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Convair Sea Dart: A Cold War Navy Fighter Prototype on Water Skis
In our last item about seaplanes here in Sea Month, we looked at a U.S. Navy flying boat that nearly carried nuclear weapons into battle. But the Martin P6M SeaMaster was not the only attempt by the U.S. Navy to make a jet-powered seaplane into a weapon of war.

Convair Sea Dart: A Cold War Navy Fighter Prototype on Water Skis

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This is the Convair F2Y Sea Dart, the jet fighter seaplane little cousin to the hulking P2Y SeaMaster strategic bomber. Indeed it was from the same common problem that both the Convair Sea Dart fighter and Glenn L. Martin SeaMaster found their origin.

At the end of World War II, there was an overwhelming sense among U.S. Military top brass, correctly, as it turned out, that the era of piston-engine supremacy in the military and even the civilian domain was well and truly over with the surrender of Germany and Japan in May and August of 1945 respectively.

In the case of the U.S. Air Force, with their vast airbases with nice, long runways, a chronic lack of power on early axial flow turbojet engines wasn't nearly as much of a huge problem as it was for the U.S. Navy. As was the case with the SeaMaster, the idea that hugely powerful airplanes with scalding hot jet engines could take off from ex-WWII Navy carriers with wooden decks was somewhat of a ridiculous notion.

There were a couple of solutions to this problem issued by the Navy. New, gigantic aircraft carriers were on that table at points in the late 40s and 1950s. Many believe collusion between the U.S. Air Force and Congress brought an end to that idea before it could ever get off the ground.

With no other options left but to use the world's oceans and seas as their runway, the Navy finally opted for jet-powered seaplanes as their solution, starting with Convair Sea Dart. First, taking to the skies from the water on January 14th, 1953, the Convair Sea Dart, like its SeaMaster bomber relative, a heavy emphasis was placed on utilizing equipment and technology from previous Air Force, land-based military jets to keep costs low and Congress out of its maker's hair.

There was even a proposal made to scrap a novel platform entirely in favor of putting a Convair F-102 Delta Dagger on water skis. This concept never materialized, but what did manage to get off the drawing board was still no less visually impressive, if not all that practical. In its final configuration, the Sea Dart sported twin Westinghouse J46 afterburning turbojet engines cranking out in the neighborhood of 4,500 lbs (20 kN) of thrust each.

With these engines, the Sea Dart could break the sound barrier and reach speeds of Mach 1.2. A first among seaplanes of any kind. The Martin SeaMaster only just missed on breaking Mach 1, topping out at 0.9 Mach. Making the Sea Dart the only seaplane ever to go supersonic. Armament for the Sea Dart was never installed before the project was canceled.

But it appears it was slated to consist of four Colt Mk 12 20mm autocannons mounted in the nose of the aircraft. Other ordinances slated for testing included unguided folding-fin bombs and potentially even the very earliest heat-seeking air-to-air missiles at some point down the line.

At 51 ft 1.5 in (15.583 m) long, a wingspan of 35 ft 4 in (10.77 m), and a width of just barely 5 ft 5 in (1.65 m), this delta winged air superiority fighter shared similar proportions to contemporary Soviet land-based jet fighters like the Mikoyan Gurevitch MiG 17. If not substantially larger in length.

Sadly, flight testing revealed profound flaws in the jet's water ski system. Both a singular and double water ski arrangement was tested on Sea Dart prototypes. Both were determined to cause severe oscillation and buffeting as the airplane left the water. In the context of an intense battle at sea, that no doubt spelled bad news for Navy pilots expected to dogfight against Soviet MiG fighters America's enemies were flying at the time.

Even so, testing continued. When the airplane's original Westinghouse J34 engines proved incapable of breaking the sound barrier, upgraded J46 turbojets were fitted, letting the craft reach the aforementioned figure of Mach 1.2 in a shallow dive. Test pilots didn't dare to test the performance in an even deeper dive, a precaution that, in hindsight, made all the sense in the world.

During further flight testing in the waters off of San Diego, one of the test aircraft inadvertently crossed the Sea Dart's never-exceed speed threshold and disintegrated on November 4th, 1954. Killing World War II Navy veteran and test pilot Charles E. Richbourg in the process. By this time, the Navy had finally launched its latest generation of aircraft carriers, more than capable of launching jets from their decks.

Only five Sea Dart prototypes were ever constructed. Of the four that made it to retirement in 1957, all were handed over to museums Located in Florida, California, and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. 

Check back soon for more from Sea Month here on autoevolution. 

 
 
 
 
 

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