Sunday, July 23, 2017

New Jersey: The flying submarine of Ocean Township

Jill Hand, Weird New Jersey

In the early 1960s, summer evenings on Evergreen Avenue in the Wanamassa section of Ocean Township were filled with the usual neighborhood sounds of that pre-video game, pre-helicopter parenting era.

There were kids calling to kids, dogs barking, ice cream truck bells ringing and moms loudly demanding that their offspring get inside right now and wash up for dinner.

But occasionally, there was one other sound that was unique to that particular little pocket of the Jersey shore: the ear-splitting, thunderous bwaap-waap-waap of Donald Reid revving the engine of his flying submarine.

Yes, that’s right. My neighbor, Donald V. Reid, built a submarine that could fly out of spare airplane parts and a conglomeration of scavenged scrap metal that included a steel bed frame and two galvanized metal garbage can lids.

When he tinkered with his oddball invention in his side yard, my friends and I were drawn to the sidewalk next to his house like iron filings to a magnet.

Don Reid was the neighborhood celebrity. He had been on "I’ve Got a Secret" and "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. It was like living down the street from Doc Brown, the eccentric inventor played by Christopher Lloyd in "Back to the Future," only without the time-travelling DeLorean.

I was six years old in 1962 when Reid built the first full-size flying submarine, which he called the RFS-1.

I don’t recall my parents or any of the other neighborhood adults ever expressing the opinion that he might have a screw or two loose. He was eccentric, yes, but inventors were expected to be a bit unusual.

The fact that the Reid family kept a seven-foot-long boa constrictor in a glass case atop the piano in their living room was definitely different but it was a glamorous difference, one in which our otherwise bland neighborhood took pride.

It would have been another matter if Don Reid had worn a white lab coat and stalked the streets at night with a maniacal gleam in his eyes, but he was a regular guy who liked fishing, wore flannel shirts and baseball caps, and commuted to his day job at the Naval Turbine Test Station in West Trenton.

At a time when Americans were eagerly anticipating the dawning of an exciting space-age future where every house would have a robot that would do chores tirelessly and uncomplainingly, and kids would strap on jetpacks to travel to and from school, the idea of a flying submarine made perfect sense.

It was the height of the Cold War and everyone was thinking about weaponry. If a submarine was good for sneaking up on an enemy ship and blasting it to smithereens with a torpedo, then a submarine that could deliver the death blow and then emerge like a cormorant from the briny deep to make a speedy airborne getaway was even better.

The idea of a flying submarine was nothing new. Leonardo da Vinci mentioned the concept in his writing, and there was a flying sub in Jules Verne’s 1904 book, "Master of the World." The Soviet Union tried to develop a flying submarine during World War II, but the project was eventually shelved. By 1965, when TV audiences who tuned into the underwater sci-fi adventure series "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" first thrilled to the sight of a stingray-shaped sub blasting out of the ocean depths, the first working version of the RFS-1 was already three years old.

It’s one thing to write about a revolutionary new form of air/underwater craft but it’s another thing entirely to try and build one. It’s not a challenge that a basement tinkerer would be expected to take on, but that’s exactly what happened.

Like many great ideas, the inspiration to build a flying submarine came to Reid by accident. He was building a radio-controlled model submarine in his basement workshop one night in 1956 when a pair of model airplane wings fell off a shelf and landed on the submarine’s hull. Eureka! Wings plus submarine equaled flying submarine!

Reid saw a challenge. He also saw dollar signs dancing in his head. The U.S. Navy would undoubtedly pay handsomely to add flying submarines to its fleet, providing that such a thing could be built.

Reid faced a number of challenges in perfecting his hybrid craft, not the least of which was the fact that airplanes and submarines are essentially complete opposites. Aircraft have to be as light as possible to minimize the engine power that they need to get airborne, while submarines need hulls strong enough to resist the massive, crushing pressure of the surrounding water.

A lesser man would have been daunted, but Don Reid was a true visionary. He set out to find the solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. If there was any way to make a craft that both submerged and flew, he was determined to find it.

With the help of his son, Bruce, and daughter, Carol, Reid experimented with progressively larger models before building a piloted craft. With Bruce at the controls, it flew for over 75 feet on the Shrewsbury River in 1962.

Reid received a U.S. patent for his flying sub in 1963. It was a floatplane with a twist, one that could land on the water using a pair of plywood pontoons that Reid bought for $100, flood its fuselage so it sank below the surface, and then take off again. The pilot had to remove the plane’s propeller and cover the aircraft engine with a rubberized gas tank from a WW II bomber plane in order to convert the plane into a submarine powered by an electric motor. When submerged, the RFS-1 could reach a maximum depth of about 12 feet, and travel at a speed of two knots (one knot equals approximately 1.151 miles per hour). Its surface speed was four-and-one-half knots.

The RFS-1 wasn’t about to set any nautical speed records, but it did everything a submarine is supposed to do: dive, turn, surface and so on. The trouble came when it was time for the craft to morph into an airplane. Its 65-horse-power, four-cylinder airplane engine made it too underpowered to sustain flight or do more than take short hops above the surface of the water.

Reid kept tinkering with his flying submarine, but his dreams of making a fortune by selling the plans to the Navy failed to materialize when the Military Invention Board dismissed the idea as impractical. He died in 1991 at the age of 79.

Reid’s family donated the RFS-1 to the Mid Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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