One of the four pioneering jet aircraft designs of the 1950’s, the Convair 880 attempted to market speed over capacity by making an aircraft as lightweight and dynamic as possible. However, the 880 would herald the beginning of the end for Convair, as the aircraft went on to be one of the biggest aviation flops in the whole of history.
Development for the 880, like many of those early jets, began following the launch of the de Havilland Comet in 1949. The Comet came to symbolise all that was beautiful about jet air travel, smooth, swift and sublime. As such, the U.S. also wanted in on this action and thus all the major aviation manufacturers set to work creating their own jet airliners. While Boeing and Douglas set to work creating what would become their pioneering 707 and DC-8, Convair began to develop what would become the 880, originally dubbed the Skylark, followed quickly by the Golden Arrow. The name would later be changed again to follow a similar path as Boeing and Douglas, being originally called the Convair 600 (to represent its projected speed of 600mph), then Convair 880 (to represent its speed in feet per second (how very specific)).
Anyway, Convair announced a start to the development in April 1956, and was built to gain an edge over both the 707 and the DC-8 in terms of speed. For this, Convair, with the help of General Electric, developed a set of highly powerful but incredibly inefficient turbojet engines, the CJ-805-3’s, which were civilian versions of the J79’s that powered the likes of Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, and Convair B-58 Hustler. The engines produced 11,650lbf each, propelling the aircraft to a cruising speed of 615mph, much faster than any competing commercial jet airliner. The ability to travel at such a speed was down to a balance of payload and power, using strong engines to fly a relatively small aircraft. The 880, using 5-abreast seating, could carry 110 passengers, which was still much less than the 707 at between 170 and 190 passengers with 4-abreast seating. Convair hoped that they could woo airlines by way of providing faster coast-to-coast services, something of a niche in aviation circles.
The first production 880 took to the skies from Convair’s San Diego factory on January 27th, 1959, two years after the 707 and nearly a year the DC-8 had made their first flights, with no prior prototype built. Shortly afterwards, the FAA mandated additional instrumentation, which Convair added by placing a “raceway” hump on the top of the fuselage, rather than ripping apart the interiors over the wing area.
The 880 entered commercial service with launch customer Delta Air Lines in May
1960, Delta models being slightly modified with the fitting of 805-3B engines, these being designated 880-22m. However, although Delta found their 880’s useful, the rest of the aviation world gave the aircraft a much more lukewarm reception. The aircraft failed to gain any major orders, due largely to the incredible fuel consumption and the fact that it had very few options. The 5-abreast seating was also frowned upon, seeing as most operators preferred to take a more luxury approach to travel with spacious 4-abreast. Boeing responded to the 880 with the short-range but much higher capacity Boeing 720, which was almost identical to the 707 and therefore had a great amount of parts compatibility. Meanwhile, Douglas innovated the concept of multiple variants for its DC-8, ranging from the short -10 to the stretched -70.
While Convair attempted to claw back a market with the stretched Convair 990 Coronado, the 990 suffered once again because of its lack of efficiency. While it could fly faster than the 880, it consumed much more fuel to maintain its speed and thus compromised its range, which didn’t attract buyers either, especially those who wanted to put them to work on the non-stop coast-to-coast services. While the 880 made it into the fleets of several major airlines, including Cathay Pacific, Japan Air, Northeast, Swissair, TWA, and VIASA, it was never truly the hit the company wanted, with only 65 built during a 3 year production run.
General Dynamics lost around $185 million over the lifetime of the project, although some sources estimate much higher losses. The losses incurred in the Convair 880/990 are generally thought to be the largest losses incurred by a corporation up to that time.
Most 880’s and 990’s were withdrawn from frontline service by the mid-1970’s, their inefficient and non-standard nature making them expensive to run. As such, most were bought up for aeronautical testing, largely by the U.S. Navy or NASA. The Navy acquired one 880 in 1980, modifying it as an in-flight tanker. It had been purchased new from Convair by the FAA, and used for 18 years. Unofficially designated UC-880, it was assigned to the Naval Air Test Center at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, and employed in Tomahawk Cruise Missile testing and aircraft refuelling procedures. Convair designed and manufactured the Tomahawk and Advanced Tomahawk Cruise Missile in San Diego where the 880 and 990 were produced. The sole UC-880 was damaged in a cargo hold explosive decompression test at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, in 1995. The aircraft managed to remain theoretically controllable via backup systems unique to the 880 and 990.
The 880 however did find itself something of a celebrity status under the ownership of Rock n’ Roll legend Elvis Presley, who dubbed his aircraft Lisa Marie, the name of his daughter. He used the aircraft to tour the world until his passing in 1977, whereupon it was retired to the quiet life of a museum piece at Presley’s former estate at Graceland, Tennessee.
The 880 was sadly involved in 5 accidents throughout its life, claiming the lives of 155 people.
- The first was on May 23rd, 1960, when a Delta Air Lines Convair 880 crashed on takeoff at Atlanta Municipal Airport (now Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport), resulting in the loss of all four crew members. This flight was to be a training sortie for two Delta captains who were being type-rated on the 880. At rotation, the aircraft pitched nose up, rolled left, and then back more steeply to the right, at which time it struck the ground, broke apart, and
was consumed by a fire.
- The next was on November 20th, 1967, when TWA Flight 128 crashed on approach to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, resulting in 70 people being killed and only 12 survivors.
- On March 19th, 1969, a man tried to hijack an 880 from Dallas to Cuba, but ended up in New Orleans. He was eventually acquitted on a charge of insanity.
- The next was on June 15th, 1972, when a bomb exploded on board Cathay Pacific Flight 700Z, killing all 81 passengers and crew.
- The last incident involving the 880 was on December 20th, 1972, when a North Central Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-9-31 collided during its takeoff roll with a Delta Air Lines Convair 880 as the Convair 880 taxied across the runway at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Only two people on the Convair were injured, but 10 were killed aboard the DC-9.
Today, only six 880’s remain in varying degrees of intactness across the world. As mentioned, most were retired from frontline service by the end of the 1970’s, placed into storage, and scrapped by the turn of the new millennium.
It’s rather sad the story of the 880 because this aircraft did seem to have something in the way of potential. There was a good idea for an aircraft, but I feel that technology truly was the limiting factor behind its success. The highly inefficient turbofan engines made it very unattractive, and because the aircraft couldn’t break the speed of sound, it didn’t really have that novelty or distinction in the same way Concorde did 15 years later. It fell into a hole in the market, and that, unfortunately, is where it stayed.