Friday, December 2, 2011

Vanishing Rainbow

For the September issue of AirshowStuff Magazine, I wrote a piece on Mike Machat's new book profiling the remarkable Republic XR-12 Rainbow (you can read it here, it's on page 14), an experimental reconnaissance aircraft from the mid-1940s, a design that was far ahead of its time; only two prototypes were built, and the program was cancelled before it could go into production. Mike, who is a well-known aviation painter, writer and speaker, was wonderfully generous with his time, allowing me a long and detailed interview over drinks and appetizers before he was to make a book-signing appearance. His passion for the history of both the Republic Aircraft Corp and the Rainbow is remarkable and very personal, as his uncle was one of the engineers that helped design the plane.

And then I went home and actually read the book he wrote (World's Fastest Four-Engine Piston-Powered Aircraft: Story of the Republic XR-12 Rainbow, available at a nice discount here), and fell in love with the plane myself. I was also intrigued to find out that the Rainbow actually made at least one airshow appearance, which made it an ideal subject to be featured both in my "Vintage Wings" column in the magazine (it just ran in the November/December issue, on page 6), as well as on this blog. Mike had just the photo, one that hadn't run in the book. The image was taken in October, 1948, at the open house at Wright Field, and shows the second of the two XR-12s that were built. While the first ship was essentially a handling qualities flight test vehicle, the second one had a full interior, including all the reconnaissance cameras and even a darkroom.

This photo, and one from a different angle that was used in the book, are unique. As Mike tells it, "It is very possibly one of the last photos ever taken of the airplane, because one week later it left for operational testing at Eglin AFB, FL, and crashed on only its second test flight there on November 7th." Of the seven-man crew,  only five survived the watery crash.

Mike Machat also generously provided this Republic family
portrait of the first XR-12, shortly after it's rollout together with
a P-47N Thunderbolt and an RC-1 Thunderbolt amphibian, the
forerunner of the RC-3 Seabee, a family-friendly amphibian that
Republic had pinned its hopes on to make big with an
anticipated post-war customer base of ex-military pilots. The
economics just didn't pan out, though.
The aircraft was faster than anything in its class, and Republic had dreams of a variant also being produced as a 40-passenger airliner, the RC-2 Rainbow. Both Pan Am and American Airlines had placed orders, as it was about 100 knots faster than its Boeing and Douglas competition. Unfortunately, it was an expensive project that came about at just the wrong time. With the end of WWII, its mission evaporated, and the Pentagon decided to pass. Without the military version to fund development of the civilian airliner, the price that the airlines would have to pay soared, and both carriers cancelled their orders. It was the end of the Rainbow, and there simply was no gold there.

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