Convair Jetliners: The Early Jet Age ConcordeS

The desire to get from point A to point B as fast as possible is arguably the main impetus for air travel in the first place. The technological progression of air travel as a measure of speed has always outstripped other modes of transportation; when cars were capable of what would now be residential neighborhood speed limits and (few) trains capable of breaking the 100 MPH barrier, aircraft demonstrated not only being able to go at least a little bit faster but able to cut a direct line from one city to another. Today, cars routinely travel at high double-digit speeds and the latest experimental maglev trains promise airliner-like speed, but the preferred means of expedient transportation remains a Boeing or Airbus product at just under the sound barrier. At some point, however, the quest for speed hits economic barriers, and its price becomes increasingly harder to justify. The classic "speed kills the business model" story is the Concorde, but over a decade earlier the same lessons had already been learned, imposed by a madman who demanded the best beyond reason.

Above image credit NASA via Wikipedia. The information for this article comes from a variety of sources such as Wikipedia and others, but the bulk is accredited to Howard Hughes: Aviator by George J. Marrett. The information concerning Howard Hughes' relationship with TWA and the development of the Convair jetlines comes from this specific source.

Howard Hughes' eccentricity is without a doubt his most enduring legacy, a testament to just how larger-than-life a living character he was. Long before DiCaprio's and Scorcese's The Aviator Hughes' eccentricity had been long the subject of popular media well before, during and after his death at the cusp of the nation's bicentennial in virtual self-imposed exile. He was known as an extremely demanding and sometimes even threatening individual, and for applying his obsessive-compulsive quirks in aeronautical regimes were it simply didn't make any sense or even posed an outright danger. A life-long speed freak and personal holder of a number of aerial speed records, he saw the dawn of the jet age as an opportunity not for safer or more efficient airliners, but an opportunity to simply claim being faster than anybody else. Though he bought up Boeing's 707 and Douglas' DC-8 for his Trans World Airlines (TWA) just like any other airline CEO, he felt a need for something even more special. He contracted Convair (an unusual move for him, as both TWA and himself had a strong association with Lockheed) to develop a jetliner "at least 35 mph faster than either the 707 or DC-8" (Marrett 185). Otherwise, it needed to meet or beat the other specifications of either the 707 or DC-8, particularly in passenger accommodations. The 707 and DC-8 already were near or at the pinnacle of what subsonic aeronautical engineering can achieve at the time, so this was needless to say a tall order. One solution was to adopt the General Electric CJ-805, an unusual choice compared to the Pratt & Whitney JT3 engine that powered the Convair's competitors. Both were civilian versions of military high-performance turbojets, but the CJ-805 was in a noticeably different league powering almost exclusively Mach 2-capable designs (the Convair project would prove to be the almost exclusive subsonic and civilian application). A number of names for the ambitious airliner were kicked around; Convair wanted Skylark, Hughes wanted Golden Arrow and went so far as to prescribe a chemical treatment that would shade the aluminum skin a near-golden yellow. The chemical treatment didn't result in the exact shade Hughes wanted, and Continental Airlines put the kibosh on the name anyway as they felt it intruded into their "Golden Jet" copyright. The two parties eventually settled on a simple numeric - 880 - representing the plane's speed expressed in feet per second. Hughes agreed on the specs and the planes, committing to 30 of them in 1956. It was a commitment that Convair was wary of, given Hughes' dodgy reputation for on-time payments, and the project was a very significant risk to them. TWA was so far the sole customer for the 880, and TWA was still buying significant numbers of competing products. In fact, at around the same time, Hughes was busy buying nearly every Pratt & Whitney JT3-related artifact he can get his hands on in order to deny other airlines the engines and spares they needed. This apparently led to the Hughes Tool Company making the largest single order in its corporate history - a near half-billion dollar deal at the time.

Upon demonstration of the Convair 880 prototype, Hughes himself naturally demanded to be the flight's captain. They arrived at the plane in the middle of the desert, in a Chevy manufactured too early for air conditioning and with the windows rolled up - at Hughes' insistence. His exacting, inane stipulations did not extend to the test flight itself however - while not exactly putting the aircraft beyond its flight envelope, Hughes did demonstrate a complete disregard for air traffic control's very presence and performed maneuvers that would be disconcerting for people under the belief that airliners merely fly in straight lines. As test pilot John Knebel recalled to George Marrett, "He just flew the bird and rules be damned" (Marrett 191).

The 880 may have made Hughes happy - but it extended joy to few others, and Convair itself was noticeably hurting from the venture. Convair was completely justified in showing nervousness towards TWA's continued purchases of 707s and DC-8s. The 707 not only got the jump on the market ahead of the competition, but showed sufficient technological advancement - a generation ahead of jet age "early adopters" like the ill-fated DeHavilland DH-108 Comet - that the DC-8 and other contemporaries had little or nothing to show in performance advantage to explain their market tardiness. If the market was tough for even the established DC-8, the 880 even with its speed advantage was near-hopeless in a virtually completely saturated market. Its speed and thirsty engine choice also limited practical route options. That said, it did manage to find buyers outside of TWA. Delta Air Lines would become the second largest operator of the type and the only truly significant first-use domestic operator aside from TWA. It also gained a surprising number of foreign operators including Swissair, Venezuelan flag carrier VIASA and a few Japanese airlines including JAL. Perhaps the oddest operator of the type (besides Hughes himself) was another man known for bizarre behavior and eccentricities but famous in an industry that could almost possibly not been more unrelated to aviation - Elvis Presley. He bought an 880 for personal use and named it after his daughter; the airframe has the distinction of being one of only a handful of 880 survivors to this day, preserved at Presley's Graceland estate.

Convair Jetliners: The Early Jet Age ConcordeS

A closeup of Lisa Marie at Graceland; image credit Thomas R Machnitzki at Wikipedia

Convair tried to make one last go of the design in the form of the 990 Coronado (the number was not significant other than indicating an improvement over the 880). The primary difference between it and the 880 would be a new version of the CJ-805 engine that transformed it into a modern, efficient turbofan in slapping a high-bypass fanblade section on the aft portion of the engine, a feature that's quite literally backwards from normal practice. Another unusual feature was the employment of large pods stuck on the trailing edge of the wing and very reminiscent of the landing gear pods of contemporary Soviet bombers - just as on their Communist military counterparts, the function of these pods was to improve airflow in the hopes of improving both speed and fuel economy. While they were at it, the pods also increased fuel tankage to help the range issue. The 990 was more efficient than the 880 while still maintaining a 40 MPH speed advantage over updated competitors and Convair managed to attract American Airlines as a customer. However, by then the 707 and DC-8 had moved on to corresponding turbofan developments of the JT3 and more importantly introduced fuselage stretches to take better economic advantage of the increased engine power, while the 990 hardly changed size at all. American Airlines reduced their initial order and Convair was once again stuck in the same boat they had been with the 880. Once again, it found some success with foreign operators but the vast majority of users acquired their frames second-hand. Perhaps the most significant operator was NASA, who used just a single aircraft but used it well to help pioneer not only technological advancements for incorporation into future airliners, but extensive testing of systems that would see use on the Space Shuttle as well.

The failure of the 880 and 990 Coronado was devastating for Convair's finances. Just as with the Lockheed L-1011, it wasn't enough to sink the company (who had been acquired by General Dynamics before Hughes imposed his demands and was thus safe with military contracting) but it would ensure that the manufacturer would permanently exit the airliner business, a shocking turnaround after Convair had nearly dominated the short-haul market with its popular line of 240 through 440 series of twin piston airliners. In fact, the 240 series is still popular today with some operators in both piston and 540 turboprop form and was used by Northwest as recently as the mid 80s, decades after the type ceased production - in some practicality it's nearly as ubiquitous as the DC-3 it was intended to replace. The number of surviving 880s and 990s in total, however, need barely more than one hand to count. With so few produced and so few operators, combined with far superior competition, the majority of the ones that were made were unceremoniously scrapped and Convair through parent company General Dynamics eventually became a part of the Lockheed Martin defense juggernaut (which, as previously mentioned, itself was knocked out of the airliner business through failed ventures). As for Hughes himself, he would withdraw farther and farther from public view - which only made the scrutiny of the public eye pursue him with greater veracity. It was a battle Hughes would lose only posthumously as he spent his final days alone in a hotel room - a room sufficient enough that he might as well have been in his own universe. His legacies endure everywhere - patents that rival the number and usefulness of Edison's and Tesla's inventions, an aeronautical firm that pushed the envelope and cornered the early helicopter and guided munitions markets (and though since bought out by other firms, still does) and if nothing else through sheer weirdness worthy of Ripley's Believe it or Not though such creations as the Spruce Goose and dozens of record-breaking aircraft. The Convair 880 and 990 Coronado, however, would not be among them, and Hughes' quest for speed in the airliner market would only doom it to near-obscurity.

ADDENDUM: I have just been informed that the wing pods on the Convair 990 in fact did not contain extra fuel storage. The concept was tested but resulted in unacceptable wing flutter, so they were left vacant. I apologize for the factual error and lack of timeliness in correcting it.