Convair 880 freighter operations from Miami in the late 70´s
Private aviation notes from Capt. Charles Lindberg
Thirty-four years ago, during my stay in Miami (April 1980), I spotted several Convair 880's. For example, Gulfstream American N817AJ and N819AJ, both without any livery nor titles, Gulfstream Am. AN-BIA and BIB in Lanica colors and both stored, Gulfstream Am. N880NW ex-Delta Airlines color, N8811E of Monarch Aviation and operational during that month, the stored N880JT of International Air Lease with Indy Air titles, N8815E Groth Air, and finally the wreck N5865 of Trine Inc.
On Facebook, I enjoyed a fascinating conversation with Captain Charles Lindberg about his Convair 880 adventures. Following is an extract of this conversation.
How did you get connected to the Convair 880?
At one time I was connected with Bahamas World and I used Convair 880 N55NW to run a number of pax charters around the Caribbean before I bought the airplane the following year. Bahamas World was an interesting operator, 707s, DC8s and 880s! Charters were mostly junkets to Nassau but I also ran a few charters to places like Barbados and one to Honduras!
When did you bought your own Convair?
Late in 1976 I bought the ex-Delta N55NW and converted it into a bulk freighter to haul beef from Miami and Central America to several cities in Venezuela. It was my first jet. I had been operating a cargo Douglas DC-7C which I owned, but a Jet was needed for the contract and the only cargo plane available at my pockets reach were some ex-Delta 880-22s that were controlled by a good friend of mine. There were 22 ex-Delta ships stored all over South Florida, plus TWA and JAL 880s stored elsewhere. All 22 airplanes were painted with the Delta livery until some operators began to use their own colors. There was also some ex-TWA, ex-JAL airplanes converted into freighters by a number of "independent" operators and aircraft leasing companies. Many were operated under Part 91. The Convair 880 had 110 seats before I bought it and converted it into a bulk freighter. The 880 was more efficient a freighter as it could carry 54-55,000 lbs. over 1,500 nm, instead of the 110 pax.
Everyone thought that I was crazy to use the 880 but I ran the numbers and the Convair made sense. It carried 55,000 lbs. of cargo as a freighter, 15,000 lbs. more than a then expensive B727-100. The fuel burn was OK, only 1,550 gph against 1,250 gph of the 727-100. Fuel was $.32-.34 a gallon back then and less in Venezuela.
Was it easy to convert the Convair 880 into a freighter?
Armed with an FAA STC, that my friend Aeronautical Engineer Jim Addisson sold me, I converted N55NW from a pax to a freight configuration (no cargo door) in 27 days, using mostly convict labor from the Miami-Dade Stockade (jail) near the airport. My budget for conversion was 50K and I spent 30, the rest was used to do some training flights (one scary hot afternoon of touch and goes at the Transition & Training Airport, west of MIA, some odds and ends and funds for the first couple of flights.
Could you tell something about these training flights?
The 880 was the first jet I owned, I was already checked out and had time on the 707. The 880 was a HOT airplane, much like a military airplane of that size, of course it was born out of the Convair B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber. At first I was afraid of the 880; - let’s call it apprehensive. The day after we completed the conversion and the FAA approved it, we, future crews got in the airplane in two shifts and flew quite a few hours on training flights over South Florida, doing our approaches and landings at Dade-Collier (TNT) airport, a training field west of Miami International which has an ILS and a runway similar to MIA.
The 880 that we operated was faster in approach that the more being 880-22M which has wing leading edge slats which reduce Ref speeds by 10 knots. It was an interesting hot afternoon and we all got checked out without incident.
How was the first revenue flight?
The first flight was also the test flight after the conversion. On day 30 we departed Miami at 0330 with a full load of beef to Puerto Ordaz (Ciudad Guyana) Venezuela and at that point, the payload after conversion was theoretical. W were trying to take off with maximum. We took off from runway 09L at MIA and we ran over 9,500 feet out of the 10,500 and it took a long time to accelerate to reach V-1 and then V-R. We passed over the road (Lejeune Road) at the end of the runway real low and it seemed that it would take a long time to reach our altitude. However once we reached 200 knots the Convair started to act like a runaway mustang and accelerated fast on a very high pitch attitude like if it was a jet fighter. The plane was the strongest jet that I have flown and we called it "The tank." Very fast in flight, with an LRC (Long Range Cruise) speed comparable to the high speed cruise of other airliners, even the 747, the fastest of them all.
We arrived there 3 1/2 hours later. Our approach and landing fully loaded in PZO (Puerto Ordaz) was quite interesting as the runway ends on a ravine quite high above the river. With small diameter turbines the reverse is quite ineffective (but great brakes) and we gambled that it would stop before reaching the end as the book indicated. That morning we were the first ever four-engine jet to land there.
I can write a book about the 880, but in resume I must say that I never checked out as captain in it and that in one of my landings in PZO I landed hard and blew two main tires. That created a bad situation as we basically had no ground support or a starter to crank the engines after they were shut down in PZO, so everything had to be trucked from Caracas at great expense. Normally when we landed at those out of the way places, if there was no ground equipment we left one engine running. Sometimes we had to do this for hours, so that we could restart the 880. We had to do that in most Venezuelan airports except for Maiquetia and Maracaibo. We did that even at Miami International when we arrived late at night and the Convair was at the arrival place with a turbine on! Try to do that one today!
We did over 90 almost consecutive flights to Venezuela (flew on a daily basis) without major problems, although we had a depressurization and an asymmetric flap retraction incident during that period. The lease-purchase rates were $12,500/month and 125/hr for maintenance reserves and payments were totally flexible. No down payment of any kind and first payment a month after the airplane commenced revenue flights. Talk about a good deal.
Could you tell a bit more about the flight operation?
It was an exciting time, those early morning flights to Venezuela full of beef. I must mention that taking off the 880 at maximum load took 10,000 feet of runway, out of the 10,500 runway length at MIA at that time was a bit scary. I never flew the 880 as captain, only as copilot. Most of my crews were ex-Modern Air and some LANICA flight engineers. Most copilots were newbie’s. Coming back to Miami empty and for us copilots to land in the (then) 10,500 foot runway it was no problem, but landing loaded, for instance, in Puerto Ordaz (PZO) on a 6,700 foot runway was a different story.
We operated in the following airports in Venezuela with the 880 and then the DC-8-32; Maiquetia (Caracas), Valencia, Barcelona, Puerto Ordaz, Barquisimeto and Maracaibo. Those airports all had adequate 880 runways except maybe for PZO. You are coming in at 170 knots and the runway looks awful small with a big drop at the end!
We had several incident during the flights, such a loss of pressurization, flap asymmetry after take-off (and we continued to Miami with flaps sticking out, as it was minimal) and even a landing gear alarm which turned out to be an electrical failure. Other than that the plane was practically maintenance free, and we had tons of parts which we found in Venezuela which were practically free (former VIASA parts).
The longest flight we did while I owned the company, was a Miami to Viracopos flight (with stops) and an epic return flight at maximum range via Cali, Colombia. We took the airplane up to 41,000 and it was really "coffins corner' altitude, which it really was. Even the flights to Maiquetia (Caracas, Venezuela) were interesting as normally there were a dozen cargo airplanes offloading during the night and it took forever to get offloaded, regardless of us bribing the ground crews to take offload first. On departure most of the time there was no ground personnel and the plane was parked nose in against a building, so that we wouldn't leave without paying I guess. Instead of the ground people to show up, the copilots would get a tow truck, bring the GPU and Start Unit, hook it up to the plane. The plane was started, then the copilot towed all the equipment back , hooked a tow bar, and pushed the airplane back. The tractor and tow bar were also returned, then the F/O ran to the airplane, now waiting with all four running. The F/E would lower a ladder, you climbed real fast and sat in the right completely out of breath (I was 29 years old and in good shape) and resume you flight duties. The Cargo Dogs know what I am talking about. That was done on the DC-8 as well.
You say that you couldn't start the 880 on the ground at that South American airport so you kept one engine running. Did the 880 it had the ability to start itself without being plugged into a trolley?
Unfortunately most of those airplanes don't have an APU and need ground equipment to start. APU’s provide life for all the systems, power, pneumatics, hydraulics, etc. Once you got one engine started, then you are pretty much in business and can start the other engines, although normally you used the ground equipment to start all four, since you had it hooked up anyway. Battery start is more of a thing for turboprop and small jets but in theory you could start one up with the batteries and do a push-back start once you have one burning.
What kind of men were flying these machines?
We had good captains and flight engineers on those airplanes with lots of time on the CV880 and/or the CV990. Our 880 captain back in the day was Pete Pietrobono who was ex-Modern Air. Our only other permanent captain was Bob Brush, a young man who was a great pilot. If Pete or Bob couldn't make some flights we had some LANICA captains. All of our Flight Engineers were ex LANICA. The F/O were assorted, (including yours truly) none with previous experience on the 880, other than the few hours that we spent flying around the Everglades, and doing touch and go's at Dade-Collier Transition & Training Airport (TNT). A little while after our operation, there were a half dozen cargo 880s flying out of Miami. I am sure that there were at least a couple of ex-Modern Air guys. O thers were ex-Delta and some TWA’s.
What exactly did the 880 ground school consist of?
Under Part 91 back in those days, training was very informal. The Captain had to have a Type Rating of course, but little more than the "three bounces" and maybe forty minutes of air work were required of the F/O, which of course had to be ATP’s, or maybe even just CML, Instrument, and multi. Ground school consisted in reading the aircraft flight manual (there was no airline operation manual that was FAR 135/121, not 91). We got together two evenings on a makeshift classroom in an old hangar at MIA. As usual, the ground school ended in that famous pilots hang around at MIA, "Doc Watson’s." So, reading the book, plus 8-10 hours of classroom was it. There was no 880 Simulator anywhere near (if there was one active), so we used the airplane as a simulator. The 880 was the reason why airlines are required to train their pilots on simulators on the first place. This was after a terrible 880 accident during a training flight in Atlanta. (There were several fatal accidents during training on the 880) That was it, you screwed up during training and you cracked the airplane and ended on a mushroom cloud, or if you were lucky, you crawled out of it... Cockpit familiarization was normally a couple of afternoons in the airplane, which was being converted and full of people. We had a GPU hooked up to the plane most of the time and were easy to get the electrical system alive. Most of the experience was actually flying the airplane, and most of us would be in trouble trying to land it by ourselves if something happened to the captain. Most of the copilots (with a couple of exceptions) were young guys with little air transport aircraft experience. I was already a jet and turboprop pilot.
How would you define the difference between the aircraft flight manual and the airline operational manual? If you only had the former in those days and today they have both, what's in one that isn't in the other?
The difference between the airline operations manual and the pilot flight manual is that the AOM covers a lot of generalities, lot of administrative data, general information as a AIM and company and government rules of operating aircraft, weather, international flying, etc. The aircraft manual is comprised of an aircraft description, operating the systems and performance charts. This was very accurate data. Well, we didn't have an AOM but we used an airline operating manual, probably from Pan Am which was the best. We also had a Modern Air one, since most of the captains came from there.
So would I be justified in concluding, then, that you didn't really need the Airline manual as long as you had a good captain and F/E training you and as long as they didn't rush the training?
Well, many of the procedures we knew, as they are common sense and usual in transport aircraft operations. However, I think that the AOM was a good reference, although many times on these flights we bent the rules a little bit sometimes. We overloaded airplanes, forget about crew rest, cockpit discipline was a joke, and we pushed the envelope many times. But having a good captain and F/E was a blessing, if not we would not have survived.
What was the difference between the 880 and 990?
Very little, the 990 is a more an aircraft with lower V-Ref speeds, more power (also heavier) but not as critical as of the runway length’s was told that the 990 was easier to fly. I flew in them a couple of times as passenger in APSA and loved the airplane.
Why was the 990 easier to fly?
They are very similar, the Coronado had better high lift devices (leading edge slats, a better power/weight ratio. I thing aerodynamically both were much the same. I think that the 880 is a little faster. Personally, without having flown a 990 as a pilot, I would think that both airplanes are quite similar once in the air. I think that the 990 has a more powerful rudder, although the rudder on the 880 is excellent.
What happened after that first year ?
I operated Convair N55NW for less than a year and then disassociated myself from the company, World Wide Air Leases, which I had founded and built to a two jet operations (an 880 and a DC-8-32 freighter) until a greedy partner screwed me up. I went back to operating the DC-7C. I had quite a few cargo and pax jets after that, mostly DC-8s of several series, but also several Boeing machines including 747.
Charles; - for what kind of operation did you used the DC-7C?
We started out with a proposed operation to haul gold out of the Central bank in "South Viet Nam" before the fall of Saigon. The plane made it to Guam but then we were not cleared by Washington to go in country and were interdicted in Guam by the USAF. The plane returned to Honolulu after Saigon and Vietnam fell, and our contract was over. The U.S. also left behind immense assets in "South Viet Nan," including most of the fifth largest air force (South Vietnamese) at the time. Go figure. But all that is a book in itself. The 7 ended up being stored in Honolulu for a while, and I returned to Miami to go about my business. Meanwhile I was able to built a cargo operation starting with a Cherokee 6, which grew into a Twin Beech, a C-46, and a DC-4. I had a contract to fly to La Romana, Dominican Republic and to Haiti twice a week with textiles, and had flights to the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, and a meat run to Venezuela once a week. I needed the DC-7 which was stored in Hawaii to cover these services, which I was doing with the DC-4 and a leased DC-7CF, but didn't have the money to fix my DC-7 and bring it to Florida, until a friend arranged a loan from a former B-29 pilot who was a millionaire in California, connected to the movie industry. He lends me the necessary funds, and the airplane was fixed and ferried back to the U.S. In the meantime I got a huge contract to haul meat to Venezuela out of Miami, and leased with an option to purchase a Convair 880 (N55NW) which I converted into a freighter. Sometime we used a DC-8-32. When I got involved with the jets, I sold the piston cargo operation to my partner in the Dominican Republic (we had an AOC there) and the DC-7C only flew occasionally, until I was ripped off by my partner on the jets, and lost the company which I had founded and worked so hard to build. I went back to the DC-7 and generated enough operations to keep it flying, and even lease one or two more to add capacity. In the meantime I was in Europe and decided to get out of the DC-7 business, so I sold the plane and the company to my partner. I must add that at that time I also had his old company with several Connie’s, only two (and then one) was flying. I was in the jet business now and when I came back operated Dc-8 pax and cargo aircraft.
I want to thank the following aviation photographers for using their images: Doug Scroggins, Bob Garrard, Mick Bajcar, Ford, Peter de Groot, Ellis Chernoff, AirNikon, Fredy Hader, Trevor Barlett/AirPic.UK and Peter Nicholson.