Before the BAC-Aérospatiale Concorde was the fastest airliner in our skies, there was the subsonic Convair 990 Coronado. Just as with its supersonic friend, the Coronado was a complete failure. But why was that?
When it was released, the airline industry was growing tremendously. Each new day, airlines were becoming larger and were buying more airliners. So you’d think that the airliner would sell well…
In its two years of production, the airliner only sold 37 copies. In the same period, the contemporary Boeing 707 sold 192 copies, whilst the DC-8 sold 83 copies.
Why the 990 was developed
In the years following WWII, the vast majority of airliners were turboprops, with the largest and fastest being the likes of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser and the Lockheed Constellation among others.
However, WWII had also yielded some of the first jet engines, and with them, the first jet fighters. Whilst these fighters were often temperamental, aircraft manufacturers were looking for ways to introduce them to the civilian market as well.
In 1952, British aircraft manufacturer de Havilland released the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first commercial jet airliner. Boeing and Douglas followed suit in 1958 and 1959 respectively.
In May 1960, Convair had introduced their first jet airliner, which they called the Convair 880. Initially, the aircraft sold very well, being used by airlines all over the world within a matter of years.
Airlines clamored to buy these new aircraft, as they were not only bigger than most of their competitors but were so much faster. By being faster, they could perform more flights, and therefore, make the airline more money.
However, these airliners often had a shorter range than turboprop airliners of the same size. For instance, first-generation jet airliners often couldn’t fly transcontinental, something that airlines desperately wanted.
Aircraft manufacturers tried their hardest to redevelop their original jet airliners for this purpose, but progress was often slow. As such, American Airlines demanded a brand new aircraft that could be developed quickly.
American Airlines, whilst not an operator of the Convair 880, had evaluated it on several occasions. The range of the 880 was desirable, but the 880 didn’t carry enough people to make their New York City-Los Angeles route profitable.
And they told Convair as much. Within only a few months of the Convair 880 going to market, Convair engineers were already looking at how to extend the fuselage and shave off weight.
Convair engineers also switched out the General Electric CJ-805-3 turbojets, found on the Convair 880, for newer and more powerful General Electric CJ-805-23s. This increased the speed and extended the aircraft’s range.
On top of this, the trailing edge of the wing was redesigned to be more aerodynamic. This helped to increase the aircraft’s range and speed, as well as make it more fuel-efficient.
To the same end, anti-shock bodies were added onto the aircraft’s wings. These anti-shock bodies also doubled as additional fuel tanks, which allowed the aircraft to travel further than it would have otherwise.
Initially, this aircraft was going to be a variant of the Convair 880. However, by the end of the design process, the two aircraft were incredibly different from one another, so Convair chose to call the new aircraft the Convair 990.
This aircraft had the internal company designation of the CV-990, whereas the Convair 880 had the internal company designation of the CV-880.
The Convair 990’s flight tests would begin in late 1960, before the aircraft’s first flight on January 23, 1961. The aircraft would be introduced later that same year.
Despite being considered one of the most unsuccessful aircraft of all time, the Convair 990 has still had a fairly intriguing service life.
For the most part, this has been as a commercial airliner, but as with other early jet airliners, the Coronado has been used in many other roles as well!
The Convair 990 first entered service with American Airlines in 1962. Originally, their order had been quite large, however, the Coronado hadn’t lived up to expectations, and their order was reduced significantly.
In an attempt to try to win back American Airlines, Convair released the CV-990A, which did fit their expectations. However, American Airlines never operated it, in favor of the Boeing-made 707.
In 1962, Swissair caught wind of the CV-990A and decided to buy eight of them. Within a year, Swissair was operating CV-990As on their long-distance, South American, African and European routes.
Only Swissair would officially call their Convair 990’s “Coronado”, although, most people referred to the type as the “Coronado”, even if they weren’t used by Swissair.
Throughout the 1960s, Scandinavian Airlines (now part of the SAS Group) operated a fleet of CV-990As. Both Scandinavian Airlines and Swissair would retire their fleets in the mid-1970s.
Brazil’s largest airline, Varig, was also an operator of the Coronado. However, in 1967, they sold their only Coronado to Alaskan Airlines, to save themselves from going bankrupt. Alaskan would operate it until 1975.
In the late 1960s, charter airlines began popping up all over Europe and North America. These airlines would operate larger airlines on high-demand routes, during peak times rather than all year round to cut down on costs.
For many of them, acquiring the aircraft themselves was the hardest task, not acquiring new customers. Most airlines were unwilling to sell older aircraft to them, and their bids of one or two aircraft to the manufacturers were often overlooked.
However, most airlines were happy to sell their Coronado fleets to them, especially in the late 1960s, and early 1970s. Here, the original airline could buy newer, larger, and more fuel-efficient airliners to replace the Coronado.
The charter airlines would get a well-maintained aircraft for a fraction of their original price!
One of the charter airlines that chose the Convair 990 was Spanish leisure airline Spantax. In May 1967, the airline bought four CV-990s from American Airlines, a further eight were added by 1972, and four more from Swissair in 1975.
This made Spantax the type’s largest operator. The airline would operate the Convair 990 until the mid-1980s.
Denver Port of Call, a Colorado-based charter airline, similarly operated a fleet of Convair 990s. Many of the Coronados that Spantax didn’t buy, went to DPOC, being operated by them until the mid-to-late 1980s.
At the time, charter airlines were designed to fly massive airliners to and from high-demand routes, during the empty slots. At the time, they did not operate private jet charters as are more common today.
At the time, the notion of state aircraft (such as Air Force One and Air Force Two) was becoming popular around the world. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US President started to use a C-117 (militarized 707) as his state aircraft.
Several other countries state leaders followed suit in the early 1960s. Whilst many ended up choosing large airliners produced in their own country, many did contemplate the Convair 880, 990, DC-8, and 707.
Years later, during the late 1980s, long after the Coronado had been retired, many multinational corporations began looking for bizliner corporate jets. Whilst the Convair 990 was debated, other bizliners were chosen.
On occasion, these companies chose traditional private jets as their corporate jet, instead.
In 1975, at the height of the Space Race, NASA began looking for an aircraft that could be used as a testbed for several of the systems that would be implemented on the Space Shuttle.
In particular, NASA wanted an aircraft that they could use to test the landing gear and braking systems that, if successful, would be used on the next generation of Space Shuttles.
To do this, NASA bought a former American Airlines Convair 990 that was being used by Modern Air Transport at the time. Here, all of the seats would be ripped out and the aircraft modified to run tests.
Once this had happened, the former American Airlines CV-990 became known as NASA’s CV-990 Landing System Research Aircraft (using the tail number NASA 810).
During the aircraft’s time at NASA, it was used to study the Space Shuttle’s tire, more specifically how it wore. Using this data, NASA redeveloped the Space Shuttle’s tires and knew how many flights it had to do before they needed to change them.
Tests involving the CV-990 and various types of runways allowed NASA to test which runway surface their tires lasted the longest on. This helped them to settle for reinforced concrete and tarmac.
How Safe Was The Convair 990?
The Convair 990 has been retired for well over 25 years, both as a commercial airliner and as a NASA research aircraft. To date, none are in airworthy condition, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever get to fly on one.
Nevertheless, it is still important to look at how safe/dangerous the Convair 990 was, compared to both turboprop and jet aircraft of the era, as well as by modern standards.
When the CV-990 was released, it was among the safest aircraft in the skies. Turboprop aircraft of the era were notoriously unreliable, however, airlines made do with the airliners as there was no other alternative.
Compared to most other jet airliners of the era, such as the 707, DC-8, Convair 880, and de Havilland Comet, the Convair 990 was slightly on the more dangerous side, but not by a great deal.
In its total time in the sky, the CV-990 had a total of eight incidents (of 37 built) resulting in 384 fatalities and 30 serious injuries. The vast majority of them were for maintenance on the part of Spantax Airlines.
By modern standards, the Convair 990 is among the world’s most dangerous aircraft. If it was released today, the aircraft would likely have been grounded to ascertain the issue, whether it be poor maintenance or a manufacturing error.
Why Was the Coronado Such a Failure?
The Coronado was released in an era when airlines physically couldn’t buy enough aircraft, especially jet aircraft. Long ranges and high speeds were what sold aircraft, almost as much as the number of seats did.
So the fact that the Coronado only sold 37 copies makes it arguably the most unsuccessful aircraft in history. To add insult to injury, it is almost certainly the most unsuccessful jet aircraft to have ever been mass-produced to date.
There were several reasons why the Convair 990 failed so drastically.
For starters, Convair had never produced a civilian aircraft before. The company’s predecessors, Consolidated Aircraft and Vultee Aircraft had only produced small numbers of piston airliners, but that was over thirty years previously.
Airlines simply didn’t know how safe and reliable the aircraft would be. And Convair didn’t know how to market their aircraft to the modern airline industry, which helped to reduce their number of sales.
When Convair did market the Convair 990, they marketed it as though it would be the best airliner in history. In doing so, they grossly overestimated everything with the aircraft, and thus, lost sales when those specs didn’t materialize.
Then there’s also the fact that whilst it flew faster, and had the longer range (albeit temporarily), it flew fewer passengers than other jets like the 707 and DC-8.
As such, many airlines preferred a two-leg journey, as they still made more profit than they would have with the CV-990.
Despite being such an incredible failure, the Coronado did leave a rather sizable impact on the aviation industry as a whole, even if that impact wasn’t seen right away!
|Length||139 ft 9 in (42.60 m)|
|Wingspan||120 ft (37 m)|
|Height||39 ft 6 in (12.04 m)|
|Cruise Speed||0.84 Mach (896 km/h, 557 mph, 484 kn)|
|Range||3,302 nmi (3,800 mi, 6,115 km)|
|Service Ceiling||41,000 ft (12,000 m)|
|MTOW||253,000 lb (114,759 kg)|