes the guy near the door who would have blown the hatch and gone out first, and at other times one of those upstairs who might have gone out last.
One scenario, he says, is that a critical navigation error has put the orbiter way off course, perhaps threatening a populated area and requiring the crew to point the craft toward a desert or an ocean, and get out. “If you make it through the reentry, though,” he admits, “it’s highly improbable that you’d somehow not make it to the runway.”
The most realistic event? Jones says that would be an abort high above the Atlantic, minutes into the climb, in which the orbiter sheds its spent boosters, drops its fuel tank, and tries to glide back to the Florida launch site but can’t quite make it. In the end, Jones says, “it just has to be what’s called ‘a good day.’ Our instructors and flight controllers didn’t sugar-coat our chances. But I think it’s worth the development and testing costs. It gives a few people the chance to get out. It gives you a straw to grasp at.”
Shuttle veteran Sid Gutierrez recalls using his expertise as an engineer and experienced skydiver to advise NASA on escape systems. Most failed to materialize not because they were harebrained, he says, but because they were too complex and expensive, requiring a redesign of the orbiters. One idea was to design ejection “pods,” like those for B-58 and XB-70 pilots, which would enclose and eject each astronaut, making egress at higher speeds and altitudes more survivable. Another would have separated the whole front end of the orbiter from the rest.