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The Might-Have-Beens: Convair 880 and 990

By Tim Haskin
July 8, 2004

In the first article of a series on airliners which were well-conjured and intelligently conceived but ill-timed and poorly received, we take a look at Convair's famously-fast 880 and 990, why they didn't become all that they may have been, and the impact their failure had on Convair as a commercial jet manufacturer.

Success as an airliner is the result of combining engineering skill, market
forecasting expertise, a sense of careful timing, and, often, just plain good luck. When brought
together properly, these attributes deliver a successful airliner - winning the praise of its
passengers, the respect of its crews, and profitable orders from customer airlines. But not
all of the airliner designs that reach production achieve commercial success, instead becoming
also-rans against their competitors, financial disasters for their manufacturers, and often
unwanted burdens for the airlines that operate them. This series will look at airliners that
reached production status and entered airline service during the last fifty years, yet did not
achieve commercial success in the marketplace compared to competing designs.


The Convair 880
Although the De Havilland Comet was the first jet airliner to enter service (in 1954), it was competition between Boeing and Douglas that drove development of the jet airliner to produce aircraft that offered both the operating economics and the engineering necessary to replace the fleets of four-engine piston and turboprop airliners that dominated medium and long-range airline routes during the 15 year period following the close of WWII.

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BOAC Comet 1 "Yoke Victor" at Calcutta,
1954. Photo © Matthew R N Clarkson


Convair was keenly interested in remaining a supplier to the world’s airlines as the demand for its Model 440 short-range piston airliner began to slow in the mid-1950s. Identifying a perceived need for a four-engine jet airliner that would be both smaller and faster than the 707 or DC-8, Convair developed its new aircraft, incorporating experience gained in the company’s production of jet fighters and bombers for the U.S. military.

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Mohawk Airlines Convair 440, N4403 -
one of the last piston Convair's built.
Photo © Bob Garrard


The new Convair design followed in the aeronautical engineering footsteps of Boeing and Douglas with two podded jets under each sharply swept wing. The aircraft’s cruise speed was planned at 600 mph versus the 560-580 mph planned cruise speed for the 707 and DC-8, and Convair initially announced formal development of the plane under the model name of “Skylark 600” to capitalize on the intended speed advantage, which remains legendary even today.

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Pan Am DC-8-32 N815PA "Clipper Charger"
at Philadelphia, July 1962.
Photo © David Schulman


Before production began, Convair renamed the aircraft the “Golden Arrow” and revealed plans to finish all of the plane’s exterior metal surfaces with a special gold anodizing. This idea did not survive long, though, given the technical realities of the near-impossibility of color matching anodized skin panels and the fact that all rivets would still be silver colored. Some quick minds in Convair’s marketing department realized that a speed of 600 mph converts to 880 feet per second and it was that calculation that gave the new aircraft its model name.
At approximately 75-100 seats, depending on airline configuration selected (and at the very generous seat pitch settings typical of the 1950s), passenger capacity for the 880 was less than the rival jets. Convair planned to achieve its speed target with a narrower fuselage diameter dictating five-abreast seating versus the six-abreast offered on the 707 and DC-8. In keeping with the goal of optimizing the 880 for shorter flight distances, the aircraft held less fuel than its rivals and was designed to operate from runways as short as 5,000 feet in length.

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TWA 880 N824TW (msn 31) seen at
Philadelphia in July 1962. This aircraft
flew TWA's last scheduled 880 service on
June 15, 1974. Photo © David Schulman


Production planning for the 880 began in 1956 on the basis of orders from TWA and Delta Air Lines for a total of 40 aircraft. TWA had also committed to Boeing for the 707 for the airline’s long-haul routes, while Delta would be using the 880 in conjunction with its long-haul DC-8s. But a year after those initial orders, and despite Convair's strong sales efforts, less than ten additional 880s had been sold.

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Delta Air Lines 880 landing at
Philadelphia in July 1962.
Photo © David Schulman


Airline reluctance was driven by an unwillingness to take on the introduction of another jet fleet type while 707s and DC-8s were still being integrated, as well as the lack of early delivery positions for the 880. In its rush to secure the TWA and Delta launch orders, Convair had promised those two airlines the first 40 aircraft to be built – additional customers would be required to sign a sales contract knowing that no deliveries would take place until all of the TWA and Delta ships had been constructed. This may have put off some potential customers enough to keep them from ordering at all.
To Convair’s credit, a substantial sale was negotiated with United Airlines during 1957 for up to 30 880s that would be used to operate shorter routes than the airline’s DC-8 fleet was designed for. Sensing an opportunity, Boeing quickly produced for United’s consideration a design for a shortened and lightweight version of the 707. In the end, United’s order went to Boeing for the new model, which shortly thereafter became the 720.

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United Airlines Boeing 720 N7213U at
Columbus, Ohio in April, 1972.
Photo © Bob Garrard


To increase the 880’s appeal with airlines that required greater range capability, Convair developed the 880M model with increased fuel capacity and engine thrust, heavier landing gear, wing leading edge slats to reduce stall speed and a power boost rudder to improve directional control. A significant order for as many as 15 of the 880M was received from U.S. trunk carrier Capital Airlines. But, even after aircraft to fill that order were in production, United Airlines took over Capital in 1961 and cancelled the order. Other 880M customers were Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific, VIASA of Venezuela, Civil Air Transport of Taiwan, Alaska Airlines, and Japan Air Lines.

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Japan Air Lines 880M JA8023 (msn 59) "Kaede".
Delivered in September, 1961, and destroyed
in a training accident in February, 1965.
Photo © Mel Lawrence
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Civil Air Transport (Taiwan) 880M B-1008
(msn 44) at Tokyo in May of 1966. This
aircraft was sold to Cathay Pacific in
October of 1968.
Photo © Mel Lawrence


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Cathay Pacific's 880M VR-HFT (msn 43)
which had previously been leased by Convair
to Swissair as HB-ICL. Photo © Mel Lawrence


Convair produced just 65 series 880 (including 880M) aircraft between 1959 and 1962. Boeing, in the same time, produced a whopping 316 aircraft in the 707 family (including some 720s). Delta Air Lines was the first airline to take delivery of an 880, the airline’s first ship setting a transcontinental speed record on its San Diego-to-Miami delivery flight on February 10, 1960. The first 880 scheduled service was flown by Delta on May 15 of that year. But by the time of the 880’s first passenger service, the Boeing 720, the Sud Aviation Caravelle, and Boeing’s planned 727, were competing very effectively for the airline industry’s short and mid-range fleet orders. Convair just couldn't seem to keep ahead of the game.

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Delta 880 N8817E (msn 65) was the last
880 built, and was delivered to Delta in
July of 1962. Photo © Bob Garrard
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TWA's 880 N821TW (msn 27) at Columbus,
Ohio, in January of 1967. This aircraft
was lost in a crash in Cincinnati in
November, 1967. Photo © Bob Garrard


TWA was not to operate the 880 until January 1961, due to financial disagreements between TWA’s controlling shareholder (one Howard Hughes), Convair’s parent (General Dynamics), and the Hughes Tool Company - which had ordered 880s on TWA’s behalf. While that drama was being played out, six aircraft from the Hughes/TWA order were released by the customer and leased by Convair to Northeast Airlines, which began 880 operations in December 1960 on routes from the northeast U.S. to Florida.

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A Northeast 880 in New York Idlewild
during May of 1961.
Photo © Bill Armstrong



...And, the 990...
After the bitter loss of the United Airlines order in 1957, Convair was intent on landing a replacement order with another major U.S. airline, and the company’s attention turned to New York City and the headquarters of American Airlines. American was interested in buying an airplane that could be used on its transcontinental routes but that would provide a significant speed advantage over its existing 707s and its competitor’s 707 and DC-8 fleets.

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American Airlines Boeing 707-123 making
a water-injection takeoff at Los Angeles
in June of 1960.
Photo © Charlie Atterbury


American’s president, C.R. Smith, envisioned a high-speed transcontinental service that would operate at a blazing 635 mph, shaving as much as 45 minutes off of the 707 and DC-8 operating times for a New York-to-Los Angeles flight. Desperate to make its jet airliner program viable, Convair agreed to meet American’s speed requirement by upgrading the 880 with a fuselage stretch of 10 feet to increase seating capacity, more powerful General Electric CJ-805 turbofan engines (the first time an airliner had been designed around turbofans), anti-skid brakes (another airliner first), enhanced landing gear and a hydraulic rudder control system. In addition, Convair contractually guaranteed that the new plane would be able to achieve a 635 mph cruising speed, with significant cash penalties paid to the customer airline if that speed performance could not be met. Convair was putting its soul on the bargaining table just to keep in the game.
The resulting aircraft, which essentially became a new model rather than simply an upgraded 880, was launched as the Convair 990 in August 1958 with an American Airlines order for 25 aircraft. The lengthened fuselage allowed an increased seating capacity of 98-110 in a typical two-class configuration, and maximum range was extended to 4,400 miles. The only other customers at this point were SAS, for two planes, and Swissair, for seven, replacing an earlier Swissair order for five 880s.

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American 990A N5602 (msn 34) delivered
to American in January of 1963 and sold
to Internord in December, 1967.
Photo © Bob Garrard


A unique identifying feature of the 990 was the incorporation of two, large anti-shock bodies (or “pods”) on the rear of each wing. These were added to reduce the effect of the drag-inducing shock wave that develops as a lifting surface (the wing) moves at speeds between Mach 0.8 and Mach 1.0, the speed of sound. An added benefit of the pods was their easy adaptability as fuel tanks, and each pod was equipped with an aft fuel jettison nozzle for quick weight reduction in an emergency - which, combined with the earlier described features of the 990, made it an altogether oustanding jet.

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American 990 5618 (msn 30) displaying its
wing pods at Phoenix in November, 1962.
This aircraft was later operated by
Middle East Airlines (as OD-AFG) and by
Spantax (as EC-BZO). Photo © Ted Miley



The first Convair 990 rolled out of the factory at San Diego during November of 1960, and made its first flight on January 24, 1961. Flight tests soon revealed a control problem related to turbulence generated at the inboard engine pylons that impacted elevator effectiveness at the aircraft’s tail. Further, it was found that the outer engines would oscillate from side-to-side at cruise speed when the outer wing pods were filled with fuel. During late March of 1961, the first aircraft was returned to the hangar for a six-week program of design modifications aimed at fixing these deficiencies. FAA certification of the Convair 990, originally planned for June 1961, was ultimately delayed until December of that year.

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A view of the 990's wing, looking aft. This
aircraft is the former HB-ICC of Swissair.
Photo © Christian Waser - Aviapix Zurich/Worldwide


Flight testing with the first 990 resumed in late April 1961 and while the control problem and engine vibrations were remedied, it became clear to Convair that the plane could not meet its promised speed without an unacceptable rate of fuel burn, thereby missing the payload/range promises that had also been made. An extensive program of drag reduction work would be required and Convair was forced to return to the bargaining table during the summer of 1961 with 990 launch customers American Airlines and Swissair as well as follow-on customers SAS and Varig.

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American 990 N5608 (msn 18) applying
power to leave the gate in March, 1967.
Photo © Bob Garrard


In light of the 990 program setbacks, American signed a revised order contract with Convair that called for 20 aircraft at a sharply reduced price per unit. American agreed to begin accepting 990s without the drag reduction modifications that Convair planned, upgrading to the revised standard (the model 990A) at a later date and then only if the modifications could be shown to increase cruise speed to at least 620 mph with a U.S. coast-to-coast range. Swissair agreed to a similar deal and had been leasing a pair of 880M aircraft from Convair pending 990 deliveries. Swissair’s 990 aircraft would be operated under the “Coronado” fleet name, a tribute to Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, one of the first Europeans to visit the area around southern California that was home to Convair.

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Swissair 990 HB-ICA (msn 7) "Bern" at
Stockholm; February, 1971.
Photo © Lars Söderström


SAS eventually cancelled its order (but leased a pair of factory-new 990s from Swissair) and Varig entered into a lengthy negotiation period with Convair that would last more than a year, finally resulting in an agreement to accept three of the modified aircraft. Later customers for new 990 aircraft were Garuda Indonesian Airways, APSA of Peru, and the United States Federal Aviation Administration (which, following Convair’s flight test and certification programs, acquired the first 990 built).

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990 SE-DAZ, "Ring Viking" operated by
SAS on lease from Swissair.
Photo © Lars Söderström


Total production of the Convair 990/990A family came to just 37 aircraft which, when combined with the 65 880/880M models, brought Convair’s foray into the jet airliner business to a grand total of 102 aircraft built and a program loss to the manufacturer of $425 million - in 1960's dollars. Today, that amount would be equal to several billion. At the time, it was the largest loss ever sustained by a U.S. corporation that was still able to remain in business. Meanwhile, Boeing delivered 925 civil airliners and freighter versions of the 707/720 family and Douglas sold 555 of its DC-8 as airliners and civil freighters.

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Aerlineas Peruanas (APSA) 990 OB-R-765
(msn 2) at Miami, in December, 1970.
Photo © George W. Hamlin


The Convairs had an active life on the second-hand market following withdrawal from service by the type’s largest customers. Delta Air Lines retired its 880 fleet during 1973 (in trade to Boeing on new 727-200s) while TWA operated its 880s through 1974. American Airlines began disposing of its 990 fleet through sales and leases beginning in 1965 with the last American 990 flight flown in 1969. Swissair maintained its 990s through early 1975, moving them to short-haul routes as stretched DC-8s and then DC-10s joined the fleet, and eventually retiring the 990s as the DC-9-50 was brought online for short-haul service.

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Modern Air Transport 990 N5625 (msn
19) originally delivered to Varig as
PP-VJF. Photo © Peter de Groot
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Spantax 990A EC-BQQ (msn 34) at Düsseldorf
in October, 1979. This aircraft was delivered
new to American and then spent a year with
Internord before joining Spantax in March
of 1969. Photo © Dieter Helmer


Significant operators of “previously owned” 880s and 990s included Modern Air Transport, a U.S. charter airline, Spanish charter airline Spantax, Middle East Airlines, Lebanese International Airways, and U.S. travel club (turned charter airline) Denver Ports of Call. Many of the 880s were converted to freighters with a large main deck cargo door installed ahead of the left wing, while the 990s in charter passenger service were usually reconfigured to seat as many as 149.

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Middle East Airline's 990A OD-AFF (msn 18)
seen at London Heathrow, February, 1970.
Delivered to American in March, 1962, it
was sold to MEA in June 1969 and then
traded back to American for a B-720 in
February, 1972. The plane was then sold
to Spantax. Photo © Steve Williams


An 880 that was converted to an executive interior and can be seen on static display today in the United States is the “Lisa Marie”, a former Delta Air Lines ship that was purchased by Elvis Presley in 1975. It’s located adjacent to the Graceland Museum complex in Memphis, Tennessee. An example of a former Swissair 990 Coronado with a full airline interior is on display at the Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne. An ambitious restoration project in the United States is being undertaken be a group named “Team Convair” that has acquired and plans to return to flying status a former Northeast and TWA 880; the group’s work is highlighted on their website, www.convair880.com. Other examples still exist around the world, all unmoving. One guards the entrance to the Mojave airport, another is a strip club in Lisbon.

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The Swiss Transport Museum's 990A, HB-ICC
preserved in the colors of Swissair, the
aircraft's only oeprator. Photo © Christian Waser
- Aviapix Zurich/Worldwide
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Central American Airways (operated for
Profit Express) 880M N54CP (msn 46).
Part of the Japan Air Lines order, this
aircraft changed hands several times
after JAL service, eventually receiving
a main deck cargo door in 1979. Central
American operated N54CP from 1980 all
the way up until 1985.
Photo © Howard Chaloner



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One of three 990As sold to Swedish/
Danish airline Internord by American
between June, 1967 and March, 1968.
Following Internord's financial
difficulties, all three were repossessed
by American in October, 1968, and
eventually joined the Spantax fleet.
Photo © Manfred Borchers
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Denver Ports-of-Call 990 N8357C
(msn 24) was one of seven purchased
by this travel club (five of which
were operated) between 1973 and 1976.
Photo © Don Boyd



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United States Navy UC-880 161572
(msn 55). This aircraft was delivered
new to the U.S. FAA in August, 1961.
It was then sold to the USN in 1981
and modified extensively as an aerial
tanker and systems research aircraft.
It was deactivated in 1993 and then
the subject of FAA fuselage explosion
testing in 1995.
Photo © Johan Ljungdahl
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Evlis Presley's N880EP (msn 38) at
Cincinnati, in March, 1976. Delivered
to Delta in October of 1961 as N8809E
and now on static display in Memphis,
Tennessee. Photo © Bob Garrard




Airline Operators of New Aircraft:
Alaska Airlines – 880M and 990A
American Airlines – 990 and 990A
APSA (Aerolineas Peruanas, S.A.) – 990A
Cathay Pacific Airways – 880M
Civil Air Transport – 880M
Delta Air Lines – 880
Garuda Indonesia Airways – 990A
Japan Air Lines – 880M
Japan Domestic Airways – 880M (leased from Japan Air Lines)
Northeast Airlines – 880 and 990A (leased from Hughes Tool Co.)
Scandinavian Airlines System – 990A (leased from Swissair)
Swissair – 880M and 990A
Trans World Airlines – 880
Varig – 990A
VIASA – 880M

Airline Operators of Pre-Owned Aircraft:
Airtrust Singapore – 880 and 880M
Air Viking – 880M
Central American Airways (Profit Express) – 880 and 880M
Denver Ports-of-Call – 990A
Iberia Airlines – 990A (leased from Spantax)
Inair Panama – 880
Indy Air – 880 and 880M
Internord – 990A
LANICA – 880
Lebanese International Airways – 990A
Middle East Airlines – 990A
Modern Air Transport – 990A
Nordair – 990A
Spantax – 990A
Thai Airways – 990A (sub-leased from SAS)



Works Referenced

Books
Gunston, Bill ed. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Commercial Aircraft. New York: Exeter Books, 1980.

Hardy, Michael. World Civil Aircraft Since 1945. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.

Mondey, David et al. Encyclopedia of The World’s Commercial and Private Aircraft. New York: Crescent Books, 1981.

Munson, Kenneth. Airliners From 1919 to The Present Day. London: Peerage Books, 1975.

Proctor, John. Convair 880 & 990. Miami: World Transport Press, Inc., 1996.

Wilson, Stewart. Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8 & Vickers VC-10. Sydney: Aerospace Publications Pty Ltd., 1998.


Periodicals
Fischer, Daniel and Howard, Paul. “Spantax S.A.” Airliners Mar-Apr 2002: 48-57.

Morgan, Rick. “Pilgrims and Yellowbirds.” Airliners Jan-Feb 2000: 54-63.

Proctor, Jon. “San Diego International Airport.” Airliners May-Jun 2003: 31-47.

Shane, Bob. “The Sun Finally Sets…” Airliners May-Jun 2000: 34-41.


Online
“Convair 880 Project.” Team Convair. May 17, 2004 www.Convair880.com.

“Graceland Tours.” Elvis Presley, the Official Site. May 17, 2004.

Swiss Transport Museum. May 17, 2004 www.verkehrshaus.org.

Written by
Tim Haskin

Tim Haskin is a long-time airline and aviation history buff in addition to being a private pilot, aircraft owner and airline industry veteran. He has held sales, marketing and airport operations positions with a large U.S. legacy carrier, a small (very small!) regional airline, a U.S. charter airline and currently a large U.S. low-cost carrier.

8 User Comments:
Username: RNOcommctr [User Info]
Posted 2004-07-10 04:51:16 and read 32768 times.

Thoughtful, thorough article on two of the most stunningly beautiful aircraft ever built. Reading the article, I thought back to the days of seeing these marvels and Idlewild and Baltimore Friendship. Great job!

Username: Scbriml [User Info]
Posted 2004-07-26 17:36:00 and read 32768 times.

Great article. I used to love those noisy, dirty suckers :DD

Username: RareBear [User Info]
Posted 2004-07-28 15:45:14 and read 32768 times.

Great article. I remember fondly flying many times on Delta's CV-880s between ATL and MCO in the mid-1960's while in college. If I recall correctly, the fare was $29.00 one way.

Username: Timdegroot [User Info]
Posted 2004-07-28 15:59:08 and read 32768 times.

Good reading, thanks for writing it!

Cheers
Tim

Username: Bwc1976 [User Info]
Posted 2004-08-07 05:55:40 and read 32768 times.

Anyone know if they let people look around inside Elvis's 880 at Graceland, like they do with the old 707 Air Force One in Seattle?

Username: RayChuang [User Info]
Posted 2004-08-11 17:04:44 and read 32768 times.

What I found interesting was that there was one thing that doomed the Convair 880/990 program: the imposition of strict air traffic controls around many metropolitan areas in the USA after the infamous mid-air collision in 1960 where a UA DC-8 flew too fast for the traffic pattern over New York City and collided with a TW Constellation.

That resulted in substantial speed restrictions in the airspace near airports, effectively eliminating the speed advantage of the 880 and 990.

Username: Aaron747 [User Info]
Posted 2004-08-16 03:24:40 and read 32768 times.

Insightful and well-written article on two airliners that were definitely both ahead of and behind their time. Thanks for the memories Tim!

Username: Stormking [User Info]
Posted 2013-09-21 08:19:40 and read 5650 times.

Flew in the jump seat of both NEA 880 & 990 as a kid > still remember the feeling of power on rotation jetting up to altitude > jc

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