A History of Convair 880 and 990 Aircraft Accidents
Although the Convair 880’s and 990’s accident history can be considered extensive, especially in ratio to the number that entered service, several aspects should be considered. In the 15-year period between 1960, the type’s year of service entry, to 1974, there were seven fatal mishaps. Four included the CV-990A, whose production total was only a third of the entire program’s. But the first incident did not occur until the original CV-880 had plied the skies, in divergent countries and climactic conditions, for seven years.
Fatalities per aircraft also must be considered-from a low of one to a high of 155. Three accidents took place during the takeoff phase and two during the cruise phase, but they were the result of intentionally planted explosive devices and not of airframe or powerplant deficiency or design flaw. Many, due only to fate, occurred in clusters, only days apart.
“The 880 attained a great safety record in passenger service, but suffered numerous training mishaps and several accidents occurred after the airplanes were converted to freighter configurations,” according to Jon Proctor’s perspective in Convair 880 and 990 (World Transport Press, 1996, p. 82). “At least 15 hull losses were recorded, including several which were repairable, but written off due to economic considerations.”
This chapter examines actual passenger-carrying accidents.
The first of these occurred on November 5, 1967 when aircraft VR-HFX, a CV-880M operated by Cathay Pacific, embarked on a multi-sector flight from Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International Airport to Calcutta with intermediate stops in Saigon and Bangkok. Piloted by Captain J. R. E. Howell, an Australian, and serviced by ten other crew members, the jetliner, with 116 passengers on board, imitated its takeoff run in good weather, but aborted the attempt when it experienced a strong vibration and veered to the right at 122 knots. Despite reverse thrust and toe brake applications, insufficient distance remained in which to stop.
Sliding off the runway and careening over a seawall, it plunged into Hong Kong Harbor, shedding its nose in the process. It ultimately came to rest 100 yards from the runway’s end and in shallow water. No fire or explosion followed.
The captain went into the cabin to help with the evacuation. Although he encountered confusion, there was little panic and escape was orderly. Helicopters and boats converged on the water-immersed Convair.
Of the 127 souls on board, 20 required hospitalization, 13 sustained minor injuries, and one, a South Vietnamese woman, perished when she could not be extricated from the cabin. The others, ironically, did not even sustain wet feet.
The vibration and veer to the right were traced to the shedding starboard nose wheel tire, the culprit for the aborted takeoff.
Only 16 days after the Cathay Pacific incident, a far more fatal one occurred-this time during the landing phase.
On November 21, 1967, TWA Flight 128, a “Star Stream 880” registered N821TW, departed its Los Angeles origin two and a half hours behind schedule because door seal problems on the originally intended aircraft prompted its replacement by one coming from Boston. Bound, itself, for that very city, with intermediate stops in Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, it disengaged itself from California soil with seven crew members and 72 passengers.
The flight itself was routine. The landing was not.
Thirty minutes before its 21:06 estimated arrival time, it commenced its descent to Cincinnati, which, through the automatic terminal information service (ATIS), was reporting light snow, a 1,000-foot ceiling, and a 1.5-mile visibility.
The sleek, swept-wing jetliner, whose passenger windows provided the only light in the black soup through which it descended, approached the Greater Cincinnati Airport’s north-south runway. But construction to lengthen it from 7,200 to 9,000 feet rendered its glideslope, approach lights, and middle marker inoperative.
Approaching from the northwest, Flight 128 passed over the Ohio River, which was at a lower elevation than the airport itself because it had been constructed on a hill on the waterway’s other side. Aligned with the runway, the aircraft was slated to touch down in only a moment’s time. But, 800 feet below its glideslope, it would never reach the threshold.
Instead, it plowed into a Hebron, Kentucky, apple orchard owned by B. S. Wagner, clipping trees with its wings until the progressive impacts reduced its momentum and ripped open its fuel tanks. At 20:58, two miles from the runway, the red glow from the conflagration illuminated the whirling snow, marking the crash site.
Seventeen survivors were taken to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Covington, Kentucky, and another three were taken to Booth Hospital, all of whom were in serious condition. Subsequent deaths of some of them left only a dozen survivors among the 82 aboard.
The accident, the first Convair 880 one operated by a US carrier, was the worst in the Greater Cincinnati Airport’s history and the third in a series of similar mishaps. The first two involved approaches by a cargo plane on November 14, 1961 and an American Airlines Boeing 727-100 four years later, on November 8.
Because all had entailed runway undershoots, an investigation was initiated, but the FAA failed to uncover any approach procedure errors or deficiencies to the north-south runway, stating that the airport “adequately meets our standards.”
The similarity, at least in the two airliner incidents, was inadequate or altogether nonexistent instrument monitoring during the crucial final approach phase. In the American case, it was the failure of the crew to monitor its altimeters during a visual approach, while in the TWA one the first officer did not provide any altitude or airspeed callouts, resulting in the aircraft’s inability to clear approach obstructions and its consequent ground impact two miles from and 15 feet below the runway.
The third fatal accident-this time to a CV-990A operated by Garuda Indonesia Airways-took place six months later, on May 28, 1968. Aircraft PK-GJA, departing Jakarta the previous evening at 18:00, linked the Far East with Amsterdam in Europe on its multi-sector flight that intermittently took it to Singapore, Bangkok, Bombay, Karachi, Cairo, and Rome. But shortly after takeoff from India, it dove to the ground in a vertical orientation, reaching its never-exceed speed during its earthward plunge, and impacted 20 miles away. All 29 on board and one on the ground perished. Although no definitive cause was found, sabotage was strongly suspected.
Visibility-or the lack of it-was the cause of another CV-990A accident two years later, on January 5, 1970. Engine failure prompted the return of aircraft EC-BNM, operated by Spantax, shortly after tits departure from Stockholm’s Arlanda International Airport on its charter flight to Las Palmas. Although it re-departed without passengers with the intention of flying to Zurich on three engines for repairs, heavy fog proved the cause of its ground plunge and impact with the surrounding forest, taking the lives of five of its ten crew members with it.
As had occurred with the Garuda CV-990A, bomb explosions brought down two more aircraft.
In the first, on February 21, 1970, aircraft HB-ICD operated by Swissair as Flight SR 330, departed Zurich’s Kloten International Airport with nine crew members and 38 passengers, bound for Israel. But shortly after takeoff, an explosion ripped open the aft cargo hold.
As smoke propagated through the cabin, the captain made his mayday call. Granted immediate clearance to return, the Convair 990A Coronado begin to circle, forced to make an ILS approach because of a low ceiling and limited visibility. Yet damage to the flight surfaces made it difficult to control, leaving the captain to use every method he could muster to keep the crippled craft airborne, all to no avail.
Plowing into the village of Wuerenlingen in the Swiss canton of Aargau 25 miles from Zurich, it claimed all 47 lives.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, having placed a bomb in a checked suitcase, later claimed responsibility for the explosion, which was directed at an Israeli official on the flight.
The second consecutive explosion-disabling incident occurred two years later, on June 15, 1972. In this case, a Cathay Pacific CV-880M, registered VR-HFZ and operating as Flight 700Z, was flying between Bangkok and Hong Kong when a time bomb, brought aboard in a piece of cabin luggage, exploded at flight level two-nine-zero, ripping the airframe into three sections and leaving them to torpedo to the ground, crashing 33 miles southeast of Pleiku, in the sparsely populated South Vietnamese Central Highlands, itself 200 miles northeast of Saigon, at 14:00 local time.
So polarized was the wreckage resulting from the built-up momentum and annihilating impact with the ground, that fire did not even erupt. United States army helicopters were the first to reach the crash site. All ten crew members and 71 passengers, needless to say, perished.
It was believed that the reason for the sabotage was a long-standing one-namely, collection of insurance money. It was also believed that the device was supposed to have detonated at a time when the aircraft would have been over the South China Sea, leaving no traces as to its cause.
The worst Convair 880 and 990 accident took place six months later, on December 3, 1972, when an example of the 990A, registered EC-BZR and operated by Spantax, executed its takeoff roll from Los Rodeos Airport in Santa Cruz de Tenerife on the Canary Islands, bound for Munich with seven crew members and 148 passengers.
The aircraft, under the command of Captain Daniel Nunez, rotated into blinding fog and climbed to 300 feet, at which point it experienced an uncontained engine failure. Gravity-induced earthward, it bored into the ground one thousand feet beyond the runway, taking all lives with it.
Although the cause was cited as loss of control by the first officer, who was conducting the takeoff, it was discovered that it had rotated at a VR speed 20 knots lower than that recommended for the aircraft’s gross weight, leaving it unable to generate sufficient lift to establish a positive rate-of-climb.
The last accident in this 15-year period was the result of a runway incursion. While taxiing to the gate in Chicago at the termination of its Tampa sector as Delta Flight 954, aircraft N8807E crossed the active runway and was clipped by a North Central DC-9-30, which prematurely rotated to attempt to climb over it. While 15 injuries and a single fatality resulted from the DC-9’s plunge back to the runway, only one of the CV-880’s passenger was injured during the ensuing evacuation. Having had the top of its fuselage sliced off and its tail clipped, however, the Convair was damaged beyond repair.
Lewis, W. David, and Newton, Wesley Phillips. Delta: The History of an Airline. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1979.
McClement, Fred. It Doesn’t Matter Where You Sit. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1969.
Proctor, Jon. Convair 880 and 990. Miami: World Transport Press, Inc., 1996.