The Convair 880 was a jet airliner produced by the Convair division of General Dynamics. It was designed to compete with the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 by being smaller and faster, a niche that failed to create demand. Only 65 880s were produced over the lifetime of the production run from 1959 to 1962, and General Dynamics eventually withdrew from the airliner market after considering the 880 project a failure. The Convair 990 was a stretched and faster variant of the 880.
Design and development
Convair began development of a medium-range commercial jet in April 1956, to compete with announced products from Boeing and Douglas. Initially the design was called the Skylark but the name was later changed to the Golden Arrow, then Convair 600 and then finally the 880, both numbers referring to its top speed of 600 mph (970 km/h) or 880 ft/s (268 m/s). It was powered by General Electric CJ-805-3 turbojets, a civilian version of the J79 which powered the F-104 Starfighter and F-4 Phantom.
The first production version, the Model 22, first flew on 27 January 1959; there was no prototype. After production started 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 final assembly of the 880 and 990 took place at the Convair facilities in San Diego, California.
The airliner never became widely used and the production line shut down after only three years. The 880's five-abreast seating made it unattractive to airlines while its greater speed came at the cost of increased fuel use, and Boeing was able to out-compete it with the Boeing 720, which could be sold much cheaper as it was a minimal modification of the existing 707.
General Dynamics lost around $185 million over the lifetime of the project, although some sources estimate much higher losses. It is generally agreed that the losses incurred in the Convair 880/990 were the largest losses incurred by a corporation up to that time. The aircraft was involved in 17 accidents and five hijackings.
A modified version of the 880 became the Convair 990 Coronado, produced in parallel between 1961 and 1963.
The design entered service with Delta Air Lines just over a year later, in May 1960, slightly modified as the 880-22m, having newer version 805-3B engines. 880s were flown by Alaska, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Japan, KLM, Northeast, Swissair, TWA and VIASA. One of Elvis Presley's private jets was an 880, formerly in commercial service with Delta. The last aircraft was withdrawn from commercial service by major operators in 1975.
As they left commercial service, many 880s were bought by American Jet Industries for various uses. One example was converted to freighter use in 1974, and flew until 1982 with various companies. Another was used to train FAA flight examiners until it was destroyed in a minor explosion in the cargo hold in 1995. Most of the remaining examples were scrapped in 2000. One was used as a movie prop for the Amazing Stories television program. The 58th Convair 880 is now serving as a restaurant in East London, South Africa.
The United States Navy purchased one 880 which was modified as an in-flight tanker. Unofficially designated UC-880, it was assigned to the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, and employed in Tomahawk cruise missile testing and refueling aircraft procedures. The UC-880 was destroyed in a cargo hold explosion test at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland in 1995.
According to renowned Convair 880/990 expert and author Niall Booth, there are only nine airframes left in the world as of December 2005 — five in the United States, and one each in Haiti, Portugal, Venezuela and South Africa. None are airworthy, and only one is properly preserved: Elvis Presley's Lisa Marie (named after his daughter), at Graceland in Memphis. One of the other four U.S. aircraft was subsequently cut up for scrap in April 2007, although the forward fuselage is being saved for use in a museum. The one existing in Portugal was placed near the Lisbon Airport and converted into a strip club until being sold for scrap. It was destroyed the April 28, 2008.
Published - July 2009
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