Convair’s 880 and 990 airliners demonstrated that faster wasn’t always better when it came to passenger transport.

In the early 1960s I was an editor at the travel magazine Holiday. As a geeky young aviation enthusiast, I was assigned all the dog-and-pony shows that had anything to do with airplanes. So one day my boss said, “Show up at Idlewild [as New York’s JFK was called in those days] tomorrow morning for this thing,” tossing me an invitation to take a ride in an airliner.

The airplane turned out to be a Convair 990, essentially a stretched and up-engined 880. We took off and climbed to altitude, then turned around, crossed the airport going like Billy-be-damned and headed for Boston, 190 miles to the northeast.

We journalists were sitting up front, in the first-class section, and in those pre-9/11 days the cockpit door was open. I remember hearing the Mach-overspeed bell going off several times as the crew nudged the slim, four-engine jet up against forbidden territory (a 990’s Vne—never-exceed speed—was Mach .94, or 721 mph). Fifteen minutes later, with the help of a tailwind, we streaked over Boston Logan Airport aboard what to this day was the fastest commercial jet ever to carry passengers other than the Concorde and, briefly, the Tupolev Tu-144. Fifteen minutes to cover a stretch that I had driven numberless times between college and home in five hours.

The Convair 990 was the faster airplane, but the 880 (shown here) could still cruise at 615 mph. (San Diego Air & Space Museum)
The Convair 990 was the faster airplane, but the 880 (shown here) could still cruise at 615 mph. (San Diego Air & Space Museum)

Yet this and its more numerous 880 sister ships were the airplanes that promptly put Convair owner General Dynamics out of the airline business and sent it packing to its previous specialty: building delta-wing wonders like the F-106 and B-58 Hustler for the U.S. Air Force. The 880/990 project cost GD a $185 million loss (more than $1.5 billion in today’s dollars), though some estimates are far higher. The demo flight I took was a desperate attempt by Convair to remind travel writers of the need for speed, but by that time nobody cared. Boeing bet the farm on the 707 and won. General Dynamics bet on the 880/990 and lost. 

Convair had imagined a niche in the jet airliner market where none existed: a narrower and shorter, medium-range four-engine jet that would be faster than the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, thanks to a fuselage cross-section that held just five seats and an aisle. Fuel was cheap in those days, and at the cost of some extra kerosene, impatient travelers could typically save 15 minutes on some trips. 

Convair had wanted to call the airliner the Skylark, until somebody reminded them there was already a single-engine Cessna with that name. Then, at the behest of Howard Hughes, they chose Golden Arrow and considered anodizing the entire airplane gold. Finally, to stay within the aviation tradition of alphanumeric designators, some slipstick-happy engineer came up with 880: the number of feet per second the airplane traveled at its max cruise of 615 mph.

Hughes had ordered 880s for TWA, the airline that he controlled, and the airplane became his downfall as well. He bought them for the Hughes Tool Company, his fortune-creating manufacturer of oil-drilling bits, and then leased them back to TWA at a sky-high price. A stockholder revolt put an end to that fiddle as well as to Hughes’ control of the airline.

The airplane’s speed was in part due to its thin, fast wings and their substantial sweep of almost 40 degrees. Boeing 707 wings were swept 35 degrees, and DC-8s stayed at a conservative 30 degrees (making the Doug 20 mph slower than the Boeing). The 990 took the wings’ aerodynamics a step further with the addition of anti-shock bodies—four large pods like upside-down canoes stretching well past the trailing edge of each wing. Depending on which aerodynamicist you fancied, they were called either Whitcomb bodies or Küchemann carrots, but they in fact had been pioneered by the Soviet manufacturer Tupolev. Like Richard Whitcomb’s Area Rule, they cut down on wave drag at transonic speeds and made the thirsty airplanes a bit more efficient.

Anti-shock pods called Küchemann carrots or Whitcomb bodies cut down on wave drag at transonic speeds and helped give the 990 a speed edge. (San Diego Air & Space Museum)
Anti-shock pods called Küchemann carrots or Whitcomb bodies cut down on wave drag at transonic speeds and helped give the 990 a speed edge. (San Diego Air & Space Museum)

The 880’s General Electric CJ805 engines were civil versions of the J79s that powered B-58s, F-104s and F-4s, minus the afterburner. They were noticeably loud and, particularly on takeoff, as smoky as a Bolivian bus. Many assumed this was due to water injection, and some tower controllers called 880s water wagons. But the engines were not injected—they simply had badly designed burner cans. For the 990, the CJ805s were turned into turbofans, through the unusual device of mounting the bypass-air fan at the back of the engine, downstream from the hot section, rather than at the very front.

The most celebrated of all Convair 880s was Elvis Presley’s Lisa Marie, an ex-Delta transport that the King added to his eclectic fleet in 1975. Renovated with what in that pre-Trump era was considered extreme—including gold-plated toilet fixtures—Presley’s Convair served alongside his Lockheed JetStar and Falcon 20. (The JetStar was noted for having as its chief pilot the aptly named Milo High.)

Lisa Marie remains on display at Graceland, in Memphis, despite at least one attempt to auction it off. It is one of only two intact Convair 880s left in the world. The other is parked at Mojave, Calif., owned by a company that supplies the film industry with aviation mockups and aircraft. Only 65 880s were manufactured, in an era when 500 airliner units was considered the break-even point, along with 37 990s.

The Convair 880’s most important contribution to aviation may have been that it was largely responsible for the Federal Aviation Administration deciding that airline flight training should be carried out in simulators rather than airplanes. In May 1960, a Delta 880 on a training flight to type-rate two new captains crashed on takeoff from Atlanta Municipal Airport, killing all four crewmen. An FAA check pilot had zero-thrusted both left engines after rotation, and the airplane became unrecoverable.  

This article appeared in the January 2021 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here!