The Convair FISH (First Invisible Super Hustler) was a failed stealth plane that competed with the Lockheed A-12 to become the CIA’s go-to reconnaissance air vehicle in the late 1950s.
Originally conceived as a ‘parasite’ craft that would attach itself to the underside of a B-58, the FISH was from the very beginning a melting pot of new and strange aeronautical concepts that although not appreciated by the competition’s panel of judges, would prove ahead of their time when they later resurfaced in more successful aircraft.
When the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created in 1947, its principal task was to develop systems that could inform the US if the Soviet Union was launching an attack on American soil.
As intelligence efforts stepped up after the War, US policymakers began to realize how hard it was to collect data on the Soviet Union using conventional methods of espionage, and so more surreptitious programs were commenced to gather the vital intel Americans believed was needed to guarantee their own security.
Read More: Convair B-58 Hustler – Beautiful and Deadly
Spearheading this new era of covert surveillance was the U-2, a state-of-the-art reconnaissance aircraft constructed by the Lockheed Cooperation that could fly up to 70,000 feet, outside the range of Soviet projectiles and fighter jets, and which was fitted with cutting-edge camera equipment that could take detailed snaps of Soviet military bases and infrastructure on the ground.
Earmarked to start operations in June 1956, US personnel boasted that the U-2 could conduct secret missions over the Communist bloc for 2 years without detection, yet from its very first assignment, and because the U-2’s radar cloaking technology was faulty, it was already being tracked by the Soviets.
Consequently, the U-2 was scrapped, and a competition was created to find a more effective replacement craft that crucially, would be able to avoid being seen on the radar. The bar was to be set to the highest level, for according to Lockheed project manager, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson:
“It makes no sense to just take this one or two steps ahead, because we’d be buying only a couple of years before the Russians would be able to nail us again….I want us to come up with an airplane that can rule the skies for a decade or more.”
As a result, in the summer of 1956, the CIA began project GUSTO, specifying to aircraft manufacturers that they needed a jet installed with the latest innovations in radar deflection and absorption, and that could travel at extremely high speeds and altitudes.
After the establishment of a panel of experts from the Navy and Air Force in the autumn of 1957 by U-2 chief Richard Bissell, the committee would go on to meet a total of 7 times between November 1957 and August 1959 to evaluate prototypes submitted by several aeronautical companies, the principal competitors being Lockheed who was looking to rectify the failure of the U-2, and Convair, who at the time were also contracted to build a supersonic bomber for the Air Force called the B-58 Hustler.
Convair FISH vs Lockheed A-2
On April 21st, 1958 Lockheed’s Skunkworks division, already a famous centre of aeronautical invention, started work on a prototype they called the ‘Archangel’ which was to effortlessly cruise at Mach 3 altitudes above 90,000 feet.
With the advisory board sufficiently impressed by the design presented to them on July 23rd, 1958, it was now up to Convair to follow the act.
The same month, Convair successfully demonstrated their own stealth concept, the FISH, which could travel at Mach 4 and was launched from underneath a modified B-58 Hustler at a minimum of 35,000 feet, and by the summer of 1959, both companies were required to hand in their final submissions.
After experimenting with a few different versions, Lockheed came up with the A-2, or Archangel-2, which could be ready for full-scale production by January 1961, and which was to have a top-speed of Mach 3.2, a range of 3,200 miles, and would be able to reach a maximum altitude of 90,000 feet.
In contrast, the Convair FISH, overseen by Bob Widmer and Vincent Dolson, was superior or equal in every way on paper and was to fly at a top speed of Mach 4.2, have a range of 3900 miles, a top altitude of 90,000 feet, and was also ready to be assembled by January 1961.
In addition to this, the FISH would be much less detectable than the bulkier Archangel, which did not meet any of the CIA’s criteria for speed, altitude, range, and most importantly radar-cross section (RCS), for chief designer Clarence Johnson had opted to sacrifice them to achieve better aerodynamic qualities.
The FISH, however, although more ambitious was a lot riskier, for it was built on the foundations of several unproven technologies and assumptions.
Its ramjet engines were relatively untested, and it was unknown if the B-58 Hustler it would have to be attached to would be fast enough to discharge it or whether the FISH could even handle post-launch conditions, as the B-58 program had been plagued with such delays that a working model had never been produced.
When the B-58 program was shelved in June 1959 the FISH also went down with it, yet Lockheed’s A-2 was also deemed unsatisfactory because its RCS was still too big, and so the CIA announced that a second round of designs was to be submitted by August 1959.
Convair KINGFISH vs Lockheed A-12
In the intervening period Lockheed came up with the A-12, which used J-58 engines and was made out of titanium alloy instead of aluminum, and although undercutting requirements again by only having a top speed of Mach 3.2, had a higher altitude ceiling of 97,600 feet and a greater range of 4,600 miles.
Lockheed had also focused heavily on reducing the RCS by carefully crafting the shape of the aircraft, which had a continuous curving airframe, a fore-body with tightly slanted edges, a nacelle at the mid-wing to house the engine, which would be fed a cesium fuel additive to decrease the exhaust fumes of the afterburner, and various non-metallic components that could not be picked up by radar detection.
Likewise, Convair redirected their efforts into the KINGFISH, a more conventional air vehicle manned by a crew of 2, with a length of 73.6 feet, a height of 18.3 feet, and a pair of delta wings that had a wingspan of 60 feet.
Replete with a stainless steel honeycomb skin, it took off from the ground instead of being strapped to the side of a mothership, was propelled by two Pratt & Whitney J-58 power plants as opposed to experimental ramjets, and owing to its smaller size, an engine which was hidden deep inside the fuselage, and the radar-absorbing pyro-ceram material inserted along the wing leading edges and the engine nozzles, had an even lower RCS. Although the change in the propulsion system reduced the speed to Mach 3.2 as opposed to the 4.2 of the FISH, the range was increased to 3,900 miles.
Results and Aftermath
Following the submission of both designs to a panel of judges comprising personnel from the CIA, Air Force, and the Department of Defense on August 20th, 1959, the Lockheed A-12 was selected as the winner.
Although the KINGFISH had impressed the CIA with its better RCS, the A-12 met more of the specifications and the projected cost of the program was a lot cheaper, one unit costing $8.05 million as opposed to $10.1 million for the KINGFISH, yet the decision to choose Lockheed ultimately hinged on the superior way they conducted their business practices.
In contrast to the B-58 debacle, which had experienced major delays and setbacks before it was canceled, Lockheed had eclipsed Convair and proven it was a more reliable partner thanks to the success of the U-2, a project that was not only finished on time, in itself a rarity, but one that was completed under-budget.
The triumphant Clarence Johnson would note this in his project diary after a conversation with head panelist Richard Bissell:
“They [CIA] accept our conditions (1) of the basic arrangement of the A-12 and (2) that our method of doing business will be identical to that of the U-2. He agreed very firmly to this latter condition and said that unless it was done this way he wanted nothing to do with the project either.”
Despite losing, the Convair KINGFISH, seen as a back-up to the A-12, still received some additional funding afterwards, yet this was quickly cut after the A-12 proved an unqualified success.
Interest was briefly revived in the mid-1960s, when Convair, now an arm of General Dynamics, suggested a fusion of the FISH and KINGFISH designs could serve as a good basis for the F-111 fighter, but this was forgotten about as quickly as it had been proposed.
20 years later though, the engineering team was vindicated somewhat with the development of the pioneering F-117, which shared many similar stealth features to the KINGFISH, including the box-shaped fuselage, the location of the engine, and the flat underside, which were all originally conceived at Convair.