“Thank you. Thank you very much” – Elvis has DEFINITELY left the building (in his Convair 880, that is)

Some time ago, I had to travel to Tennessee to inspect some de Havilland Mosquito parts. Faced with a short time to while away before my flight(s) back to Boston, I did what all tourists should do – followed my nose (a not inconsiderable target, I might add) in the direction of the center of town.

Arriving at a road junction, I saw that I was travelling on Elvis Presley Boulevard. How appropriate, I was thinking, when suddenly in the distance I saw a sight rarely seen on a city street. The fin of a large airliner sticking up from behind a fence! Ah, I know what that means – Graceland. I remembered that Elvis Presley’s personal jets were on display there, and realized that I simply had to visit.

For those of you who have not been to Graceland, I should explain that the parking lot seems big enough to LAND a jet on, and the walk over hot asphalt was most trying. Inside the complex I found a circular entrance and ticketing hall which could have comfortable housed several WW2 fighters, and looked for a ticket counter with the shortest line. Fortunately, given my time constraints, I found that it was possible to buy the ‘aircraft tour’ as a separate ticket, and I entered what can only be described as the aircraft ‘compound’ – and was brought to a dead stop when confronted by an immaculate Convair 880.

Convair, a division of General Dynamics, were chosen to produce GD’s entry into the ‘four-engined jetliner’ field. Since both the Boeing 707 (first flight, 20th December, 1957) and the Douglas DC-8 (first flight, 30th May, 1958 ) were already well established, Convair had to come up with a unique selling point. Not for the first time, this manufacturer chose – speed. By now, the formula was known – swept wing with pod-mounted turbojets, or early generation low-bypass turbofans (the Rolls-Royce Conway, usually), and a slim, single aisle fuselage. Where Convair differed in respect to Boeing and Douglas was that they made the fuselage slimmer, to improve the aerodynamics, and kept it relatively short, to reduce the overall weight (193,000 lb maximum weight). Power came from four General Electric CJ805-3A turbofans each of 11,200 lbs static thrust; since the CJ805 was developed from the military J79, it was hardly the most economical engine in the world.

Speed was what Convair wanted, and it was what they got. The aircraft underwent more name changes than was normal, which indicated that the manufacturer was already unsure where to position it in the market – ‘Skylark’, ‘Golden Arrow’, ‘Convair 600’ and finally ‘Convair 880’. Both the 600 and 880 referred to its maximum speed of 600 mph (actually 615 mph, to be exact). The first flight was normal, and launch customers were secured, including Trans World Airlines and Delta Air Lines, but sales began to drop off rapidly. Despite featuring on the front covers of ‘Aviation Week & Space Technology’ and ‘Flying’, the airlines, for the most part, could not be persuaded to buy a four-engined airliner which carried only 100 people, AND was ‘thirsty’ to boot!

General Dynamics began running a series of advertisements which bordered on the desperate.

“Convair’s 880 Jet-Liner is the champion of the jets. It is the world’s newest, fastest, and most versatile passenger plane’

‘Of all jets now in service, only the Convair 880 brings you ‘years ahead’ speed and luxury today! It is the world’s newest – the world’s fastest jet passenger plane’

‘With the 880’s unmatched combination of speed with splendor, the jet age becomes mature – becomes the age of the 880!’

‘Convair 880 – all first-class seating!’

Also, Convair issued an ad showing an image of the Convair 880 against the B-58 Hustler (another record-breaking General Dynamics product) with the legend ‘Two Of A Kind’. The company was desperate because sales had slowed to a crawl. In the end, the program was halted in 1962 after only 65 jets were built; Convair attempted to build a stretched and improved version – the Convair 990 – with a turbofan version of the CJ805, but only 37 of these were built and only managed to lose General Dynamics yet MORE money! All that the 880 was good for was ‘thin’ long routes, where a 100 passenger load wanted to, say, cross the United States, non-stop. Since the fuselage was smaller than the DC-8, it was difficult to consider the aircraft as a freighter, although one example was tested by the U.S. Government as air-to-air tanker. Airlines began to divest themselves of their Convair 880s, and that is where Elvis Presley comes into the story!

Elvis loved air travel. At various times he owned (or leased), a Fokker F-27, two Lockheed Jetstars, a Gulfstream I (which he tried to give as a gift to Colonel Tom Parker – he turned it down), a Dassault Falcon, and an Aero Jet-Commander. He had a $25,000 deposit down on a Boeing 707 formerly owned by the disgraced financier Robert Vesco, but was advised that there might be legal problems associated with an asset of that particular fugitive from justice.

He settled on N8809E, a Convair 880-22-2 (construction number 22-00-38) which Delta Air Lines were just getting rid of. The price was $250,000, but according to a plaque on display in ‘Graceland’, Elvis spent another $350,000 have the interior stripped out and and completely customized at Meacham Field, Fort Worth, Texas (IATA: FTW). Elvis named the aircraft ‘Lisa Marie’, after his daughter, and applied for the special FAA registration N880EP; the unofficial nickname of the 880 was ‘Hound Dog’. Instead of the 96 passengers the jet seated in service with Delta, ‘Lisa Marie’ seated only 28, but in great comfort. A bar, conference room with an elliptical table, lounge areas and a bedroom equipped with a queen size bed (complete with a full-width ‘seat belt’ to conform with FAA regulations, I might add) just to establish an air of luxury. Elvis also had installed a radio-telephone from which it was possible to dial any number in the world. It is said that the bathroom is made from gold. I can at least dispel one myth. When you take the tour, it is explained that the wash basin you can see might look like gold, but it is made from a compound that has gold flakes incorporated in it, NOT solid gold!

Elvis was flown in this jet more than 221 times from November, 1975, when he took delivery, until August, 1977. On the evening of Christmas Day, 1975, Elvis took his family members and staff for a night-time ride in ‘Lisa Marie’ to cap the day’s festivities. Running a Convair 880 was NOT cheap, however, and operating costs came to $440,000 for 1976. His regular crew were, Captain Elwood David, First Officer Ron Strauss and Flight Engineer Jim Manny. A story is told how, one day, when Lisa Marie told her father that she had never seen snow, he ordered the 880 readied, then everyone flew off to Denver, Colorado. Lisa got out, played around in the snow for about 10 minutes, then got back in the aircraft, which then departed for Memphis!

Elvis’s shocking death at the age of 42 on 17th August, 1977 brought huge changes. The last flights made by ‘Lisa Marie’ were to California to collect his ex-wife Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie and his friend George Hamilton. After the funeral, the party was taken back to California, then N880EP flew back to Memphis. Elvis’s father, Vernon, who had already fired three bodyguards Elvis had had for years, now disposed of the Convair in 1978, as the family had no use for it. It bounced around from owner to owner for a while, until Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. opened up ‘Graceland’ to the general public in 1982. They were determined to bring the jet back to Elvis’s estate – and in 1984, they succeeded in doing just that.

It helped that Elvis Presley Boulevard is almost dead straight, for, with the outer wings (and engines) removed and the fin and rudder taken off, it was possible to tow the aircraft on its own wheels, right up to ‘Graceland’! Here it is, one of a tiny handful of Convair 880s in the world, and certainly the most complete and in the best condition. Despite the fact that both the Convair 880 and its companion Lockheed Jetstar were sold to a private buyer in 2015, they are still on the grounds of ‘Graceland’ and available to be toured by fans of Elvis.

I’m glad I made time for ‘Graceland’ – and a very rare aircraft. Oh, and one last thing, as you walk through the jet, you are struck by a rather strange fact. The finishes are exotic and state-of-the-art, for its era, BUT, there isn’t a single window to give an outside view to the jet’s 28 passengers! Very strange. Apparently, from what I was told, Elvis did not particularly enjoy looking out whilst flying.


3 comments on ““Thank you. Thank you very much” – Elvis has DEFINITELY left the building (in his Convair 880, that is)”

  1. I never thought of going to Graceland but will now have it on my list — a perfectly preserved Convair 880 🙂


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