The Convair F2Y Sea Dart was an American seaplane fighter aircraft that rode on twin hydro-skis during takeoff and landing. It flew only as a prototype, and never entered mass production. It is the only seaplane to have exceeded the speed of sound.
|F2Y Sea Dart|
|An F2Y Sea Dart with dual-ski configuration|
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||14 January 1953|
|Primary user||United States Navy|
It was created in the 1950s, to overcome the problems with supersonic planes taking off and landing on aircraft carriers. The program was canceled after a series of unsatisfactory results and a tragic accident on 4 November 1954, in which test pilot Charles E. Richbourg was killed when the Sea Dart he was piloting disintegrated in midair. The four surviving planes were retired in 1957, but some were kept in reserve until 1962.
The Sea Dart began as Convair's entry in a 1948 U.S. Navy contest for a supersonic interceptor aircraft. At the time, there was much skepticism about operating supersonic aircraft from carrier decks. In order to address this issue, the U.S. Navy ordered many subsonic fighters. The worry had some foundation, since many supersonic designs of the time required long takeoff rolls, had high approach speeds, and were not very stable or easy to control—all factors that were troublesome on a carrier.
Convair's proposal gained an order for two prototypes in late 1951. Twelve production aircraft were ordered before a prototype had even flown. No armament was ever fitted to any Sea Dart built, but the plan was to arm the production aircraft with four 20mm Colt Mk12 cannon and a battery of folding-fin unguided rockets. Four of this order were redesignated as service test vehicles, and an additional eight production aircraft were soon ordered as well.
The aircraft was to be a delta-winged fighter with a watertight hull and twin retractable hydro-skis for takeoff and landing. When stationary or moving slowly in the water, the Sea Dart floated with the trailing edge of the wings touching the water. The skis were not extended until the aircraft reached about 10 miles (16 km) per hour during its takeoff run.
The required power was supplied by a pair of afterburning Westinghouse XJ46-WE-02 turbojets, fed from intakes mounted high above the wings to avoid ingesting spray. When these engines were not ready for the prototypes, twin Westinghouse J34-WE-32 engines of just over half the power were installed.
The prototype was fitted with an experimental single ski, which proved more successful than the twin-ski design of the second service test aircraft. Testing with several other experimental ski configurations continued with the prototype through 1957, after which it was placed into storage.
The US was not the only country to consider the hydroski. The Saunders-Roe company of the United Kingdom, which had already built an experimental flying boat jet fighter, first flying in 1947 the SR.A/1, tendered a design for a ski-equipped fighter, but little came of it.
In the 1950s, the US Navy considered the internal arrangements of a submarine aircraft carrier that could carry three of these aircraft. Stored in pressure chambers that would not protrude from the hull, they would be raised by a portside elevator just aft of the sail and set to take off on their own on a smooth sea but catapulted aft in a higher sea. The program only reached the "writing on a napkin" stage, for two problems were not addressed: the hole for the elevator would have seriously weakened the hull and the load of a laden elevator would also be difficult to transmit to the hull structure.
The aircraft was built in Convair's San Diego facility at Lindbergh Field and was taken to San Diego Bay for testing in December 1952. On 14 January 1953, with E. D. "Sam" Shannon at the controls, the aircraft inadvertently made its first short flight during what was supposed to be a fast taxi run; its official maiden flight was on 9 April.
The underpowered engines made the fighter sluggish, and the hydro-skis were not as successful as hoped; they created violent vibration during takeoff and landing, despite the shock-absorbing oleo legs they were extended on. Work on the skis and legs improved this situation somewhat, but they were unable to resolve the sluggish performance. The Sea Dart proved incapable of supersonic speed in level flight with the J34 engines; not helping was its pre-area rule shape, which meant higher transonic drag.
The second prototype was canceled, so the first service test aircraft was built and flown. This was fitted with the J46 engines, which performed below specification. However, speeds in excess of Mach 1 were attained in a shallow dive with this aircraft, making it the only supersonic seaplane to date. On 4 November 1954, Sea Dart BuNo 135762 disintegrated in midair over San Diego Bay during a demonstration for naval officials and the press, killing Convair test pilot Charles E. Richbourg when he inadvertently exceeded the airframe's limitations. Richbourg was a 31-year-old Navy veteran of the Second World War. He was quickly pulled from the water but did not survive the airframe breakage. He was buried in St. Augustine National Cemetery in Florida.
Even before that, the Navy had been losing interest (problems with supersonic fighters on carrier decks having been overcome) and the crash relegated the Sea Dart program to experimental status. All production aircraft were cancelled, though the remaining three service test examples were completed. The two final prototypes never flew.
Despite the fact that the airplane was officially retired and had not flown since 1957, at least one F2Y was still in storage as of 1962. As a result, it was redesignated YF-7A under the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system.
All four remaining Sea Darts survive to this day.
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era