The Department of Never Mind

A collection of six inventions that prompt a single question: What the…?

A Sea Dart takes off from San Diego Bay on a single ski, a design tested later in the program; earlier models used twin skis. (NASM (SI Neg. #SI 91-1833))
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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

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 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.”

—Michael Klesius


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