In Europe where scheduled operations were heavily regulated the charter market provided the primary opportunity for new airlines. In the postwar era by the end of the 1950s Europe was finally showing signs of recovering from the war and the populations of Northern Europe, especially in the UK and Germany, where becoming wealthy enough to afford the new range of packet holidays offering sun, sea and sand on the Mediterranean.
Spain was still under the Fascist dictatorship of Franco but he had cannily survived the 1940s by refusing to involve himself in the Second World War. In truth Spain was still recovering from the destruction of its own Civil War and Franco was busy brutally repressing his political opponents. Reforms in the 1950s opened up Spain to some political moderation and economic development. It created the grounds for the ‘Spanish Miracle’, which as well as allowing rapid industrialization also led to the start of Spain’s tourism boom. With anti-communist Spain now somewhat rehabilitated (it was for example asked to join NATO) the field was open to Western tourists flooding in.
Eyeing up this new opportunity was Capt Rodolfo Bay. He had been a pilot with Iberia since not long after gaining his pilot’s license in 1929 and in 1959, along with his partner Srta Marta Estades (an Iberia air hostess), formed a private operation known as Spanish Air Taxis. Bay had 80% of the ownership and Estades 20%. Initial operations were not tourism related and instead focused on assisting in oil exploration in North Africa. Gradually however the fleet was augmented with DC-3s, then DC-4s.
Renamed Spantax SA in 1963 growth was rapid and the airline went from these initial prospecting services to charter flights between the Canary Islands to, in 1962, services to mainland Spain and other European countries. Obviously, Bay had connections within the Franco regime but even so change was explosive. The equipment in use developed accordingly and from April 1963 DC-7Cs joined the fleet.
It is worth remembering that, although made obsolete by the arrival of the jet age, the DC-7C was a big aircraft and the airframes were practically new. Further Douglas propliners joined the fleet during the 1960s and the main base was moved from Gran Canaria to Palma de Mallorca, which was already developing into a major tourist destination. Passenger numbers skyrocketed from 14,181 flying on 1,199 flights in 1961 to 691,222 on 20,877 flights in 1966.
By the late 60s the DC-7Cs, despite being only about ten years old, were not competitive especially against jet operating German and UK airlines such as Britannia and Condor. It seems Rudi (as Bay was universally known) had always had a love of speed, he started his career with joyriding flights over his hometown of Cadiz and had been a motor racing driver also. It was quite natural that he latched onto what he and his staff would come to call the ‘Maserati of the air’ to take his airline into the jet age.
This was of course the Convair 990. A disaster for Convair and maligned in the USA the 990 found much more love in Europe with both Swissair and Spantax. American Airlines couldn’t wait to get rid of its 990 fleet and most saw less than six years service. By 1967 it was looking for buyers and off-loaded most of its 21 strong fleet to the US supplemental carrier Modern Air or to Rudi’s Spantax. In fact, Spantax would take 10 of American’s CV-990s but initially in 1967 it acquired the first three.
The CV-990 was smaller than the 707 and DC-8 and far from fuel efficient but it was fast – the fastest subsonic jet airliner ever built. As Rudi said himself: "Once you fly a Coronado, you don’t want to fly anything else”.
1967 was also the year that Bay finally left Iberia and began to fly for his own airline. Infamously in 1967 on a flight to prove how safe Spantax was to the German press he accidentally landed at the Airbus plant in Hamburg rather than Hamburg Airport. They weren’t very impressed.
Like the DC-7Cs before them the unwanted CV-990s were almost new having been built only in 1961-63. The first 990s in service were the earlier 30-5 variant with distinguishing exhaust spats on the inboard side of the rear of the engine pods. They were a massive success and Spantax went back to American for 7 more between 1969 and mid-1972.
A pair of the 990s were leased to Iberia for a year to make up for delays in delivery of their own DC-8s. One of them, EC-BJC, wore Iberia titles only but the other, EC-BQA, gained a full Iberia scheme. It wasn’t all success with the 990s though as two would be written off between 1970 and 1973.
The first incident involved EC-BNM, which crashed shortly after take-off from Stockholm Arlanda. The aircraft had been ready to fly to Mallorca but engine 4 had developed a fault and the passengers were deplaned. It was then decided to fly the aircraft on three engines to Zurich were Swissair performed Spantax’s CV-990 maintenance. Onboard there were three crew and seven passengers. It was 22:24 when take-off was attempted but soon after take-off the aircraft impacted the ground. Half of those onboard were killed.
The second incident was a lot more serious. It involved EC-BZR operating flight 275 from Tenerife to Munich on December 3, 1972. The aircraft crashed on take-off in almost zero visibility and all 155 onboard were killed.
A third incident occurred on March 5, 1973 when EC-BJC operating a service between Palma and London Gatwick collided in mid-air with an Iberia DC-9. The Convair lost a portion of its left-wing but was able to make an emergency landing. The DC-9 was less fortunate and everyone onboard was killed. The accident was caused by air traffic control mistakes (the military had taken over ATC that day due to a strike by the civilian controllers).
Convairs did not make up the entire Spantax fleet at this time, in fact they only made up just over half of it. Some of the DC-7Cs remained in service, as did at least one DC-6. Fokker F27s operated short-haul flights in the islands alongside a pair of DHC-6 Twin Otters.
Despite the incidents Spantax was still in good health and expanding its fleet. In early 1973 it acquired a pair of Douglas DC-8-61CFs. These aircraft were technically on the roster of American Airlines too having been acquired by them when they tookover Trans Caribbean Airlines. They would be put into service with Spantax on long-haul charters and to fly cargo flights. Transatlantic charters had been begun in 1972 initially with the DC-7Cs.
In early 1974 a pair of ex-Delta and Southern Airways DC-9-14s were added for domestic and short-haul services and Rudi was far from finished with his favourite the Convair too. In 1975 four ex-Swissair Coronados joined the fleet. It was the CV-990s that operated the bulk of Spantax’s services to the UK and Northern Europe.
This period was the highpoint of Spantax’s success. Increasing fuel prices and a weakened tourist market must have had an impact on the airline. Two other aspects also led to the end of the 1970s becoming more difficult for the airline. First on November 20, 1975 General Franco died and Spain began its transition to a democratic state. There is no doubt Spantax had benefited from its ties with the Franco dictatorship and his death led to the loss of some influence. It was rumoured for example that Spantax did not have to pay landing fees at Spanish airports and that the government paid for the construction of a maintenance hangar at Palma.
Second, on February 20, 1976 a typhoid epidemic broke out on a Helsinki to Las Palmas flight. Two people died and over two hundred were hospitalized. Four crew members had been infected and spread the disease to the passengers via an egg salad being served. The publicity from this and the resulting rehashing of the previous crashes damaged Spantax’s image in the Western press.
Nonetheless, even by the late 70s most of the Convair 990s still had plenty of flying time left in them and Rudi had plans to expand the fleet and keep flying. In part 2 we’ll look at how Spantax fared.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: