Last of the Great Fly­ing Boats

Why the Con­vair Tradewind was a beau­ti­ful, ver­sa­tile, fast fail­ure.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY ROBERT BERNIER

As ca­pa­ble and ver­sa­tile as it was, the Con­vair Tradewind had a fa­tal flaw.

WHEN I WAS A YOUNG KID ob­sessed with air­planes, my mom bought me a model of the Con­vair R3Y Tradewind fly­ing boat. I still re­mem­ber how the nose of my model hinged up just like the real thing. De­spite this and other in­no­va­tions, the Tradewind would prove to be the last in the com­pany’s long line of cel­e­brated sea­planes.

De­rived from a scrubbed Navy pa­trol bomber, the Tradewind was an at­trac­tive air­plane that would serve as a high-speed trans­port and aerial tanker for sea­planes based at re­mote lo­ca­tions. The four-en­gine tur­bo­prop fea­tured a long thin wing mounted atop a slim hull with cabin air con­di­tion­ing and pres­sur­iza­tion.

Each of its four Al­li­son T40-A-10 en­gines com­prised two smaller jet power sec­tions mounted side by side, and geared to a set of con­tra-ro­tat­ing pro­pel­lers. The 5,500-shaft-horse­power T40 was de­signed so that ei­ther power sec­tion was in­de­pen­dently ca­pa­ble of driv­ing the six-blade pro­pel­ler as­sem­bly. Once air­borne, one unit could be shut down for max­i­mum fuel econ­omy. Con­vair gave the first Tradewind a tra­di­tional ship’s chris­ten­ing with aquatic film star Es­ther Wil­liams splash­ing the sea­plane’s bow with wa­ters col­lected from the seven seas. The Tradewind made its first flight on Fe­bru­ary 25, 1954; five were pro­duced with the grace­ful “cruiser bow” con­fig­u­ra­tion. This ver­sion could carry 80 troops more than 2,000 miles with­out re­fu­el­ing, or heft an im­pres­sive 24-ton pay­load as a cargo ship.

The fol­low­ing six Tradewinds were clas­si­fied as as­sault trans­ports and had raised flight decks and bul­bous nose sec­tions that tilted up, al­low­ing easy roll-on/roll-off ac­cess to the fuse­lage cargo spa­ces.

Bob John­ston, an archivist at the San Diego Air & Space Mu­seum, re­mem­bers how the Tradewind ac­quired its ro­man­tic name, which evoked travel to ex­otic places. He worked on

Con­vair’s San Diego sea­plane ramp in 1954 as a young dis­patcher, and re­calls the com­pany-spon­sored con­test for nam­ing the fly­ing boat. His “also ran” sug­ges­tion, Con­quis­ta­dor, bagged him a Zippo lighter etched with the air­plane’s sil­hou­ette. “The Tradewinds were ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful,” says John­ston. “I loved the deep rum­ble of their props.”

Tradewinds be­gan ar­riv­ing at Naval Air Trans­port Squadron Two (VR-2) at Naval Air Sta­tion, Alameda, Cal­i­for­nia, in 1956 to re­place the unit’s enor­mous Martin Mars fly­ing boats on Pacific routes. Lieu­tenant Homer Rags­dale joined VR-2 that same year, and he thought the squadron’s for­tunes looked bright. An ex­pe­ri­enced fly­ing boat cap­tain ac­cus­tomed to lum­ber­ing PBYS, Rags­dale was im­pressed with the Tradewind’s per­for­mance. Rev­ersible props made the big air­plane nim­ble on the wa­ter, and the pow­er­ful en­gines—ini­tially hailed for their im­pres­sive power-to-weight ra­tio—en­abled 350-mph dashes with climb rates com­pa­ra­ble to those of many World War II fight­ers. “They were fast,” re­calls Rags­dale, who lives to­day in Red­lands, Cal­i­for­nia. “You could feel the power in them.”

But the Tradewind had a flaw that would even­tu­ally lead to its demise: Its 15-foot-di­am­e­ter pro­pel­lers had an alarm­ing ten­dency to fail in flight.

Rags­dale ex­pe­ri­enced the prob­lem first­hand on a Jan­uary 1958 night flight from Honolulu to San Fran­cisco. He was one of the pi­lots at the con­trols of the Tradewind In­dian Ocean when the num­ber-two en­gine’s pro­pel­ler sud­denly sheared off, slash­ing the fuse­lage just for­ward of the left wing. “Made a hole about the size of a Volk­swa­gen,” he says.

About 400 miles from their Alameda base, the crew pressed on to a San Fran­cisco Bay area un­der­go­ing a win­ter storm. Find­ing a hole in the over­cast, they spi­raled down for an emer­gency land­ing, only to find that the num­ber-one en­gine con­trols were cut. Once on the wa­ter, de­spite the pi­lots’ best ef­forts, the un­con­trol­lable en­gine veered them into a sea­wall.

By haul­ing back on their con­trol yokes just be­fore im­pact, the pi­lots raised the nose enough to avoid a head-on col­li­sion and pos­si­ble dis­as­ter; in­stead, the bot­tom of the hull ab­sorbed the blow. With the air­craft crashed onto the sea­wall and the run­away en­gine still turn­ing at nearly full power, the crew aban­doned ship while a brave me­chanic crawled into the shak­ing wing to man­u­ally shut down the en­gine.

The crip­pled fly­ing boat had set a world speed record for pro­pel­ler-driven trans­port air­craft—fly­ing be­tween Honolulu and San Fran­cisco in five hours and 54 min­utes—but the flight turned out to be the Tradewind’s swan song. Another Tradewind, Co­ral Sea, had crashed ear­lier, also due to a prop mal­func­tion, and the Navy had had enough. The big fly­ing boats were grounded.

Hop­ing to sal­vage the pro­gram, Con­vair pro­posed re­plac­ing the en­gines with a more re­li­able Rolls-royce tur­bo­prop. De­spite a crit­i­cal need for tanker ca­pa­bil­i­ties like those pro­vided by the ver­sa­tile Tradewinds, the Navy was un­will­ing to sink any more money into them. On April 16, 1958, the ser­vice or­dered the 11 Tradewinds scrapped and the squadron dis­banded.

What should have been the Navy’s next-gen­er­a­tion trans­port fly­ing boat barely lasted two years in ser­vice. To­day, all that re­mains of Con­vair’s last big boats are, iron­i­cally, a few T40s stashed away in mu­se­ums. And John­ston still has his cool Tradewind Zippo.

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