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The Convair 880 & 990 Jet Liners

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The Convair 880

The CV-880 was the first jet-powered airliner designed for medium-range routes, and was also General Dynamics' first American-built aircraft. In 1956, TWA president Howard Hughes sat down with the Convair division's engineers and worked out a basic specification for the plane, calling it the "Convair Skylark." Later on, it was known as the "Golden Arrow": the number 880 was eventually picked because it was the airplane's top speed in feet per second.

Speed was the 880's major selling point. Along with its sister aircraft, the Convair 990, it still holds most of the speed records for subsonic airliners: only the Concorde and Tupolev Tu-144 have been faster. The biggest obstacle to the plane's success turned out to be TWA itself: Hughes had insisted on having the only orders for the first year of the program, and by the time other airlines could place their orders, the 880 had a formidable competitor in the new Boeing 720.

The 880's first flight was in 1959, and it entered service with Delta Air Lines in 1960. Only sixty-five would be built. Alaska Airlines and Northeast Airlines flew the 880 on U.S. domestic routes, while Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways were the only overseas operators. The entire 880 and 990 program turned into the most financially disastrous product line in history, costing General Dynamics hundreds of millions of dollars.

By 1974, the Convair 880 had disappeared from airline service. Today, only six 880's are known to exist. One of them was Elvis Presley's private jet, and is now on display at Graceland. Another one has been stripped and converted into a restaurant. Today, a group of enthusiasts called "Team Convair" own two of the six, and are attempting to restore one to flyable condition. You can check on their progress at

Passengers: 94 to 110
Flight crew: 6 to 8
Length: 129'4" (41.7 m)
Wingspan: 120' (38.7 m)
Cruise speed: 555 mph (890 kph)
Top speed: 600 mph (960 kph)
Maximum range: 2,900 miles (4,580 km)
Service ceiling: 35,000' (11,600 m)
Takeoff weight: 380,000 lb (173,000 kg)


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The Convair 990

The CV-990 was a first-generation jet liner that competed with the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. (Okay, try didn't compete: only 37 were built, mostly for American Airlines, Swissair, and Varig.) Nicknamed "Coronado," it was originally developed by Consolidated-Vultee, which later changed its name to Convair and was eventually bought out by General Dynamics. The 990 first flew in 1961.

Essentially, the 990 was an upgraded version of the Convair 880, designed after United turned down the 880 and American asked for an improved aircraft to serve as the flagship of its Astrojet fleet. The resulting plane was (and still is) one of the fastest jetliners ever produced, able to cruise at 615 mph. This was accomplished by powerful engines, a narrow body, and special "shock pods" on top of the wings.

However, the 990's high performance came at a cost. The streamlined fuselage could only hold 110 passengers, compared to the 707 and DC-8's capacity of 150. The wing pods were originally intended to hold fuel, but the added weight caused them to vibrate dangerously at high speeds, so they had to be left hollow. This gave the 990 a comparatively dismal operating range (3000 miles on the outside), and made its operation a losing proposition for most airlines, killing sales. American, the largest customer, ended up replacing a $25 million down payment with 25 Douglas DC-7's, each valued at less than half a million dollars.

The 990 program ended as a write-off for General Dynamics: by some estimates, they lost over $150 million in the whole ordeal, not a small sum for a company reporting $2 billion in annual sales. Some planes were pulled off of the assembly line half-completed in a vain effort to recover costs. Convair never made another civil transport, and its defense contracts were seriously scarred for some time.


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The Lost Dream


by Dimitris Papadogiannis


At the 50's De Havilland Comet was a real revolution at the field of commercial airplanes as it was the first civil aircraft with jet engines. That aircraft was very good but after some time problems came up, problems that hurt its reliability. So, American manufacturers found space to move and create their own commercial jet airplanes. Boeing created the legendary 707 and Douglas the DC-8 but there was still great need in jet planes.

The passengers were able to pay something more to travel with speed and luxury. So, Howard Hughes, an eccentric shareholder of TWA, gave the idea to Convair to create a new jet plane that could carry passengers at high speeds and with comfort. Hughes also promised that TWA would buy a large number of these revolutionary aircraft.

The negotiations between Hughes and Convair were very difficult because Hughes wanted them to take place in secret locations and in strange times! Due to these peculiar factors the result of the negotiations was few aircraft sales. Despite that, Convair was convinced that with the support of Hughes, it could start the design of the Model 22 (Convair 880).

The first plans of Convair were to design an aircraft that would have golden paint instead of the classic silver. That's why the company would call this aircraft “Golden Arrow” and that would be the aircraft's trademark. Painting the aircrafts with gold paint was so difficult that Convair changed its plans without mentioning that. The new plane had 4 engines that could allow it to be one of the fastest planes.

At first, Convair 880 would use the Pratt & Whitney J57 but they were rejected and the aircraft decided to use the General Electric CJ-805, a civil version of the military engine J79 which was placed at the Convair B-58 Hustler. The new plane should be able to land and take off from small runways (about 5,000ft). Its speed was over 990km/h, making it one of the fastest planes ever. In addition, it had 5 seats at each row, instead of the 6 seats per row of the competition, one of the conditions of Hughes, something that increased the comfort but also the cost of every passenger per mile. The first delivery was done in January 1961 with 1,5 years delay.

TWA ordered about 30 aircrafts but while 18 of them were under construction, the airline announced that it couldn't pay Convair! That problem was solved and TWA obtained 27 aircrafts. The problem was that the orders were not enough and Convair was selling the aircraft at a very low price that was not able to cover the cost for its construction! Convair managed to sell only 47 aircrafts in the USA and should find new customers from abroad. Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and other airlines showed interest but finally, only 65 planes were constructed. It was then that Convair made another mistake by promising to American Airlines to develop an improved version of 880 for an order of 25 aircrafts, the Model 30 (Convair 990).

The new aircraft was using improved engines, the General Electric CJ-805-23B. Convair promised that the 990 would have maximum speed of 1,116km/h. The plane was designed with modern techniques so as to decrease the drag force. Simultaneously, measures were taken in order to increase the range of the aircraft. Despite the promised performance, only American Airlines, Swissair, SAS and Varig ordered it.

When the first 990's were completed in 1961, the results were disappointing. The aircraft didn't have the expected performance. The airlines were annoyed with that and SAS cancelled the order. The plane didn't have enough range (not even for a flight form the western coast of USA to the eastern) and speed was not the promised one. So, Convair had to urgently do something to fix the problems. So, the company did many modifications to the aircraft and informed the companies that in a year the aircraft would have the suitable performance. American Airlines used 20 aircrafts, instead of the 25 ordered, Swissair used 8 and Varig 3. Only 35 Convair 990 were constructed (including aircrafts that were not delivered) and the last commercial flight of the type was done in 1987.

Convair lost in the programme of 880/990 more than 450 million dollars in 1962 prices! That price was a quarter of the total value of the company! The damage was very big. Despite that, Convair 880/990 was included at the best planes ever created! Their comfort, high speed and reliability made them very popular and every pilot wanted to fly them.

by Dimitris Papadogiannis




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


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BOAC Comet 1 "Yoke Victor" at Calcutta, 1954.
Pan Am DC-8-32 N815PA "Clipper Charger"
at Philadelphia, July 1962.
Delta Air Lines 880 landing at
Philadelphia in July 1962.

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.

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.
TWA 880 N824TW (msn 31) seen at
Philadelphia in July 1962. This aircraft
flew TWA's last scheduled 880 service on
June 15, 1974.
United Airlines Boeing 720 N7213U at Columbus, Ohio in April, 1972.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

A Northeast 880 in New York Idlewild during May of 1961.


WA 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.


The Convair 990


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American Airlines Boeing 707-123 making a water-injection takeoff at Los Angeles in June of 1960.
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).
American 990 N5608 (msn 18) applying
power to leave the gate in March, 1967. Columbus, Ohio
990 SE-DAZ, "Ring Viking" operated by SAS on lease from Swissair.
Modern Air Transport 990 N5625 (msn 19) originally delivered to Varig as PP-VJF.
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.

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.

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.

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 outstanding jet.

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

A view of the 990's wing, looking aft. This aircraft is the former HB-ICC of Swissair.

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

Aerlineas Peruanas (APSA) 990 OB-R-765 (msn 2) at Miami, in December, 1970.
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

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

An 880 that was converted to an executive interior and can be seen on staticdisplay 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. 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 operator.




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.
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.
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.



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. Elvis 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.



Written by
Tim Haskin

Works Referenced

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.

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.

“Convair 880 Project.” Team Convair. May 17, 2004
“Graceland Tours.”
Elvis Presley, the Official Site. May 17, 2004.
Swiss Transport Museum. May 17, 2004



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