The USA’s Convair aircraft manufacturing firm was previously known as Consolidated Vultee, the result of a 1943 merger between the Consolidated and Vultee companies. Consolidated was responsible for an impressive roll call of military aircraft, perhaps the most famous being the PBY Catalina flying boat, which still holds the record for the longest non-stop commercial flights, better known as the Qantas ‘Double Sunrise’ trans-Indian Ocean service between Ceylon and Australia during the Second World War.
Consolidated also produced the B-24 Liberator four-engine bomber, a WW2 stalwart in Allied service, which has the distinction of being the most prolific in terms of aircraft production numbers in US military history, with over 18,000 examples built. After the Consolidated Vultee union, Convair (derived from ‘Con-V-Air’) produced a number of outstanding military airplanes during the Cold War period.
Perhaps the most impressive was the B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber powered by six piston radial engines — their propellers facing backwards in ‘pusher’ configuration — and four turbojet powerplants. Designed for the express purpose of carrying nuclear bombs, the mighty B-36 — which remains the largest piston-engine aircraft built — was arguably the star of the Hollywood 1955 feature movie Strategic Air Command, James Stewart notwithstanding.
Other noteworthy military ‘hardware’ produced during Convair’s Cold War years were the F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart fighters, the ‘futuristic’ delta-wing B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber, and Atlas rockets.
The ’Convairliner’ family
Almost overshadowed by this stellar list of USAF aircraft is the humble but enduring family of propeller-driven transports, popularly known as ‘Convairliners’, produced by Convair in the post-WW2 period.
First envisioned by American Airlines as a replacement for the venerable yet enduring Douglas DC-3, a 40-seat version of a prototype (dubbed the Model 110) went into production in 1948 as the Convair Model 240, or CV-240, powered by Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial engines. At the time of its launch, the type’s pressurized fuselage and tricycle landing were both innovative for the era. The CV-340 soon followed with a larger wing, longer fuselage and more powerful engines. This in turn was developed into the CV-440 Metropolitan with various improvements including better cabin soundproofing.
The Convairliners acquired a reputation for reliability and profitability thanks to their capacity for carrying a significant payload. Most airlines in the USA operated the type, including Pan American, Alaska Airlines, Braniff, Continental, Delta, American, Eastern and United. In Europe, Lufthansa, KLM, Swissair, LOT, SAS and Sabena were among the many customers. Trans Australia Airlines (TAA) was an early antipodean operator, acquiring the CV-240 in late 1948, when it became the first pressurized aircraft in Regular Public Transport (RPT; or scheduled airline operations in ‘Down Under’ parlance). Ansett later purchased several CV-340s and 440s in 1957. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also operated a pair of CV-440 Metropolitans for many years.
Other smaller airlines in Australia and neighboring countries in the Oceania region used the type, including Fiji Airways. Auckland-based Air Chathams, serving the eponymous islands comprising a New Zealand territory in the Pacific Ocean, still uses three Convair 580s for freight and charter services.
Latin American airlines were particularly fond of the aircraft, with many examples operated by them until quite recently. More than 20 airlines in the region acquired and operated Convairs, including Varig, Aeroméxico, Lan Chile and Aerolíneas Argentinas.
Designated C-131 Samaritan by the US Air Force, the CV-240 was used by that arm of the US Defence Forces in medevac and VIP roles. In excess of 500 were built for the military, with one in particular becoming famous as the original ‘vomit comet’ used for training astronauts in zero gravity manoeuvres.
Helitours, the civilian arm of the Sri Lanka Air Force, acquired a CV-440 Metropolitan to provide scheduled services to the Maldive Islands in the 1970s. These provided the first-ever regular air link to what was then an isolated archipelago of tiny islands. Air Maldives, the first national airline of the Maldives, also operated two CV-440 Metropolitans, named Flying Fish I and Flying Fish II.
When the limits of piston-power were reached, the rugged Convairliners proved ideal for upgrading to turbine propulsion. First to do so was Allegheny Airlines (predecessor to US Airways, and later merged with American) for whom Napier (a British engine manufacturer) converted six CV-340s by fitting them with Eland turboprop engines. Re-designated the CV-540, these airplanes were converted back to piston engines when Eland engine production was stopped after Rolls-Royce bought the Napier company. Later, the 540s were fitted with US-built Allison 501 turboprop powerplants driving four-bladed propellers, acquiring the new type name CV-580. Other benefits aside, it demonstrated how versatile and adaptable the basic Convairliner airframe was.
The Allison engine proved to be a good choice in Allegheny service, and many aircraft were subsequently converted to this standard. In addition to Allegheny, Frontier Airlines and several other medium-sized operators in the US employed the CV-580 turboprop. It was the first type used by American Eagle on feeder services to parent American Airlines.
Canadair briefly produced a few Napier-converted CV-440s, which were designated the CL-66. The Royal Canadian Air Force was the primary operator with ten aircraft. Eight of these were later converted to Allison power due to both the unreliability of the Napier Eland and its discontinuation by Rolls-Royce. The RCAF named its Allison versions the CC-109 Cosmopolitan, the type serving faithfully as a light transport and VIP aircraft until 1994.
The hugely successful and widely used Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop engine was installed in many CV-240s, thus spawning the new CV-600 sub-type. Later CV-340 and -440 Dart conversions were named the CV-640.
The latest iteration of this rugged and long-lasting family of Convairliners is the CV-5800, produced by Kelowna Flightcraft in the picturesque Okanagan Valley of British Columbia (BC), Canada. Using C-131F airframes with a stretched fuselage, a new freight door, digital avionics and Allison 501-D22G engines, this model continues to deliver new life to a perennial design. KF currently operates a scheduled cargo service out of Vancouver, BC.
Convair the company
The CV-240 and its later iterations was the last successful design by the Convair company. A brief foray into civil jetliners with the Convair 880 and 990 Coronado was short-lived and unprofitable. (The Coronado, a leased example of which was briefly operated by Air Ceylon, holds the record for the world’s fastest subsonic airliner.) However, the company continued to prosper as a subcontractor and manufacturer of aircraft components for other aerospace entities.
The Atlas rocket program proved to be a profitable niche too, expanding into the satellite launching business after General Dynamics Corporation absorbed Convair into its conglomerate in 1953. The missile- and rocket-manufacturing operation was sold to the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1992, and the residual aircraft division to Lockheed. Convair ceased to exist as a division of General Dynamics in 1996, but the doughty Convairliner series, which originated in 1940 with the CV-240, continues to soldier on.
This is part of a series on the propliners of the 1950s and the slow transition to the jet age. It all began with the DC-3 of course, and my columns move through the other Douglas propliners, the Boeing 377, Lockheed’s Electras and the elegant Constellation. The Brabazon Committee which sparked such a wave of innovation in the UK with the Vickers Viscount, the Bristol Britannia and the ill-fated de Havilland Comet. Many other significant aircraft, such as Avro Canada’s innovative but aborted C-102 passenger jet and the Sud-Aviation Caravelle, which led us into the start of the Jet Age have columns too.
A few quirky segues I couldn’t resist: the ‘Double Sunrise’ flights between my two homelands Ceylon and Australia; the wonderful Carvairs and that very British habit of taking your car on holiday. I also had to write a paean to my beloved A380 and all my pilot friends in the Gulf as COVID ended that little dream.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I have relished writing them. My special thanks to my old friend, mentor, editor and repository of knowledge Roger Thiedeman, for all the encouragement and support throughout this project.