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Convair 990

By Patrick Mondout

The Convair 990 Coronado was an enhanced version of the Convair 880. Specifically, it was 10 feet longer, could hold as many as 39 more passengers, and has anti-shock bodies extending back from the trailing edge of the wing (see picture below).

General Dynamics, the parent company of Convair, was the third American aerospace company to enter the jet race behind Boeing with its 707 and Douglas with its DC-9. Being third was a distinct disadvantage as most airlines had already purchased jets before the first Convair ever flew. However, Convair believed it could win with a jet that would be the fastest civilian aircraft in the skies.


Note the unique large anti-shock fairings (used to hold fuel) mounted on the trailing edge of the wing.


Image courtesty NASA/Dryden RC


Convair's grand scheme began in 1956 when it announced plans for the medium-range jet and by 1959, they were flying the prototype around their San Diego facility.

Speed Racer

In 1959, Braniff Airlines managed to score some Boeing 707-120s with the new powerful Pratt & Whitney JT4 engines that were designed for the intercontinental version of the plane (707-320). Braniff's CEO Chuck Beard called them "The Jet with the Big Engines" and crowed about how he had the fastest jets.

American Airlines president C.R. Smith was not about to let that lead stand unchallenged and ordered 25 jets from Convair that were contractually guarenteed to be the fastest ever cruising at a cool 635 mph. He also saw these jets as the aircraft for his planned nonstop coast-to-coast service. The Convair 600 - as it was then known - promised to shave 45 minutes off the cross country times of the Boeings of TWA or the DC-8s of United.

Convair ran into a series of problems with the newly designed aircraft which gave Boeing the time it needed to introduce faster aircraft. Convair's problems included the fact that the aircraft they came up with could only cruise at 584 mph without major modifications.

Boeing and Douglas were making fewer aircraft than they were selling and American felt they had no choice but to stick with Convair. They did, however, cancel the last five of its original order of 25 after the performance problems were discovered (and they received millions back from Convair for the latter's inability to meet the guarantee). Of the 20, 15 were purchased with a new performance guarantee of 584 mph while Convair promised to modify the final five so they'd be able to cruise at 620 mph (American later modified the other 15 itself).

Further delays meant that American was unable to take delivery of the aircraft it had ordered to compete with Braniff in 1959 until January of 1962! Worse, the longest flight an American 990 ever made was among the last - a New York to Phoenix flight in 1968. No coast to coast service was ever offered.

American was still unhappy as this gave them an aircraft that cruised no faster than its (or its competitors) 707/720s but used more fuel and flew less passengers. American sold off all of its 990s within seven years (with the exception of one lost in a fire*).

Convair 990 Coronado

Image courtesy NASA/Dryden


The King is dead - and so are most 990s

Elvis Presley bought a former Delta Convair 990 on April 18, 1975 and named it Lisa Marie. It is now on display at Graceland - one of the few places on this planet where you can see one today. (Most have been scrapped or are sitting in various states of disrepair in the various desert graveyards dedicated to the storage of unneeded airliners.)

Today the Convairs are remembered by American airline executives as a complete failure that was expensive to fly and maintain and by pilots as a powerful aircraft that was a joy to fly and deserved a better fate.

Convair 990 fans should seek out Jon Proctor's excellent but now out-of-print book that was produced as Volume 1 of the Great Airliners Series from World Transport Press.

*One remarkable statistic about the Convair 880s is just how many of them were destroyed in training exercises. Five (Delta N8804E, JAL JA8023, TWA N820TW, JDA JA8030, JAL JA8028) of the 65 built were destroyed during pilot training.

Convair 990 at a Glance
Engines4 GE CJ-805-23 turbofans
Cruising Speed621
Length139ft 5in
Height39ft 6in
Final ProductionSeptember 3, 1963
Mesurements refer to 990A Coronado (all 990s were shipped as or coverted to this)


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about the Convair 990? Were you a member of the flight crew on one? Have you any interesting stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"I flew on a Swissair CV990A "Coronado" (HB-ICA)between Geneva and Bangkok in 1964. What is still vivid in my mind is the planes tremendous acceleration on take off. It really threw you back into your seat and made a hell of a racket. I have never felt anything like it since, even on a B777 or B747.
One of the stops on this flight was Bombay in India. A violent and very spectacular thunderstorm (lots of lightning) was fast approaching the airfield as we taxied out and not wanting to get caught in it, or on the ground by it, the pilot did a full power "ballistic" climb to cruise altitude (36,000 feet). Took off, gear up jet fighter style the moment we left the ground, nose up into a steep climb and full throttle on all the way up! It was a real buzz.
I was thrilled to be allowed up into the cockpit during the flight and remember the captain (He and his crew took over the plane at Bombay) telling me that it was the only airplane that he had flown (outside Hawker Hunters for the Swiss Airforce) that gave him a "hair standing up on the back of the neck buzz " through its "kick in the back" power when the engines were spooled up for takeoff.
I remember that it was very noisy on take off. (I am reminded of the 990A when ever I hear a military jet take off at an airshow) The pilot who let me into the cockpit was also rated on Caravelles and DC8's, but said that he preferred the 990A.
It was nicknamed "the Maserati of the air" by captain Rudolpho Bay, founder of "Spantax" because of its power and speed and it still holds many point to point speed records for airliners. Captain Bay once said that "Once you flew a Coronado, you would never want to fly anything else."
I agree"

--David Wood

"I observed many 990s taking off and landing in San Diego through a couple decades. The most recent operations I witnessed were Denver Ports of Call jets. What truly impressed me about these rakish space-age airplanes was their fast takeoffs. They looked like they were going so fast that the tires might catch on fire, then rotation and climb. In just a few moments they'd be way, way up like a dart in the clouds. I recall their left departure over Mexico taking mere seconds. I could see their rather high speed up there too. But alas they were out of sight."


"My stepfather tells a story of being invited into the cockpit of a 990 during a cruise across the country. He was a pilot and back then, such things were commonplace. He says the thing was doing a solid Mach 1 with passengers on board. Can anyone else substantiate such a claim from personal experience? Thank you."

--thomash520 @ earthlinknet

"As a 13-year old, I flew in a Convair 990 from Dulles, near Washington, DC, to Texas. I can't remember if we flew in to Love Field or the old Greater Southwest airport. I do remember the a/c having a series of black and white TV monitors in the cabin connected to a camera which must have been attached to the could see fuzzy b&w pictures at takeoff and landing."


"The Convair 990 was known for it's speed. Extremely fast. To this day probably the only airliner that could beat it would be the SST."


"The 880s and 990s had several disadvantages, (over the rival DC-8 and 707) the most important was passenger capacity. This was the largest contribution to its failure. The 990 only had seats for only 106 passengers. While the 707 could carry 202, and DC-8 (before the super 60 series) 179. So it probably was not as cost efficent to operate."


"Convair's use of a thick skin made them extremely quiet inside while cruising. Also the takeoff experience was amazing. I also thought the flight deck was fighter like.
All Convair airliners were built in San Diego (in plant one and two), except for a few Convairliners (twins) produced under contract out of the country.
The first flight of a 990 was from San Diego to North Island Naval Air Station. And that was its home for testing prior to the FAA testing at the Flight Test Facility at Edwards AFB. The test pilots were Don Germeraad (Chief) and Phil Prophet.
The Convair B-58 was powered by GE Turbojets, as were the 880s. 990s had that engine with a ducted aft-fan at the rear."


"I was First Officer, for the CV990A, for APSA Peru airlines, this airplane was the Cadillac of the air."


"I remember (in early 1970) returning to boarding school in Switzerland from X-mas holidays in Sweden, how I travelled the last leg (Zurich to Geneva) aboard a Swissair Coronado, destined for Monrovia (Africa), and how pleasant the flight, crew, and airplane were. I was especially thrilled with the way the flight attendants catered us passengers and was absolutely appalled when -a month later- one of the planes (the same one?) was blown up in mid air by terrorists. This has got to be the ultimate form of COWARDICE!"

--Kim Gabrielsson

"In your listing of airlines using the 990, I'm surprised you missed Northeast Airlines (NEA). They had ONE. I was surprised to learn they even had THAT one, as their fleet was mostly FH-227's, and referred to as "Yellow Birds" due to the yellow and white color scheme. When Delta Air Lines purchased NEA, the 990, it seems, was already a gonner. Too bad... as a Delta employee, I was looking forward to actually seeing it. Another site is selling an 880 model in NEA colors, but I must say, I don't remember them having any of them."


"In looking back over my history of air travel, having flown aboard a large majority of the commercial jet liners ever built, I guess i consider myself lucky to have been aboard a Convair 990 in 1964, as i emmigrated from S. America to the U.S.

I was aboard one operated by the Brasilian airline Varig. Boarding it in Sao Paulo, after a lengthy delay on the ground prior to departure awaiting the replacement of an engine part, my journey to a new land and life began. During an era relatively free from, among other things, current security restrictions, i had the enviable privilege of being granted permission to make a very brief visit to the cockpit during our flight. The trip was smooth & without incident, making several stops along the way. Dont travel much by air these days so each opportunity is certainly special and memorable. I havent forgotten my trip aboard the Convair 990."


"Back in the early Super70s I recall flying on an American Airlines 990 from Cincinnati (CVG) to Kennedy (JFK). What was memorable, besides the flight attendants (they were called stewardesses back then) being beautiful, was that the trip took exactly 45 minutes. As the distance from CVG to JFK was 580 statute miles, we were bombing along at a ground speed of 773 mph. It was by far, my fastest time ever on this route. "


"I remember a school trip to Idlewild International Airport when I was in the 9th grade. One of my classmates' older brother was a junior exec. with American Airlines. We were given a complete tour inside and out of a new 990 Astrojet. It was the first time I was ever on a jet. I'll never forget it. Commercial air travel in the 60's was so different. Flying was still for the well to do."




Image courtesy NASA/Dryden RC

Model: 990

Manufacturer: Convair

Country: US

First Flight: January 24, 1961

First Passenger Flight: March 18, 1962

Launch Customer: TWA

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