World’s dud airliners

While we’re in the slow-news Holidays, we thought we’d have some irreverent fun. There have been many attempts at building airliners. There are the obvious successes but there have been many, many failures. Starting with the end of World War II, we’ve collected the following for our nominees for duds–sales or technological failures. We invite readers to make their own nominations. If you have photos, add them to your Comments.

This list is in no particular order. Next week we’ll construct a poll to see how the airplanes rank.

Boeing Stratocruiser

We can’t help but like this ungainly airplane. The Stratocuiser was Boeing’s effort to maintain a presence in the commercial airplane sector. A derivative of the B-29/B-50 bombers, it was ugly, expensive to operate and its engines were notoriously temperamental. But passengers loved it for its roominess and lower deck lounge. Only 55 airliners were built, but 888 cargo and tanker versions were sold.

Martin 202

The Martin 202 competed with the successful Convair 240. Using a new metal alloy to save weight, it proved prone to metal fatigue. Northwest Airlines lost a 202 when the wing failed. Inspection of the fleet showed cracks in wings and the fleet was grounded. The event caused Martin to cancel outright its 303 program (United Airlines ordered this version). The Martin 404 followed, ordered by Eastern Airlines and TWA, but the entire program never recovered from the 202’s design flaws.

 

Budd Conestoga

If the Boeing Stratocruiser was ungainly, the Budd Conestoga was downright ugly. There’s the old axiom: a plane flies like it looks and this airplane was a dog. The Flying Tiger Line operated the aircraft.

Canadair DC-4M2

The Canadair DC-4 M2 is a Douglas DC-4 with some DC-6 features and powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines from WW II Lancaster bomber fame. Built by Canadair under license from Douglas, the airplane was also known as the Argonaut. Trans Canada and BOAC were among the few carriers to fly the airplane. It was noisy and not especially economical.

Bristol Britannia

The Bristol Britannia was Britain’s attempt to be a player in the postwar airliner market. Designed to compete with the Douglas and Lockheed long-range families, the Britannia originally had piston engines. This was changed to turbo-props, which proved troublesome and prone to icing. By the time the technical issues were sorted out, the Britannia was years late and entered service on the cusp of the jet age. BOAC and El Al were among prime operators. US carrier Capital Airlines ordered a few but deteriorating finances led to cancellation. The Britannia evolved into the Canadair CL-44 swing-tail cargo airplane, a designed favored by Flying Tiger, Seaboard World and Airlift. Loftleider operated a passenger version. Overall sales of the Britannia and CL-44 didn’t match the Douglas and Lockheed pistons or even the Lockheed Electra.

Lockheed Electra

This is another plane we really like. The Lockheed Electra propjet was ill-timed, entering service just a few months after the Boeing 707 and the start of the jet age. It was considered a pilot’s airplane: over-powered, with great flying characteristics. But a design flaw called whirl mode caused wings to come off two airplanes, including a Braniff Airlines model, in level flight, killing all aboard. Lockheed lost millions on the Electra but recovered its investment with the Electra-based P-3 Orion, which is now being replaced by the Boeing 737-based P-8 Poseidon. The P-3 entered service with the US Navy in 1962. That the aircraft is still in service today is a testament to the fundamental soundness of the design.

de Havilland Comet

The de Havilland Comet pioneered jet transport flights, but a design flaw led to metal fatigue and destroyed at least two airplanes in flight, killing all aboard. The fleet was grounded while de Havilland redesigned the aircraft. US manufacturers learned from the de Havilland experience. By the time the Comet was redesigned and entered service in October 1958, the Boeing 707 was ready a few weeks later with a much better design. Douglas’ DC-8 followed and the Comet lost its chance to lead Britain into a real player in the jet age.

Convair 880/990

Convair produced the successful short-haul CV-240/340/440 piston family and thought it could be successful by designing a medium-range jetliner. The Convair 880 was the result. Only 65 were built. Hampered by a 2×3 seating configuration to the 707 and DC-8 3×3 and using GE engines derived from military engines that proved to be very thirsty and smokey, the CV-880 was simply unattractive to airlines. A launch customer was Howard Hughes of TWA, whose financial troubles caused him to interfere with Convair’s production so he wouldn’t default on purchases.

American Airlines asked Convair for a design that would be the fastest airliner in service, at a time when speed mattered to passengers. The CV-990 was the result. But the airplane failed to live up to speed and range promises. Convair had to redesign the airplane–those bumps on the wings are the result–and it was late into service, expensive to operate and airlines shunned the aircraft. Only 37 were built. Convair lost about $250m on the 880/990 program, up to then the largest corporate loss in US history. Convair never built another airliner, though it became a major contractor.

 Dassault Mercure

There was absolutely no reason to build this airplane, a Boeing 737-look alike with the same engines. Only 10 were built, making it one of France’s dumbest aviation moves.

Fokker-VFM 614

The Fokker-VFW 614 was designed as a short-range feeder jet. It was expensive for regional airlines to buy and it’s another one of those flies-as-it-looks designs. Only three airlines operated the few that were built.

de Havilland/Hawker Siddeley Trident

Designed by de Havilland, which merged into Hawker Siddeley, the DH121 Trident had promise as the first tri-jet airplane. British European Airlines “downsized” the airplane, a big mistake for the program. Only 117 were built. Boeing’s larger tri-jet, the 727, saw more than 1,800 sold–up to then, the best-selling jetliner.

Honorable Mentions

These poor-selling airplanes are good technologically but as niche aircraft haven’t sold sell, fewer than 100:

  • Douglas DC-8-62
  • Lockheed L-1011-500
  • Boeing 747SP
  • Airbus A340-500
  • Airbus A340-600
  • Boeing 747-300
  • Boeing 737-600
  • Airbus A318
  • Boeing 747-8I

And then there is the AVIC/COMAC ARJ21, a technologically troubled aircraft due to China’s first serious effort to learn how to be a jetliner producer.

71 Comments on “World’s dud airliners

    • And yet the Concorde was (at least a technological) a success compared to its competitor, the Tu-144.

      Of the early jetliners, there was also the Avro C102, cancelled due to the Korean War before making it to production. Howard Hughes then attempted to move the project forward, but to no avail.

      • As you probably know the driving force behind the Avro Jetliner C102 was Jim Floyd. He is still around and just turned 100 two months ago!

        The Canadian government had no vision at the time. They were just scared of the Russians and gave full priority to interceptors that could shoot down soviet bombers. But to be fair to the Canadian government I have to mention that it was Jean Chrétien, then President of the Treasury Board, who gave the green light to the Canadair Challenger in 1976. And without the latter there would be no CSeries today. So Jim can finally see Canadian civil aviation coming of age.

  1. While the Budd Conestoga probably takes the prize for being ugly and strangely named, it is noteworthy for being the first (and possibly last) plane manufactured predominantly from welded stainless steel.

    • It may not qualify for not having gotten past prototype, but didn’t the XB-70 have rather a lot of stainless steel in its construction (admittedly with some titanium thrown-in there for added measure)?

  2. There were three fatal Comet 1 crashes due to structural problems (metal fatigue originating from a window’s square corner), which led to the grounding of the entire Comet fleet:

    BOAC Flight 783/057 on 2 May 1953, BOAC Flight 781 on 10 January 1954, and South African Airways Flight 201 on 8 April 1954.

  3. Is the Brabazon disqualified because it never made it into production?

    I might add the MD-11. I suppose it is too soon to add the A380. How about the Tu-144?

    • Tu-144 went into service, but fleet was grounded after Paris, 104 commercial flights..

      • As Uwe pointed out, you got the chronology wrong 🙂
        There was, however, a second crash, in April 1978. Less than a month after that, it flew its last ever scheduled passenger service.
        The Tu-144 only performed 102 scheduled flights in its lifetime, of which 55 were cargo-only flights.
        As for the Tu-144 not being as big a technological achievement as Concorde – I would beg to differ. Considering the challenges of building a supersonic jet and the not-exactly-advanced resources and technology available to the Tupolev engineers, I still think its an engineering marvel. Although none of those engineering feats performed for it ever got it even close to being a useable airplane.
        There’s a book by Howard Moon called “Soviet SST: The Techno-Politics Of The Tupolev-144” which I would recommend to anybody interested in the Tu-144, how it came about, and how the programme became what it was. It’s out of print, but used copies are reasonably easy (and cheap) to pick up.

          • Excellent – thanks for that! Some watching material over the Christmas period.

  4. I’d add the jet airliner I think is the best looking ever built, the VC-10. It was the basis for the standard 3+3 narrowbody layout as the 707 and DC-8 were planned as 3+2 until airline feedback to the prospective VC-10 with its 3+3 caused them (very sensibly) to change. Hobbled, like all UK airliner projects, by having the government specify it and by its main target customer, the equally government owned BOAC, being a firm Boeing lover, it was a specialist short field performer just as nice long mettled runways were to become the norm.

    • I agree with you that the VC-10 is one of the best looking airliner ever designed. And it’s one of those rare aircraft that look great from just about any angle you may choose to look at them, in the air or on the ground, inside or outside. It’s hard to believe that only fifty were ever built. It frankly deserved a better destiny.

  5. If you are going to list the Trident, presumably you should also have the VC-10 there – a lovely, but poor selling bird with less than half of the sales of the Trident. It did go on to a longish career with the RAF.

  6. Aircraft like Concorde, VFW614 & Mecure were duds but laid the foundation for Airbus afew years later. Same people , facilities and technology.

    When Marcel Dassualt pulled the plug on the Mecure (1975) they had specified the -200, stretched more range, slightly wider then the 737 and new CFM56 engines. Douglas would also build/ sell it.

    http://www.crashdehabsheim.net/A320%20genese%20et%20plus/5mercure.200.jpg

    The 737-300 first flew in 1984. What if..

  7. If you’re going to include the little VFW 614, how about:

    Ahrens 404
    Bromon 2000
    Ayres Loadmaster
    ATL-94(?) Carvair
    ATL-90(?) Accountant
    Miles Marathon
    Armstrong-Whitworth Argosy
    etc, etc ….

    • The ATL-98 Carvair was a special purpose conversion.
      compare to the other various guppyfications.
      It did its job ( ask Auric Goldfinger or one Mr. Bond 😉 and demand was obviously limited.

  8. I definitely think the Handley Page Herald qualifies.
    Started life with four Alvis Leonides radials and ended up with two Darts.
    The cockpit was said to be as comfortable as a WW2 bomber.

  9. Stratocruiser engine unreliability – someone dubbed it as something like ‘the fastest three-engined aircraft on the trans-Atlantic route.’ As a child I flew on Strats several times, one of the trips featured a stopover for an engine change.

    • Nearly every multi-engine pistonliner bore that nickname at one point, as engine diversions were relatively common in the 1940-50s. However…and this came as much of a surprise to me as anyone when I stumbled across it in PAA’s archives…the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser recorded higher dispatch reliability rates for Pan American and Northwest than any of their other four-engine pistons. The reason for this was precisely what happened to you.

      Unlike DC-4s, 6’s and 7s, or any Connie variant, Stratocruisers had a fully removable engine pack. Originally designed for the military 367/C-97 variant, the pack’s powerplant, generators and prop could all be removed from the firewall on a big dolly and replaced with a serviced engine in about 2 hours. A special clamp built into the wing leading edge held all the control cables in alignment as the work was done. While other airline mechanics slaved in the dark and cold of Gander repairing engines on the wing, which could take many, many hours, PAA and BOAC mechanics could pull their hair out working on the convoluted Wasp Major in the heated comfort of their hangar. Not that this was a significant consolation, but the execs sure loved it!

      I suppose this is why PAA and BOAC both begged Boeing to restart production when Comets started falling out of the sky but the numbers they desired weren’t profitable for the company, so BOAC paid United between $8 to 900,000 per airframe for six used ones in 1954. That’s $50,000 to $100,000 more than a new DC-7 would have cost.

      Dud airliner? I think that’s revisionist thinking.

  10. Why are A345 and A346 mentioned but not

    777-200lr
    767-400er
    757-300

    All these sold poorly.

  11. “There was absolutely no reason to build this airplane, a Boeing 737-look alike with the same engines. Only 10 were built, making it one of France’s dumbest aviation moves.”

    Tu build a 737-look alike with the same engines is not dumb at all. In fact the 737 is to date the best seller ever. So it should be considered a good idea to want to emulate it.

    Except that at the time the Mercure was launched the 737 was a dud. It wasn’t going anywhere. And Boeing was seriously considering to shut the production line permanently.

    The Mercure was a very advanced aircraft aerodynamically. That’s because it benefited from all the research done on the Mirage family of aircraft. The drag was very low and it could fly faster than any other airliner at the time.

    The problem of the Mercure was its limited range of about 1000 km. This was the European mentality at the time: totally Eurocentric. The Brits did the same mistake with the Trident. The extended range explains the advantage the 727 and 737 had over their European counterparts.

    Also, the CFM56 engine had been considered for the Mercure. It maid a lot of sense because it was 50% French. But Dassault rejected it in favour of the P&W JT8D. Even though it was a much more advanced engine it was considered too risky because no other manufacturer had selected it yet.

    Now imagine if Dassault had given the Mercure a North American range and had selected the CFM56 instead of the JT8D. It would have killed instantly the 737 business case, which was very weak at the time. And since it was slightly bigger than the 737 it would have easily adapted to the current trend of bigger aircraft.

    But nothing was wasted because the lessons learned on the Mercure were applied to the A320 a decade later.

    • “This was the European mentality at the time: totally Eurocentric.”

      Probably all designs everywhere were “shortsighted”.
      Scoped for the local market. No vision, no developement path.

      Difference was that the European market was and is a subset of the North American market.

    • Today, the CFM-56 has been for decades the eonly engines available on the 737!! And it is the most ever built jet-engines for commercial planes.

      But, currently, the A320 family (and especially the NEOs) is more sold than the 737 (even with the MAX) while , at the launch, a production run of 600 was “hoped”. Today, more than 10.000 have been sold and more than 6000, delivered!!!!!

    • Fully agree and would have posted pretty much the same thing if you hadn’t already.
      One thing I might add – including prototypes, 12 were built, not 10. One of the prototypes was eventually refurbished and purchased by the sole operator, Air Inter, who ended up operating 11 Mercures.

    • You said it beautifully, thank you.

      The Mercure poor success was the result of a few major errors but the legacy is still there, for Dassault of course and also the rest of the European industry.

      But yes, it was a sure commercial dud, no doubt about this!

  12. Thanks God! You did not forget the Dassault Mercure, the lackluster (bigger but born latter) brother of the Dassault Falcon , still having new versions today…..!! THe Conestoga is a top contender foir the ugliest plane. Which remind me a quote from Marcel Dassault : “A beautiful plane always flies well!!!”

  13. The second list at the bottom of the article does not qualify: they are all less-successfull variants of airliners that made an impact in the market, some of them – the last effort of the manufacturer to keep the line alive, or variants that complemented the line. One addition: L-1649A
    There are plenty of other candidates, some of them were added before my post and the star in the list is the Concord.
    Most of the additions come from England:
    Avro York, Avro Tudor, Hermes, Airspeed Ambassador ( a very nice aircraft), Marathon, Short Solent, also some turbo-props: Vanguard, ATP, Short Belfast, the french Languedoc, HD-31/32/34 , Potez 840, N-262 and two from Sweden: Scandia and Saab 2000

    • you use a wide brush 😉

      Shorts Belfast : military transport with civilian reuse.
      Languedoc : 100 built quite acceptable for the late 40ties.
      The flying boats were never produced in large numbers for civil use. And with Shorts products getting a new name everytime small changes were made ..
      Saab340 and Saab2000 are one family. Together quite successfull.
      Nord 262 110 frames.

      • Uwe, thank you for your remarks, they are all accurate.
        I made the list mostly from memory.
        How do you define a ” dud airliner”? Production run, length of service with launch airline, attrition rate, pax appeal or some other qualitative criteria?
        In the 40’s a production rut of 100 was a nice achievement, but the Languedoc was plagged with problems, grounded for modifications, people were reluctant fo fly with them and Air France got rid of them as soon as they got hold of some DC-4s.
        The Solent was the only flying boat manufactured after the war, with many changes made from the Sundringham.
        The 2000 was a big jump from the 340: longer, larger wing span, more than 30% increase in wing area, 70% increase in MTOW. Same family? May be.
        Nord 262, many went to the military. If we accept it a dud, we should probably addd the Dash 7 to the list.

        • hello Bemi.

          I’d deem a “dud” a designed for the purpose airliner that shows some combination of low production numbers and short service life and maybe some unfixable issues.
          i.e. the VFW614 is an obvious dud.

          Languedoc which is actuallly a WW2 design probably much less o.

  14. I liked the B717 as a passenger and voyeur. What caused Boeing to end its life?

  15. If we are talking under 100 commercial sales, how come there is no mention of 777-200LR or 767-400ER

      • Well, the 318, 736,743,747sp are all derivatives of successful aircraft , but they are mentioned

  16. The Conestoga was an attempt to build a transport airplane with minimum use of the strategic material aluminum. Clearly a war effort and a military aircraft. Some made it into civil service after production had bee discontinued. The aircraft featured a rear cargo ramp, clearly an innovation in the early 1940ies. The company – Budd – produced passenger railway cars and was very experienced in use of stainless steel (the RB was its only aircraft ever build). It still exists today, though as part of ThyssenKrupp, the German steel company (Krupp was once a famous arms manufacturer, build guns, tanks and u-boats).

  17. Why it never made behind mock-up phase, it nearly killed Boeing and was the most marvelous plane ever: Boeing 2707-100/200. It was such a great leap that it actually was to much for it’s time.

    • Boeing interest vanished the moment it lost the “cost plus” arrangement. ( i.e. public support and money was withdrawn )
      IMU the design had attritioned most of its advanced design features long before that happened.
      What remains is a “two balls dragged over sand” kind of track and people uh and ah-ing over what kind of animal must have made those tracks.
      Getting the tree huggers to fend off Concorde was much more cost effective 😉

      • The Boeing SST didn’t pass the mock-up stage for good reasons. Years before some”big projects” went some steps further to prototype and flight test, and then killed. Why? Misreading market needs, wrong concept and technology, bad economics. Examples: Bristol Brabazon, Sounders Roe Princess and we can add the italian Breda Zappata 308

        • There is not question the Boeing SST was a commercial desaster. The early/mid 60s where unique regarding growth, cheap energy and people believing anything is possible. We all know how this went out.
          But from an engineering point the 2707-100/200 where very advanced. Actually the main reason it failed where that it aspired to much for mid-late 60s capabilities. It should go Mach 3 (later 2.7), so it needed Titanium and steel instead of Aluminium for Concorde (Mach 2). It was an enormous plan (90 m plus long, on of the first widebody designs). Swiveling wings on top and and and. This all at the end – together with changing economics – was just one step to fare.
          Actually there was a -100 mockup with the swiveling wings. Yes, the later -300 was fare less (“just” a gigantic Concorde with Mach 2.7). Anyway Boeing “lost interest” only after the disillusion of 4000 engineers failing for years, government cuts and of course troubles with the early 747-100. The doesn’t chance the fact that the design of the -100/-200 was marvelous.

          • Congress, during the Nixon Administration, voted to discontinue subsidizing development of the Boeing 2707 and this is what killed the program.

            Hmm. Boeing. Subsidies.

          • Yes, but when it was killed it was already the -300 version without swiveling wing, shorter. Of course still titanium, still Mach 2.7 but very much less than what was initially desired. All the delays through Boeing trying to fix the swiveling wing hinge mechanism, starting environmental concern over the booms and ozon at the end opend the oportunity to finally shut it down. Would the fixed-wing and smaller Lockheed design had been choosen it would probably have made it to the sky. Anyway a comercial desaster was of course inevitable with oil prices shockes.

          • Leaving aside the technical side, two main main issues arise: enviroment – where can a supersonic plane fly? (mainly over the oceans, limiting usage) and market size and economics (how many people can and will pay $5000 por a 6 hours point to point trip Paris/London – New York vs. $400 for a 10 hours trip).
            In short : SST or wide body with low seat/mile cost.
            The 747, DC-10, L-1011 and A300 changed air tranportation in the 70’s and made fligth affordable to hundreds of millions all over the workd, expanding many areas of economic activity, like promoting low-cost tourism and many others.
            Wide body cargo planes allowed fast supply and expansion of many markets.
            (747-8F sold better than the -I version, and many wide-bodies were converted to cargo)
            Oil prices became an issue in 1973, after the SST was cancelled. Improvements in engines, aerodynamics and systems lowered the impact of increasing oil prices. Marketing tactics allow to fill seats. Today fares are far lower than 40 years ago ( in constant dollars)
            The SST was not a viable program 40-50 years ago, and unfortunately it’s the same today.

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  19. I forgot a few more: Lockeed Constitution and SNCASE Armagnac, the later went into service with TAI but lasted just a few months: bad economics/

  20. Conspicuously missing from the list are the “Cornwallis Revenge” : The BAC111 AND The Boeing 307.

    • The Boeing 307 was pre-WW II and therefore not included in the post-war parameter. The BAC 111 was, in our view, a successful program.

  21. Well…
    – 888 airplanes post-war is not a bad production record (I suppose the US military was re-equipping for transport, I don’t know its operating history, but at some point the KC-135 eclipsed it for refueling fast aircraft, the C-130 for refueling slower aircraft, it being very useful for transporting troops and goods).
    – the Conestoga has the configuration of the Bristol Freighter and Carvair (DC-4 modified), perhaps a niche market for bulky loads. (BTW, I gather there is a Bristol Freighter in the museum at Wetaskawin SE of Edmonton AB, formerly operated to a mine near Smithers BC along with a Carvair. The Bristol Freighter was used in the High Arctic by Wardair, unusual engine sound I heard starting up one morning. Turbines like the Herc were so much better but of course rather large, the Bristol may have been useful to get small equipment into a location to clear a runway big enough for the Herc to bring large equipment in. Of course the Twin Otter revolutionized Arctic flying in its utility role, and popularized commuter airline flying in its other role.)
    – failure of the 202, like the Electra and Comet, shows the market advantage of getting the design solid.
    – as do the Convair jets in a different way (too little, and too late).
    – the Avro Jetliner demise was politics by its backer, the government of Canada, and likely hampered by four engines due lack of suitable ones for twin configuration.
    – wasn’t the Trident successful in the UK? Boeing’s 727 copy of course sold well, perhaps in part because British reliability was not known (the Argosy took much work to be reliable in the Arctic, though the C-130 took some as well).
    – L1011-500 may have been a marketing problem, at least one RR rep was furious with Lockheed, they should have sold quite a few to replace 707s, I was party to evaluating but the company decided to get out of international operations rather than re-equip. (Douglas, and perhaps Lockheed, toyed with big twin derivatives of the DC-10 and L1011 for transcon, but didn’t want to make the investment.)

    • – the Mercure was indeed a strange business case, I was party to evaluating it but it offered little over a 737-200. IIRC Dassault was private then, but politics may still have played a part (the French government loaned money to Dassault). Dassault could have got ahead of Boeing by adopting the CFM-56 engine but apparently did not want to be the first to use it.
      – the VFW 614 probably was too early, old turboprops like converted Convairs and the Fokkers/Fairchild-Hillers were still viable for near 50 seats, DC-3s for near 30 seats or so plus of course at some point the Twin Otter and older aircraft near 19 seats. Do you actually know the VFW 614 did not fly well, as you claim? There are some limitations and tricks to the engine location, but it is ideal for gravel runways and easy loading of baggage. Some airlines operated the larger F-28 but IIRC it did not sell as well as it could have.
      (Another airliner that may have been too early in time was the turboprop Nord 262, though at least they sold 110. BC Airlines operated it out of Vancouver BC, being pressurized was very good over the mountains of BC. Served with several airlines, including Lake Central, and the French navy, most had slim Bastan engines but nine of a PT-6 engined version named the Mohawk 298 were operated by Alleghany.)

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