Convair Division of General Dynamics
By Joel Rumerman, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
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
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 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.
N880AJ - Ex-TWA N801TW
Convair 880. This was CV-880 #1 and is seen in the
Mohave desert, October 1984. The cockpit is on
permanent display at the Atlanta Heritage Row Expo
in the Atlanta Underground. Sadly, the rest of the
first 880 has been scrapped. :(
Image courtesy of AirNikon.
Find more of his photos at Airliners.net
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.
Convair 990 used to test
space shuttle landing gear and braking systems as
part of NASA's continuing effort to upgrade and
improve Space Shuttle capabilities.
NASA Dryden FRC photo
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.
Note: This article was commissioned by and
first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It
appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author