Happy Birthday! As of April 1, 2011, Cargo Facts is thirty years old. Our first print edition was published in the Spring of 1981. Accordingly we’ll be highlighting many scenes from our history this month – including this most unusual freighter.
The Convair 880 was General Dynamics’ answer to the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, a smaller, faster plane designed to outpace those two pioneers. It debuted in January, 1959 and was first placed into service by Delta. But from the outset, there were issues. For one thing, fuel consumption was atrocious – even in those days when gas was cheap, the 880 had fuel burn and range issues.
It was, however, the fastest of the first-generation jets, owing partially to aerodynamics and partially to the GE CJ-805-3 engines, simplified civilian versions of the J79 engine that powered Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter. Delta once flew the 880 from San Diego to Miami in a hair over three and a half hours.
Those were a smoky three and a half hours though, as the 880 was famous for leaving dark black trails of soot in its wake.
Worse yet, it was too small – carrying fewer paying fares than either the 707 or the DC-8. When Boeing launched the shortened 720, it destroyed whatever market the 880 had.
But with competition extremely stiff from Boeing and Douglas, just 65 880s, and 37 of the enlarged 990, were built before General Dymamics threw in the towel in 1963.
But that was not the end of the 880s, which were in commercial service for another 25 years with various operators, particularly TWA, Swissair, Spantax, and a huge variety of charter companies.
In the 1970s, several of the 880s made their way to American Jet Industries, which in 1978 became Gulfstream American, after procuring the Gulfstream aircraft line from Grumman. Ironically, Gulfstream became part of General Dynamics in 1999.
But some of the American Jet Industries Convairs were convereted to freighters, including N817AJ, the fourth 880 ever built which was delivered to Delta on December 13, 1960. About the size of a Boeing 737-800, the 880 wasn’t a very efficient or capacious freighter but a few of them did operate for a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This photo was probably taken in the summer of 1981, as the aircraft is purported to have been painted in these colors on August 3 of that year. It had previously also served with Lanica as a passenger aircraft. Profit Airlines is a bit of mystery company but several operators ran these aircraft in these colors at that time. The actual operator is reported to have been Central American Airways, a charter company then based in Louisville which was also operating another 880 (#46) and a DC-3/C-47 at the time.
Withdrawn from use in December of 1984, N817AJ was broken up in the late 90s. Few Convair 880s remain in existence, and none are still flying. One is preserved in Switzerland and another at, of all places – Graceland, in Tennessee (“Lisa Marie” – it was Elvis’ personal plane).