1/27/1959: First Flight of the Convair 880

1/27/1959: First Flight of the Convair 880

DALLAS – Today in Aviation, the first example of the initial production version of Model 22 of the Convair 880 made its maiden flight in 1959.

The Convair 880 was an American narrow-body jet airliner manufactured by General Dynamics’ Convair division. By being smaller but quicker, a niche that failed to generate demand, it was intended to compete with the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. 

When it was first launched, some aviation circles reported that it was the world’s fastest jet transport at 615 mph (990 km/h). Only 65 Convair 880s were produced over the lifetime of the production run from 1959 to 1962, and after finding the Convair 880 project a disappointment, General Dynamics gradually withdrew from the airliner market. 

Roll out of the prototype. Photo: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Convair 880 Development

In April 1956, to compete with announced products from Boeing and Douglas, Convair began the development of a medium-range commercial aircraft. The concept was originally named the ‘Skylark’, but the name was later changed to the ‘Golden Arrow’ and then the Convair 600, and then the 880, both numbers referring to its maximum speed of 600 mph (970 km/h) or 880 ft/s (268 m/s). 

The Convair 880 was powered by CJ-805-3 turbojets from General Electric, a civilian variant of the J79 that powered the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, and Convair B-58 Hustler.

Convair 880 prototype. Photo: Delta Flight Museum.

Maiden Flight

On January 27, 1959, as no prototype was built, the initial production version of Model 22 took its first flight. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requested additional instrumentation after development began, which Convair added by putting a “raceway” hump on the top of the fuselage instead of cutting apart the interiors over the wing section. 

The final assembly of the Convair 880 and 990 took place in San Diego, California, at the Convair facilities. After just three years, however, the airliner never became widely used, and the production line shut down. 

Flight Attendants from the Convair 880s launch customers. Photo: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Design Modifications

At the time of its launch, the five-abreast seating of the Convair 880 rendered it unattractive to airlines. Boeing was able to out-compete the type with its Boeing 720, which could be sold at a slightly lower cost, as the new 707 was minimally changed. Furthermore, the basic fuel consumption of the General Electric engines was higher than that of the Boeing Pratt & Whitney JT3Cs.

Alas, General Dynamics lost around US$185m over the project’s lifetime, and the type was involved in 17 accidents and five hijackings. A modified version of the 880 was the ‘-M’, which incorporated four leading-edge slats per wing, Krueger leading-edge flaps between the fuselage and inboard engines, power-boosted rudder, added engine thrust, increased fuel capacity, stronger landing gear, greater adjustment to seating pitch, and a simpler overhead compartment arrangement. 

Another major modification to the 880 took its form in the Convair 990, produced in parallel with the 880-M between 1961 and 1963. Swissair named it Coronado, after an island off the San Diego coast where the first 990 landed.

Alaska Airlines Convair 880. Photo: Convair, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Convair 880 Operations

In May 1960, the model came into service with Delta Air Lines (DL), slightly updated as the 880-22m, with newer 805-3B engines. Cathay Pacific (CX), Japan Airlines (JL), Northeast (NE), Swissair (SR), TWA (TW), and Venezuela’s defunct VIASA also flew the type.

Additionally, many Convair 880s were purchased for different uses by American Jet Industries when the aircraft left commercial service. One example was converted in 1974 to freighter use and flew with varying companies until 1982. Another was used to train FAA flight examiners until a small explosion in the cargo hold in 1995 destroyed the type. By 2000, most of the remaining examples were scrapped.

Photo: Nasa.

Naval Testing Aircraft

Finally, one 880-M was purchased by the United States Navy in 1980, modifying it as an in-flight tanker. The FAA bought it new from Convair and used it for 18 years. 

The type was assigned to the Naval Air Test Center at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, and engaged in Tomahawk Cruise Missile testing and aircraft refueling procedures.  

In 1995, the single UC-880 was destroyed at NAS in a cargo hold explosive decompression drill. The aircraft remained technically controllable via backup systems unique to 880 and 990.

Featured Image: Convair 880 air-to-air. Photo: Convair, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Be sure to check out our May and June 2017 issues, where Charles Kennedy traces the development, growth and fate of the Convair 880 and 990s.

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Chief Online Editor at Airways Magazine, AVSEC interpreter, and visual artist. I am a grammar and sci-fi literature geek who loves editing text and film.

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