April 1956 represented a different era in aviation. Local service airlines were popular, fares were regulated, and people still dressed-up to fly. It was also when the three hundred thirty-fourth Convair 440 rolled off the assembly line to start service with Canadian regional airline Time Air.
The Convair 440 was built to American Airlines’ specifications to serve as a pressurized DC-3 replacement. It was equipped with Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp engines and three-bladed propellers, weather radar and a few other features that distinguished it from the original 240s.
After entering service, the Allison Engine Company (now a division of Rolls Royce) devised an offering to re-engine Convair 440s with T56 turbines (the same engine as the Lockheed C-130, P-3 Orion, and Electra II). This added thousands more shaft horsepower, and allowed for not only greater range, but a higher cruising altitude. The conversions were done by Pacific Airmotive and could be done in as short as sixty days.
Time Air sold line number 334 to Canair Cargo, who proceeded to park it in 1998. Nolinor Aviation purchased the airframe and converted it back to passenger use later that year. Throughout the years, the registration has remained the same; C-FTAP. Recently, I had the opportunity to fly on this classic bird.
To fly on C-FTAP, I had to travel from downtown Montreal to Canada’s largest public works failure: Montreal Mirabel International Airport (YMX). Whilst it may now be home to the manufacturing base for Bombardier, it was supposed to be the premier airport of eastern Canada. Mirabel was designed and built at a time when traffic into Montreal was growing at an alarming pace. Dorval (now P.E. Trudeau) was going to be over capacity within ten years. Something had to be done. The original plan was to construct Montreal’s new airport in a location that would allow it to also serve Ottawa. Quebec politics, however, made sure that such an amazing airport would never be close to an English-speaking province, so construction went ahead at a site that was viewed as a compromise.
Located 35 miles from the city center, it never achieved any appropriate road, highway, or rail links and as such, withered on the vine. Oddly, YMX shares it’s runway and taxiway configuration with another airport of the era… ZKPY (Pyongyang, North Korea). From the air, thanks to the lack of traffic, it is strangely reminiscent. On its opening in 1975, all international flights were immediately transferred there. Domestic and trans-border flying, however, continued out of the more convenient Trudeau airport. The fact that one-stop flights often cost drastically less than their one-stop competitors (due to the insane cost of a taxi to Mirabel) sealed the airport’s fate before other flying could be moved.
Today, other than Bombardier, Mirabel is home only to Nolinor’s hangar and passenger operations center, a few MROs, and all of Montreal’s overnight freight capacity. Norlinor’s Mirabel facility doesn’t look out of place in any Canadian public works project circa its date of construction. In some ways, it resembled my old high school in Edmonton, Canada. The exterior is where the differences began and end.
It is clear that Nolinor has spent a lot of money and effort to produce the nicest lounge I have ever seen. They even have an exercise facility called the “Nolingym” and 737-200 and Convair-based art abounds. I am glad that their executives had the courage to make the facility about “embracing the plane.”
Due to some fairly stringent Transport Canada restrictions, instead of being led through the hangar and onto the ramp, we had to go back downstairs and board a branded bus, which would then drive us the roughly 300 feet to C-FTAB.
Maybe it’s the proportions of the engines in relation to the fuselage, but the Convair 580 looks much larger than it actually is. It may be thirty three feet shorter than a Q400, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Upon boarding, I sat myself down to have a good engine/prop view and much to my dismay the window glass (now 57 years old) had begun to distort! It did not have a huge effect on any photography – but it was a tense few seconds.
Nolinor’s Convairs have the classic “hat-rack” style overhead bins and extremely ample seat-pitch. I was never able to get a definite answer, but they estimated 34 inches.
To start a CV-580 efficiently, it’s wise to use a ground-start cart. Ours was connected and after it generated a high-amperage current, the number-two T56 engine began to spool up.
Those of you who have flown on any T56-engined aircraft will understand that they are not quiet (thankfully, for us AvGeeks). It’s completely different in sound than similarly-sized propliners of the era, for example the IL-18. It is somehow deeper and less shrill, something more akin to a chainsaw motor.
Both engines going, surprisingly, did not generate much cabin vibration. I would actually attest that it was a smoother taxi than I’ve had on any of the Dash-8 family. Perhaps it has something to do with the construction of the wingbox and its low-wing design? Either way, it is a bizarrely-comfortable aircraft.
Takeoff was properly loud! I am sure that if the conversion process to become a 580 had not included additional sound insulation, it might have been the one of the loudest things I have ever flown on. Either way, I believe that with prolonged exposure, it could potentially cause hearing damage. In other words, I have to recommend it on that alone — the louder, the better for me.
Our route to Rouyn-Naranda airport in northern Quebec took us up to 18,000 feet. Much to my happiness, the 20% chance of clear skies had won. It was going to be a calm, sunny day in rural Quebec after all.
Shortly after we reached cruising altitude and the dutiful Nolinor flight crew was able to herd the group of aviation enthusiasts back to their seats, service began. By service, I don’t mean a bag of crisps. I mean a nice fruit plate, branded water bottles, and Nolinor signature candy. Coffee was also offered, in appropriately-branded mugs.
Nolinor caters primarily to the resource industry, who expect a very high standard of service. To say the least, Nolinor delivers.
The 580 cabin, in its 2-2 configuration is spacious. The aisles are not constricted like its modern turbine cousins. If the 580 was in service with scheduled airlines today, I imagine they’d try and make it 3-2. It could be done considering the aircraft has the appropriate number of exits. I discovered just how wide the aisles were whilst everyone was moving around the cabin. There was never a need to step into a seat row to let someone pass. For reasons I am still unclear on, there is a door that separates the passenger cabin from the L1 door and the flight deck. There are no crew seats there, so I am still trying to figure out its purpose. It is not as if we’d have been allowed onto the flight deck anyway, but it would have been nice to see the door.
Descent was, again, very sturdy. The only thing of note was the relatively harsh pressurization compared to some aircraft. On descent, I could definitely feel it in my tear ducts. Landing was smoother and had less cabin vibration than most Embraers.
Upon landing at Rouyn-Naranda, we were allowed to walk around the plane. Well, at least until the airport authority stepped in and threatened to fine Nolinor –oops.
Verdict: if someone walked up to me and offered me my own personal 580 for a reasonable price, I’d buy it. Sure, it burns 535 gallons of fuel an hour and spare parts would mostly have to come from Convair C-131s but it’d be worth it. Engines would be easy to find and it does everything I’d ask of a small turbine. It is louder than some military firearms and comfortable to fly on.