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You may remember the guilty pleasure that was the 1997 Nicolas Cage vehicle (the movie, not the plane) that also starred John Malkovich and John Cusack. As publicity for the real Con Air (movie) said, “They were deadly on the ground. Now they have wings.” Indeed.

But was there a real Con Air – a real airline – and did it really transport hardened criminals around the US? The truth is definitely out there and your sleuth columnist has the answers.

Who or what was the real Con Air?

By the way, what was it about dramatic aircraft movies in the 1990s? Together with Con Air (prisoners hijack a plane transporting them), we had Air Force One (terrorists hijack the president’s plane), Passenger 57 (a terrorist on the loose in a passenger jet), Executive Decision (more terrorists hijack another plane) and others.

Unusual freight and cargo

There are a number of air charter operators that specialise in transporting rather unusual kinds of cargo from place to place. This happens in every corner of the world, every hour of every day. Your author has some experience in this regard.

I regularly transported unusual loads – reality TV film crews, producers and contestants; industrial magnets for mine sites; and millions of dollars worth of gold (per trip) from mines in remote areas of Western Australia back to the capital city of Perth.

We would carry, from memory, several hundred kilograms of gold in plastic, white, sealed, labelled tubs the size of a large loaf of bread. In a 50 seat airliner there was only one passenger – the security guard. I believe that the value of the average load was around AUD$12M, although on each flight it varied up and down by several million dollars.

Invariably there was some light-hearted banter in the long cruise segments about how exactly one might abscond with such a payload. Discretion being the better part of valour, I won’t expand on any of those creative ideas here, although feel to speculate in the comments below.

However, I digress.

Real ‘Con Airs’ do exist

My partner flew a real Con Air style ‘service’, flying 20 to 30 prisoners at a time between prison centres in Western Australia. There were several guards on board those aircraft, and yes, they were handcuffed. The prisoners, not the guards. I don’t know if she ever felt completely safe on those flights, despite being behind a locked door….

These sorts of prisoner transfers occur regularly every week, all around the world. So in once sense there are ‘Con Airs’ airborne regularly, although they would not be named as such, and would simply be anonymous charter flights with just a simple flight number.

But what about a real Con Air? My research indicates that were at least two Con Air airlines.

The Scandinavian Con Air

The first was Conair of Scandinavia A/S, founded in Denmark by ‘charter pioneer’ Simon Spies in 1965. It operated initially with a fleet of Douglas DC-7 aircraft which had been taken from the defunct operator ‘Flying Enterprise’.

The real Con Air. Conair Douglas DC-7 - Wikimedia Commons
The real Con Air. Conair Douglas DC-7 – Wikimedia Commons

From around 1970 the company acquired second hand Boeing 720 aircraft. The oddly-named (for Boeing) 720 was developed from the 707, looks just like it, but had a shorter fuselage and was designed for short to mid range routes. As Donald Trump would say “Not many people know that.”

The real Con Air. Conair Boeing 720 - Wikimedia Commons
The real Con Air. Conair Boeing 720 – Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1980s the company expanded their capacity with some second-hand Airbus A300 airframes and in 1990, following the death of the founder, placed an order for 6 Airbus A320s.

The real Con Air. Conair Airbus A300 - Wikimedia Commons
The real Con Air. Conair Airbus A300 – Wikimedia Commons

In 1993 Conair merged with Scanair, which became known as Premiair and was then renamed as My Travel. Today that airline is based at Copenhagen Airport, has been renamed again, and is now known as Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia.

The Australian Con Air

Starting quite some time prior to it’s Scandinavian counterpart, Conellan Airways, which was renamed to Connair in 1970, was originally founded way back in 1939 in outback Australia. It was head-quartered in Alice Springs in central Australia.

The real Con Air. Connellan Airways, de Havilland Dragon Rapide, 1948 at Roper River - public domain
The real Con Air. Connellan Airways, de Havilland Dragon Rapide, 1948 at Roper River – public domain

It served remote aboriginal communities, cattle stations (ranches), mine sites and towns throughout the Northern Territory. They operated De Havilland Dragon Rapides, de Havilland Fox Moths in the early days, and later de Havilland Herons, Beechcraft Barons, Beechcraft Queenairs and other types.

The real Con Air. Connellan Airways, de Havilland Fox Moth, RFDS 1954 - public domain
The real Con Air. Connellan Airways, de Havilland Fox Moth, RFDS 1954 – public domain

Connair would have performed all the duties typically associated with an outback operator, such a delivering mail and freight, flying passengers to remote towns, flying magistrates to their community court houses for a day of hearings, flying workers in and out of mine sites and operating contracted Royal Flying Doctor Services (known as the RFDS).

Tragedy strikes

In January 1977 a disgruntled former employee flew a Beechcraft Baron into a hangar at the Connair headquarters in Alice Springs, killing 5 people, including the founder’s son. Another 4 people were injured.

Together with growing financial difficulties, this spelled the sad end for a pioneering Australian airline, that had operated in some of the harshest conditions with the most rudimentary equipment, for over 40 years.

More Airlines

If you visit the Australian Broadcasting Commission website there is a wonderful story on the Australian Connair, its people, and it’s colourful history.

Aeroplane Videos

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