The History Of The Convair 990 Coronado

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Before the British/French-built Concorde defined what it was like to fly fast, another plane tried to push the limits of speed. This aircraft was the Convair 990 Coronado. Outside of the box engineering allowed it to cruise faster than any other airliner that came before it and quicker than any plane we have today.

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The Convair 990 was the fastest subsonic airliner. Photo: Getty Images

All of this is amazing when you consider it was developed in the early 1960s for transcontinental flights. While it might have been busy breaking speed records, it was also breaking the bank.

The 990 was built following a request from American Airlines

Built by a division of General Dynamics in response to a request from American Airlines, the Convair 990 Coronado was a stretched version of the company’s earlier Convair 880.
The Convair 990 Coronado was 10 feet longer than the 880 allowing for between eight and eleven more passengers, which equated to between 96 and 121.

Despite the increase in passenger numbers, the plane was still unable to match the capacity of the Boeing 707 (110-189) or the Douglas DC-8 (105 to 173). The one advantage the Convair 990 had over its rivals was speed being 25 to 35 mph faster while cruising.

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Coffee service on a SAS DC-8 in 1960. Photo: SAS

Speed, luxury, and sky lounges defined flying in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These factors are something that General Dynamics thought it had in abundance with the four-engine Convair 990. Looking to get a step up on its competitors, American Airlines asked planemakers if it could build a plane capable of flying from New York to Los Angeles 45 minutes quicker than was available at the time.

Boeing was not interested in building a plane faster than the 707

Boeing immediately refused with its engineers saying that it was already pushing the limits of subsonic speed with the 707. Convair, however, differed. It told American Airlines that it could build a plane that was capable of cruising at 635 mph ( 1,022 km/h). Convair even backed their new jet with guarantees to pay American Airlines millions of dollars in penalties if the Convair 990 was not as fast as it promised it would be.

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Boeing was not interested in building a fast plane with the 707 filling its order book. Photo: Getty

To understand why Convair was prepared to take on such a challenge, you must realize what it was competing against. The Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC8 were the first American built commercial jetliners. Moreover, virtually overnight, they transformed the way people traveled with their larger size, higher efficiency, and increased range. Additionally, at the same time, they were making huge profits.

Seating inside a Swiss Air Convair 990. Photo: James Petts via Flickr

The two big boys were not alone with Convair introducing the 880 after having success with propeller-driven planes and military aircraft. The 880 looked very similar to the 707 and DC8. However, Convair went after a different market segment touting the 880 as being a faster, more luxurious medium-range jet. While this market existed, it was minuscule compared to the market Boeing and Douglas were after.

Convair was convinced it could build a plane capable of cruising at 635 mph

Even before the first 880 rolled off the production line in San Diego, Convair knew it was destined to fail. While orders for the Boeing 707 and DC8 started to fill the books, Convair struggled to sell its smaller jet.

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Having spent millions in the 880s development, Convair jumped at the opportunity when American Airlines asked for a fast airliner. the firm was convinced that it would be able to make the 880 larger and faster despite Boeing’s misgivings.

The History Of The Convair 990 Coronado
American Airlines wanted a faster plane for transcontinental flights. Photo: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive via Flickr

Boeing engineers already knew that the 707 was at or near the limit of subsonic speed. Therefore, it did not want to push the envelope further. Before subsonic becomes sonic, you must first pass through what is known as transonic.

This is a speed regime which dramatically increases the drag on an aircraft. With increased drag comes less efficiency and a loss of range. Therefore, Convair needed to put its thinking cap on. The new plane would not only need to be fast; it would also have to be able to fly further than the 880.

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For this to happen, the 990 was given more powerful engines by adding a separate fan system into the engine’s exhaust. This move created the world’s first turbofan airliner. To counter transonic drag, the aircraft had a new 39 degree swept wing and large anti-shock bodies that would be used for additional fuel storage.

Flaws started to appear

On paper, it appeared as though Convair had designed the world’s fastest airliner.
When the 990 first took to the skies in January of 1961, problems started to appear with the plane unable to cruise at 635mph. This was due to turbulence around the inboard engines that interfered with the effectiveness of the elevators.

Together with this, numerous flaws started to appear with excessive drag occurring in all areas all around the aircraft. As Convair was busy trying to resolve the plane’s problems, American Airlines were desperate for aircraft, calling the company back to the negotiating table to reduce its order.

Additionally, the airline said that the first 15 of its order did not need to fly at 635 mph. The remaining five aircraft would still need to be fast but with a lower speed of 620mph. Convair, however, did not give up on its promise producing the 990A, which was capable of meeting the speed it had initially promised.

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The Convair 990 was the worlds fastest airliner

While Convair had now built the world’s fastest airliner, it did not matter so much. Altogether, Boeing and Douglas had established themselves as the major players. After losing half a billion dollars in the development of the 880 and 990, it turned out that the plane’s speed and comfort were not enough.

Airlines wanted a fuel-efficient long-range capable jet that could carry hundreds of passengers thousands of miles. Following the disaster of the Convair commercial airliner program, the company never produced another civilian passenger plane. Despite this, the 880 and especially the 990 went on to earn legendary status. This was partly because they were rare and not in operation long.

The Convair 990 was the end of an era

A bit like what we are seeing with the Airbus A340 today, the oil crisis in the early 1970s had airlines desperate to get rid of their gas-guzzling Convairs. These jets effectively marked the end of an era when flying was restricted mainly to the wealthy and when airlines were more interested in speed than efficiency.

Swiss Air 990
Swiss Air was the only airline to dub the 990 the “Coronado.” Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives via Wikimedia

The Convair 990 assembly line shut down in 1963, with only 37 aircraft built. American Airlines and Swiss Air were the primary purchasers of these planes. TWA and Delta Air Lines meanwhile operated the smaller 880 version. Swiss Air purchased eight 990s and was the only airline to call it “Coronado.”

Did you ever get to fly on the Convair 990? If so, please tell us what you thought about it in the comments.

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