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  • Writer's pictureroy blewett

Convair 880 and 990

EC-BZO was part of the fleet of the Convair 990's last commercial operator, Spantax. Designated a cultural monument by the Council of Mallorca, it is cared for by volunteers and has been the subject of cosmetic restoration since this photograph was taken in 2017 (Palma-Son Sant Joan; Mallorca Daily Bulletin)

Convair 880


The 880 was conceived by Convair as a smaller, faster complement to the 707 and DC-8. Aimed at transcontinental US routes on which speed was key, the type was initially known as the Skylark 600 to emphasise the aircraft’s anticipated cruise speed of 600 mph. However, this was abandoned in favour of the name Golden Arrow, before Convair eventually settled on 880 (again derived from the cruise speed, this time expressed in feet per second). Launch customers were Delta and Trans World Airlines, who between them placed orders for 40 in return for guaranteed access to the first 40 production aircraft. This lack of early delivery positions dissuaded other potential buyers, although Capital Airlines eventually signed up for 10 of a longer-range version – an order that was later cancelled following Capital’s take-over by United Air Lines.


All Convair 880s used a powerplant derived from the J79 engine that powered the F-104 Starfighter and F-4 Phantom, and both the 880 and 990 were recognisable from their particularly smoky fuel burn. Few 880s survive: two are preserved, one at a private residence in South Africa, and attempts by Team Convair to preserve N815AJ were abandoned in 2007. The last 880 to fly was c/n 55, which was converted by the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River as an air-to-air refueler in support of the F/A-18 Hornet flight test programme. Its final flight was on 30 Sep 93 and it was destroyed around two years later in a controlled cargo hold test explosion.


First flight: 27 Jan 59 (c/n 22-00-1, N801TW)

Production: 65, at San Diego, CA

First delivery: 31 Jan 60, to Delta Air Lines (c/n 22-00-7, N8802E)

Last delivery: 3 Jul 63, to Japan Air Lines (c/n 22-00-46M, JA8026)

Variants: 880-22 - initial production version, powered by 4 General Electric CJ805-3B turbojets, with seating for up to 110 passengers (48 built); 880-22M - developed version with increased range (17 built)


Convair 990


With mounting losses on the 880, Convair was keen to sign up another of the major airlines and in 1958, approached American Airlines. American’s requirement was for an aircraft slightly larger than the 880, and capable of even greater speed: it wanted to be able to offer passengers the fastest flight time between New York and Los Angeles, so asked Convair to come up with an aircraft that could shave 45 minutes off the typical 707 and DC-8 journey time. Convair assured American it could do so, and an order for 25 aircraft was placed in August 1958. Initial flight testing revealed control and engine vibrations. These took some time to remedy and, when testing resumed, it became clear that the 990 was unable to meet the required specification, leading to a reduction in both the size of American Airlines’ order and the unit cost. Although several other airlines signed up for the 990 (including Swissair, which gave it the name Coronado) it was not sufficient to prevent the aircraft becoming an even greater commercial failure than the 880. Ultimately, Convair is said to have lost some $425m in 1960s prices on the 880/990 programmes, leading to the company’s decision to abandon the commercial sector altogether.


First flight: 24 Jan 61 (c/n 30-10-1, N5601G)

Production: 37, at San Diego, CA

First delivery: 7 Jan 62, to American Airlines (c/n 30-10-9, N5605)

Last delivery: 24 Jan 64, to Garuda Indonesian Airways (c/n 30-10-3, PK-GJA)

Variants: 990A - stretched development of the Convair 880 powered by 4 General Electric CJ805-23B aft turbofans, with seating for up to 121 passengers.


Convair 880 and 990 survivors
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