Air Chathams is one of, if not, the last airline to regularly operate scheduled passenger services with the Convair 580 anywhere in the world. Until quite recently if you wanted to fly Air Chathams you'd have needed to literally fly them to the Chatham Islands, which is not a short flight, or a cheap one. However since Air New Zealand undertook its review of regional flying in November 2014, which led to the closure of its Eagle Air subsidiary and sale of its Beech 1900Ds, a variety of alternative regional operators have tried stepping in to the void on dropped services. Air Chathams began service to Whakatane in the wake of the review using a Metro and further cuts from the Air New Zealand network saw them also pickup the Auckland to Whanganui route from August 1, 2016.
Air Chathams has bolstered their fleet with a Saab 340 to join the pair of Metros, but has actually also expanded its Convair 580 fleet to four aircraft. For a fuller history of Air Chathams see the always excellent Third Level NZ blog's Air Chathams history:
I was talking to my friend Donald, who flies for United, and somehow we got round to the subject of classic aircraft and it struck me that I was missing a golden opportunity here in NZ, one too good to pass up. When traffic demands it the Convairs can be seen operating the scheduled services to Whanganui and so it was that the excellent Air Chathams website was able to furnish me with an easy weekend return flight with the CV-580 specified as the equipment. The opportunity for a return trip in the 580 for only $161 was great value and it would get even better.
Accordingly when the day came I was able to first take my assigned cabin seat and after everyone had boarded be ushered into the cockpit to take my seat on the fold out vintage chair just behind the pilot and co-pilot, and literally centimetres from a variety of flight controls and avionics. The aircraft for the day was ZK-CIF, one of a pair of CV-580s purchased almost by accident by Air Chathams from Era Aviation of Alaska. Originally the airline had been only looking for a flight simulator but it came with a pair of aircraft as well! She and ZK-CIE are fitted out in full passenger configuration whilst Air Chat's original Convair (ZK-CIB) is a combi that mainly flies the Chatham Islands route. The newest CV-580 to the fleet is ZK-KFL, which is a full freighter.
Apparently CIF has an older cabin fitout than CIE but although certainly of a rather retro feel the cabin is in good condition. Seating is a spacious 4 across with 52 seats. I was told by the pilots that although CIF has an older fit she is faster by about 5 knots than CIE and so more efficient to use on charters with limited profit potential. Certainly each of the Convairs has very particular personalities.
Above: For any safety card nerds out there! In the event of an emergency the aircraft is built like a brick sh*thouse so is likely to survive perfectly well thank you :)
ZK-CIF Service History
Before talking about the flight it's worth looking back at ZK-CIF's history. She was originally delivered new to SABENA as a piston engined Convair 440-12 in December 1956 wearing the rego OO-SCT and served with them for just over a decade. In May 1968 she joined Frontier Airlines as N73167, who converted her to a Convair 580 with new turboprop engines and a slightly taller tailfin. Frontier operated a large fleet of CV-580s into the 1980s with some, including this ship, gaining Frontier Commuter titles towards the end of their life. From February 1986 to July 1987 she was with Metroflight Airlines before being stored at Mojave.
In May 1989 she joined Era Aviation as N566EA and served another 16 years before sale to Air Chathams in September 2005. Initially she retained her Era livery with the Air Chathams logo added to the tail. Both CIE and CIF were used heavily when Pacific Air Chathams was formed to operate services for Reef Air and a Tongan company.
CIF was 'repainted' into a blank white and natural metal finish and remained in the Pacific with the new Chathams Pacific. This was formed in 2008 to operate domestic Tongan services and continued until 2013. They also flew domestic services in Fiji.
Following the closure of the Tongan operation the Convairs were used to fly charters for the American travel company Tauck Tours. It wasn't until 2016 that finally both the ex-Alaskan Convairs were repainted into the full Air Chathams colours and actually I think they look better than their sistership ZK-CIB as they have the natural metal finish underneath.
Below is CIF on Sunday 25th June on the tarmac at Whanganui after the first leg of the flight. She hardly looks 61 years old!
The Convair 580
Aside from being old the Convair 580 is pretty special in other ways. For starters no CV-580s were ever made by Convair themselves since the type is actually a re-engined CV-340/400; or an "Allison Prop-Jet Convair 340/400" as the FAA called it until Frontier finally forced them to accept the new CV-580 designation the mid-60s. The crux of the conversion was the replacement of the 3 bladed Pratt & Whitney R-2800 piston engines with big 4 bladed Allison 501-D13 turboprops (similar to those used on the Lockheed Electra and Hercules). The huge props and powerful engines gave the CV-580 almost twice as much horsepower as the CV-440s had - hence why it's called the muscle machine. It also makes the 580 fast, able to reach around the 300 knot bracket, faster than contemporaries like the Viscount, Martin 404, YS-11 and FH-227 plus modern props like the DHC-8 and ATR as well.
The original Convair liner was solid and reliable. Even though the Allison engines were so much more powerful no strengthening of the airframe was required. The only other mods required were the lengthening of the vertical stabiliser and rudder by 30cm and the horizontal stabilisers by 90cm.
The pilots told me that when the Air Chathams Saab needed to go in for a C check recently there was some concern about how the public would react to the Convair, but they had been pleasantly surprised. The Convair was not only faster than the Saab but has a much roomier big jet feel to it so who cares how old it is?
Obviously I took a load of photos inflight so in the second part of this series we'll go into the cockpit of the CV-580 and take a look at the trip down and back from Auckland to Whanganui. Stay tuned!
For part 2 in this series go here: Flying the 580 Pt2: Inflight AKL-WAG
Thanks to everyone at Air Chathams who made this possible!
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: