Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Comet And The Convair

The past couple of weeks have been good ones for aviation history. Well, they have been where the BBC and Palma town hall are concerned at any rate.

An article posted on the BBC website on 5 April tells the story of the "British airliner that changed the world". It was the de Havilland Comet. The first scheduled flight, following the period of testing, was in May 1952. The airline was BOAC (remember them?), and the route reflected a Britain of that post-war period. It flew to Rome and on to Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe, Livingstone and Johannesburg. It took 23 hours.

Although this original jet had a design that was both futuristic and fantastic, there were fundamental flaws. They were to prove to be fatal. The rectangular windows (a source of stress) and the aircraft's skin, which was too thin, were what made Comets explode and drop out of the skies.

By the time that a later version was available, the Comet 4 of 1958, Boeing's 707 had claimed the skies. The far more robust and reliable Comet 4 was, though, still a product of the days before air travel became massive. It could carry 92 passengers; the original had room for 36. The BBC's article gives a flavour of its "luxurious comfort". There is a photo of an air stewardess serving wine.

That photo provides something of a connection with the Palma town hall angle. A dossier has been put together by the Asociación Amics de Son Sant Joan, the friends of Son Sant Joan airport. In this dossier, there is an air stewardess serving what looks like a soft drink as well as some wine (not together, it should be noted). This dossier is for the project to restore the Convair 990A Coronado de Spantax EC-BZO. This aircraft has been rotting away at the airport for 29 years.

The predecessor to the 990 was the 880. Convair, a division of General Dynamics, joined the jet race with Boeing, Douglas and de Havilland, and came up with something similar to the 707. The 990 came into service in 1962. It was Swissair which named it Coronado, but it wasn't to survive for long. Production ceased almost as soon as it had begun. Neither the 880 nor the 990 was what the major airlines were looking for.

Spantax provides one of the more fabulous if disastrous stories of Spanish aviation. Founded in 1959 as Spain Air Taxi, its original base was Gran Canaria. This was switched to Palma because Mallorca offered the promise of greater tourist traffic. Its co-founder was the splendid Rodolfo Bay Wright. There is the grand tale of him piloting German journalists to Hamburg in a 990 to demonstrate the plane's safety. On landing, he managed to stop the plane just before it would have gone into an office building. If this wasn't bad enough, there was the small matter of having landed at the wrong airport.

Spantax was to have more serious incidents involving the 990. All passengers on board a flight to Tenerife were killed in a crash in 1972. There was a mid-air collision with a DC9. Remarkably, the plane made an emergency landing. The DC9 was not so lucky. On top of these accidents, there were the deaths of three passengers because of food poisoning.

By the mid-1980s, Spantax was easing out what remained of its old 990 fleet. By then, it wasn't an economic plane to operate. Meanwhile, Spantax had its economic problems. The airline filed for bankruptcy in 1988.

Which brings us to the abandoned Convair 990A Coronado de Spantax EC-BZO. On 31 March, Palma town hall's council meeting officially gave its support to the attempt by the friends of Son Sant Joan to restore the last 990 left behind in Palma after the collapse of Spantax. The plane is in the military base area, and the Spanish Air Force would rather it wasn't there. It's wanted rid of it for years.

Eight years ago, therefore, the campaign was launched to save the 990. The town hall, while giving its support, doesn't seem likely to dip into its pockets. Instead, it has urged the Council of Mallorca to help find a suitable location for the plane so that it can be exhibited and become something of an attraction.

In fact, and thanks to an association member who used to work for Spantax and now for Enaire (the airport authority Aena is a subsidiary of Enaire), the plane was given a protection order in 2011. The Council of Mallorca decided that it is in the cultural interest. This places an obligation on the Council. However, its heritage commission has started the process for reversing the 2011 declaration.

So, what is to become of the 990, a plane symbolic of the tourism boom years and of the ever so slightly strange Spantax?

Photo of the Convair at Palma airport:
The campaign for the Convair:
The story of the Comet:

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