The Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, universally known as Convair,
was the result of a 1943 merger between Consolidated Aircraft and Vultee
Aircraft, resulting in a leading aircraft manufacturer of the United
States. In 1954, Convair merged with Electric Boat to form General
Dynamics, and the aircraft operation became the Convair Division of the
merged company. It produced aircraft until 1965, then shifted to space and
airframe projects, continuing until 1996, when the division was entirely
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 corporate umbrella.
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
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.
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 cancelled 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 totalled $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
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
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
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.
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.
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 Centre (later the John H. Glenn Research
Centre 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.