Convair in flight
6 min read

My very first ride on a jet airplane was on my trip to Kansas City, Missouri, for a job interview with TWA in 1963. There was a pass waiting for me at the Chicago TWA ticket counter, and the plane was a Convair 880. They put me in first class—I didn’t know there was any other, at the time. The hostess’s name was Mary. (TWA never used the term “stewardess;” we didn’t even use “flight attendant” until we started hiring males in the late ‘60s.) When Mary asked if I cared for a snack, all I could think of was my dad warning me never to eat anything on a train as it would be ridiculously expensive. I figured a plane would be even worse, so I politely declined.

When Mary finished her first class service, she again asked me if I was sure I would not like a snack. “It’s free,” she said. Oh, well, I allowed that perhaps I would. It was delicious and could have qualified as a lunch, the way airline food used to be.

Convair 880

The Convair 880 was the fastest of the first-generation jet airliners.

I thought the ride was great. But never, in my wildest dreams could I have imagined, that I would be flying one of these in a matter of months!

My first job with TWA was as a Chicago-based “jet second officer.” The second officer position was created because the Airline Pilots Assn. (ALPA), the TWA pilot’s union, demanded that the new jets be staffed with three pilots. Most of the senior jet flight engineers (basically mechanics) who had progressed to the Lockheed Constellation flight engineer position were not pilot-qualified. Therefore, guys like me were given the F/O ground school and copilot check-out, which suddenly made us “the third pilot!”

We rode in the jump seat behind the captain, mostly being ignored. The bright side of this was that I got to learn the operation and our company fairly well—without being under the pressure that I would have been as a “real” 880 copilot. Fortunately, at the rate TWA was expanding I was only a second officer for about eight months. I then went to Connie F/O training and flew it for a little less than a year before I was back in training as a CV-880 F/O. My first years with TWA were a rocket ride!

The 880 was on the cutting edge of technology for the time. It was the first to use chemical bonding of metals as opposed to mechanical fasteners. See the two production films, one from 1958, the other 1959, for an in-depth explanation.

Second officers weren’t allowed to fly. In my time as a an S/O I flew one, count ‘em, one short leg by a nice captain who warned me to, “Go easy; it’s held together only with glue.” I then flew the Convair 880 as an F/O from the summer of 1965 to the summer of 1967 and as captain from 1969 through 1973.

About everyone who flew the 880 fell in love with it because it was such a dream to hand fly. It did have a good autopilot and dual flight directors, and I think it was our first aircraft to receive approval for CAT II approaches. In my opinion it was the prettiest of the four engine jets.

The 880 was not without a few shortcomings. It used very high airspeeds on takeoff and landing as it had no wing leading edge high lift devices. It was a handful after losing an outboard engine at V1, and there was more than one training flight that ended up “in the mud.”

Most flight training and checking back then was done in the airplane until the advent of the wide body jets and the later generation of more sophisticated simulators with realistic visual and motion.

We did most of our flight training at Kansas City’s MCI, where our overhaul base was located. Airline operations were still at MKC, which today is Kansas City Wheeler Downtown Airport, a bizjet beehive almost within walking distance of downtown KC. All airline operations are now flown out of Mid-Continent International. (MCI).

The 880 did not have windshield wipers; it had what Convair called “rain clear,” which was hot engine compressor bleed air blasting them. It worked well but was terribly noisy and when you closed the throttles on landing it kind of pooped out when the engines spun down. In a heavy rain you had to get into reverse quickly to spin them up and get more air.

The 880 was the only plane I ever flew that had nose wheel brakes. Several conditions had to be met for them to operate: the nose strut had to be compressed, the wheels centered, and both brake pedals had to be depressed together. There were weight reduction penalties if it was inoperative. You could also drop the main gear only to use as speed brakes in an emergency descent. This could be done up to 375 kts or Mach .88.

The wing anti-icing was a hot leading edge heated with engine compressor bleed air and worked wonderfully. If I remember correctly, the tail leading edges were heated electrically.

Convair in flight

Like most “straight pipe” jets, the 880 did leave a trail of smoke.

Like most swept wing airplanes, it tended to get into Dutch roll so the yaw damper (the rudder channel of the autopilot) was always engaged just after takeoff and disengaged on touchdown.

It was smoky and noisy but so were the first 707s and DC-8s with their non-fan “straight pipe” engines. The later high bypass ratio engines were more powerful, much quieter, and didn’t smoke so much on takeoff. In the early days some of us called her “ole smoky” and to fly it was to be “On Top of Old Smoky,” which was a popular song around that time. And sometimes we called it a Corvair, or when talking to a 7 oh 7 pilot, one might say, “Oh, I’m flying the 8 oh 8!

The 880 was the fastest of the first-generation jet airliners. We could cruise it at Mach .85 and the Mmo was .88. Some thought that is where Convair came up with the number 880. Others thought it was because the passenger cabin had 88 seats and 88 windows. Your guess is as good as mine…

But the greatest thing that ever happened to me on the 880 was on a night flight from ORD to SFO, when the prettiest little hostess I’d ever seen came into the cockpit with coffees. Our layover was in San Francisco. Sharon and I had never heard of Don Ho, so I asked her to go and see what he was all about. We saw him in a lounge show. We loved him, but not as much as each other. We’ve now been married for 55 years and had three boys. Two became pro pilots and one is our Fire/Rescue Department Chief. To make up for a boy-only family, we now have six granddaughters.

Sharon is the only thing I ever stole from TWA.

Jeff Hill
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22 replies
  1. Terry Spath
    Terry Spath says:

    Thanks for a great article. I worked at Learjet and knew about adhesively bonded structure since it’s was used on the joint venture, Learjet/Piaggio GP180 that later became the Piaggio Avanti. Didn’t know it was pioneered by Convair. Also, I remember a note on a performance increment by use of nose wheel braking on my ATP written years ago but no one has ever been able to tell me about a real life example.

    Reply
  2. Sal M
    Sal M says:

    Jeff,

    Great story and love that you met your wife there. Quick question, out of all the types you flew, what did you fly the longest and what was your favorite?

    Reply
  3. MIKE HARPER
    MIKE HARPER says:

    Thanks for the memories. My first jet ride was in a Convair, maybe in the same year, from San Francisco to Chicago. The radar was out when we arrived leaving us to circle in the clouds for what seemed for a long time. The landing was the hardest I have experienced. The main struts must have bottomed out. The next plane on to Detroit was a DC7 which looked like it had just flown through a hailstorm. My trip was to observe a cold weather engine start of a M113 cold soaked to 20 below. Ha Ha Ha ha. I observed a click and a grunt. The battery was dead. I did get to design the installation of a water heater system to keep the batteries warm. The Convair used Whitcomb’s area ruling cones added to the trailing edge. A co-worker had worked on the Convair. He told me the first thing they did after adding the cones was to make them gas tanks.

    Reply
    • Terry Spath
      Terry Spath says:

      Yes indeed. The famous Kuchemann carrots named after Dietrich Kuchemann of England. Area ruled the 990 Convair. That little bit of Transonic drag reduction couldn’t make up for 4 J79’s sans AB’s (CJ805’s) sucking gas, tho.

      Reply
  4. Scott Monroe
    Scott Monroe says:

    In 1986 I worked at McClellan AFB in Sacramento installing new wing skins on the F-106 using the Scotch Weld process outlined in the video. The 3/16”rivets were of the icebox variety, stored in dry ice and driven cold into square counterbores instead of traditional countersinks. As they reached room temperature they hardened to final temper. The heads were then milled by hand flush with the wing skin. The entire wing was heated in an oven to activate the tape adhesive. A few years later they were retired from the Air Guard units and converted to drones. All that money and effort just to be shot out of the sky.

    Reply
  5. Nikki Colon
    Nikki Colon says:

    Great story! I flew the piston CVT 240/340/440 early on, now two years from retirement I am currently flying CVT 580. Love the covair product.

    Reply
  6. Jim Anderson
    Jim Anderson says:

    Jeff
    What a perfectly wonderful story!!!!
    Thank you for sharing….
    Left me with happy tears.

    My first ride on any Jet Airliner was in the summer of 1963 on a TWA 880 from Phoenix to Idlewilde. (Maybe Jeff was in the front office)
    That half day flight,
    seeing America from the flight levels was amazing and oh so memorable!!

    Especially for a newly minted 18 year old commercial pilot on my first of many future time building trips to Lock Haven Pa to pick up a new Pipers..
    That return flight to Phoenix, all low an slow (5 days)
    along the same flight path in a deaf and dumb Pawnee was so different.
    Now in my 80’s with my left seat time behind me that trip of extremes is one of many “mostly”wonderful memories stored safely in the pages almost a dozen hand written logbooks.

    Reply
  7. Daniel Jenkins
    Daniel Jenkins says:

    I too have a wonderful memory of the Convair 880. I started with Delta in 1970 and they owned a lot of 880s. My starting job, as mentioned in this article was as a flight engineer. The engineer’s panel was directly behind the FO’s seat and consisted of all the electrical controls, fuel tank, and fuel management valves and levers as well as the cabin pressure controls. I flew it in the right seat for a while but then moved on to the DC-8. I loved my time in it and as all have said, they don’t make them like they used to.

    Reply
  8. JPMooney TWA Retired
    JPMooney TWA Retired says:

    Great story Jeff! I had the option to become a 880 or 707 first officer in 1966 from a Connie F/E and chose the 707 and have been kicking myself in the butt ever since. I regret that I never got to fly the 880 as everyone says it was a dream to fly!

    Reply
  9. John Lars Allison
    John Lars Allison says:

    My first flight of a few as passenger was around 1968 on DAL Convair 880 IAH to ORD always my favorite Delta’s 880’s would beat Braniff’s 727’s by better than 10 minutes.

    Reply
  10. Steve McNeilly
    Steve McNeilly says:

    Jeff, excellent article! As a B737 Captain, today’s flying is not nearly as fun as “the good old days” that you describe!

    Aluminum bonding was used extensively by DeHavilland in the 1940s, well prior to the Convair 880. In fact, it was used on the world’s first jet airliner, the DeHavilland Comet 1, of which the prototype flew in 1949 and entered service in 1952. Many parts of the Comet 1 (and later Comet 4) skin were bonded to the fuselage frames and stringers using Redux bonding — not riveted.

    As my friend Guy in England recently wrote to me, “Redux is a thermoplastic — so it cures under heat and pressure. It’s colossally strong. Lotus, Aston-Martin and Tesla all use similar aluminium bonding techniques. The first two use CIBA adhesives, derived from the original Redux. Tesla uses a very similar product by 3M, under the “ScotchWeld” range of products. The whole ScotchWeld range is good.”

    I also think I’ve read that much of the bonding technology at Convair was obtained from DeHavilland — I could be wrong about that.

    But, the Comet 1 used bonding long before the Convair 880 — of note, it was not the reason the Comet 1s (two of them) exploded due to rapid decompression. Those accidents were due to other causes. Through time, though, the aluminum bonding process has proven to be highly successful.

    Reply
  11. Chuck Stone
    Chuck Stone says:

    The 880 was my first airplane assignment as second officer aka flight engineer 1968. I had the pleasure to fly many flights with Captain Hill. He was a good example and courteous to his crew. Great job on the 880 article Jeff. Lots of memories on the 880 rocket!

    Reply
  12. Mike Davidson
    Mike Davidson says:

    I enjoy stories and photos from the good ole days. Just wondering what kept you occupied from summer of 1967, to 1969 when you became a Captain in type?

    Reply
  13. Brian SOUTER
    Brian SOUTER says:

    The Dutch Fokker F27 Friendship also used REDUX bonding. I am not certain but I presume those aircraft built under licence by Fairchild used REDUX bonding in their production of the FH27 and the FH227. I first flew the Dutch F27s in 1964.

    Reply
  14. Mac McLauchlan
    Mac McLauchlan says:

    Super account of early TWA jet days. I left the RAF in 1963 and joined British European Airways (later BA) on the Viscount 800, based in Berlin Tempelhof (TOF) where the ATC was run by the USAF, we shared the network to WestGermany with Panam DC6s. Across the city was Tegel (TOF) run by the French Air Force. This being longer than TOF was used by Air France Caravelle jets and a charter Continentale using the Convair 880. On take off, and during the low level cruise along the Corridors to the free West we pointed out to a passing 880 that he was trailing a lot of smoke. His reply, “When you guys grow up, you can smoke too! “We never did, our BAC1-11 replaced the Viscount until the arrival of the splendid B737-200, from then on until retirement I was a Boeing man, 737/757/747 all models including the 747-400F in BA and Singapore Airlines. Never had a proper job for 48 years.

    Reply
  15. Chuck Ford
    Chuck Ford says:

    Thank you Jeff! This was a wonderful article to read! I wonder if you might have flown with my dad, Charles (Chuck) Ford, who was a “S/O” for TWA flying the CV-880 out of ORD in 1972 or 1973?

    Dad loved flying the CV-880!! This article brought back some wonderful memories. Dad passed last year but I know he would have been thrilled to read this!

    Thanks again for sharing your memories and experiences!

    Reply
  16. Robert Eleazer
    Robert Eleazer says:

    Great article! And as for the glued structure, I guess that figures; it was built by Convair.
    My boss at my first job told me that in the 1950’s he was once TDY to Japan from OCAMA, the USAF Depot for the B-50. They were reinforcing B-50 wings and he came into the base to find that a USAF Colonel had the modification line shut down. “Is it true you are gluing reinforcements on these airplanes? We are not going to have that!” My boss responded that it was the same glue used to hold the wing skins on F-102’s, and if he did not believe that call an F-102 base and ask. The Colonel made the call and then said that the modification effort could resume.

    Reply

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