Two McDonnell Douglas jetliners are put to pasture, and the world of aviation becomes that much less interesting
WITH PHOTOGRAPHS BY BERNIE LEIGHTON
February 28, 2014
EARLIER THIS MONTH, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 made its final passenger flight.
Four decades of passenger service came to an end on February 18th, when a Biman Bangladesh Airlines DC-10 closed things out on a run from Kuwait City to Dhaka, by way of Doha and Chittagong. That’s quite a ways from Long Beach, California, where the plane was rolled out back in 1970, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included a speech by then-governor Ronald Reagan.
For the average passenger this is just a footnote, but there are those of us who can’t help marking the big old tri-jet’s retirement with a certain sadness.
Historic, beloved, star-crossed; however you describe the DC-10, it was among the better-known jetliners in history — if not always for the best reasons. It was something of a 70s-era icon — a long step down from the 747 or Concorde, perhaps, but a plane that pretty much everybody has heard of, and that many could recognize instantly. The DC-10 had one of the most distinctive silhouettes in airliner history: bulky and broad-shouldered, with its number two engine mounted eccentrically through the center of the tail.
Indeed, the oddness of that middle engine lands the DC-10 a spot on my “Ugliest Planes of All Time” list. It was as if the engineers weren’t sure what to do with it, and with time running out in their competition with Lockheed and its (much prettier) L-1011, they just rammed it through the fin.
Just the same, this very ungainliness is part of what makes the jet’s retirement unfortunate: the DC-10 was a plane with personality — a vanishing trait in a world of jetliners that have become more and more generic, in some cases all but indistinguishable from each other. Even that name, “DC-10” (the letters stood for “Douglas Commercial”), has such a smooth and distinctive ring to it. How does “A319” sound by comparison?
My first-ever trip outside the United States was on an American Airlines DC-10 from Boston to Bermuda in 1979. I was in seventh grade, yet I remember that flight in greater detail than most of what I did two weeks ago. (This was back when AA used to show a camera view of the cockpit on the bulkhead mounted movie screen.) Years later, as a pilot, one of my favorite experiences was sitting in the DC-10’s cockpit jumpseat. The flight deck’s enormous aft panes offered the lucky freeloader a literal wall of glass extending from forehead level to the knee, and equally as wide. During steep approaches or over mountains, the panorama was worthy of an Imax ticket.
To be fair, it’s also true that one of my least favorite aviation experiences also took place on a DC-10. That was an overbooked Northwest flight from Boston to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1988. We had center seats in a five-abreast middle block, in one of the last rows of economy, smack in the middle of the smoking section (yes there really were such things). And the Danes, you see, have this thing when it comes to smoking: they do it constantly and they can’t stop. It took three showers to get the smell off.
Though for others it had been a lot worse, the DC-10’s earlier history marred by a pair of unforgettable catastrophes caused at least partly by design flaws. In 1974 a THY (today Turkish Airlines) DC-10 crashed after takeoff from Orly airport outside of Paris after a poorly engineered, improperly latched cargo door burst from its hinges. The subsequent depressurization caused collapse of the cabin floor and impairment of the underfloor cables connected to the rudder and elevators. Out of control, the plane slammed into the woods killing all 346 passengers and crew. (There had been at least one earlier, similar incident that did not result in a crash.)
Then, in 1979, around the time I was flying to Bermuda, an American DC-10 crashed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport after an engine detached during takeoff and seriously damaged the plane’s wing. Before its crew could make sense of the situation, the airplane rolled 90 degrees and disintegrated in a fireball about a mile beyond the runway. (With 273 fatalities, this remains the worst-ever airplane crash on U.S. soil.) Both the engine pylon design and airline maintenance procedures were faulted by NTSB investigators, and all DC-10s were temporarily grounded by the FAA.
Fixes in place, however, the plane went on to enjoy another thirty-plus years of controversy-free flying — mostly, anyway, notwithstanding the 1989 crash of United flight 232 in Sioux City. Around 400 civilian DC-10s were delivered, as well as a military tanker version, before production came to a close in 1988.
After that final scheduled flight touched down in Dhaka, Biman Bangladesh sent the plane to Birmingham, England, for a series of — what to call them, exactly? — farewell souvenir flights for airliner buffs. The Brits are loopy about planes, and this sort of thing is quite common there — enthusiasts paying hundreds of dollars for the chance to ride aboard this or that rara avis.
One of those enthusiasts was Bernie Leighton, managing correspondent for the website Airline Reporter. Though let’s not sell his efforts short: Leighton, who lives in Redmond, Washington, actually flew all the way to Bangladesh in order to ride the plane on its repositioning run from Dhaka to Birmingham, where the rest of the estimated 1,000 enthusiasts waited. He then hung around Birmingham and caught a ride on the last of the farewell flights.
“The flights were extremely popular,” says Leighton. “Over 90 percent of the seats were sold out.”
You heard correctly: Leighton was one of a thousand people who had come to Birmingham to spend good money for a 60-minute flight to nowhere on a tired old jetliner — most of them in middle seats.
“Among global aviation enthusiasts,” Leighton explains, “The DC-10 has a special place in our hearts, despite those accidents earlier in its career.” (The “DC” in the airplane’s name was once mocked as an abbreviation for “Death Cruiser” or “Douglas Coffin.”) And the tri-jet design was an important engineering stepping stone,” he says. “In the 1970s, while the 747 was the real queen of the skies, many airlines thought it was too large and too costly to operate. And at the time, remember, there was no framework from which a twin-engine aircraft could be certified to fly long distances overwater. So for many airlines, this three-engine, long-range, not-overly-big widebody was the perfect option for opening up new markets and increasing the profits on existing ones.”
Though it was never the most comfortable plane, he remembers. “The cabin could be loud, and the plane flew at as such a nose-high cruise angle that galley carts would sometimes go rolling down the aisle!”
Biman and the Birmingham Airport threw quite a party. “A much larger affair than I had expected,” says Leighton. “They had champagne and a special DC-10 cake. Biman’s CEO was present to give the send-off, dressed in a shirt that said, ‘I flew on the last DC-10.'”
As for the flight itself, Leighton describes the takeoff as a “rocket launch,” the long-range DC-10 carrying only a small amount of a fuel for such an unusually quick trip. “A long-haul aircraft going up for a one-hour scenic flight is always going to leave the ground in a hurry,” he says. “But this was under twenty seconds!
“Afterwards, everyone got out of their seats to take photos. There were even two men from Biman selling DC-10 related merchandise onboard. And by selling I do not mean pushing a trolley or sedately asking if passengers wanted anything; I mean full on carnival barking!
“Meanwhile there were 150 of us in a cramped space all trying to take pictures. It was such a bizarre spectacle that the cabin crew began to take photos of us. Local media was on aboard too, also with cameras. Things got so surreal, that at one point there was a camera crew taking a photograph of me, taking a photo of someone taking a photo of the cabin crew, while a member of the cabin crew was taking a photo of the whole thing. I was grateful to have made the earlier flight, to get the photographs I wanted in peace.”
Curiously, the DC-10’s retirement comes only a month after the retirement of its smaller and older sibling, the DC-9. Delta Air Lines was the last major airline in the world to operate the DC-9 in scheduled commercial passenger service; the final flight, from Minneapolis to Atlanta, taking place on January 6th.
The DC-9 was a fraction of the DC-10’s size, but it was, in its own way, no less influential, and will be fondly remembered. The “Diesel Nine” made its maiden flight in 1965. Delta, the airplane’s first customer, would withdraw them from service the early 1990s, only to re-inherit the model following its merger with Northwest Airlines in 2008.
Many of Northwest’s fleet, including the plane that made the sunset flight for Delta, still wore the old “NC” registration suffix, dating back to the days of North Central Airlines, one of the companies that merged in 1979 to form Republic Airlines, which later became part of Northwest. Lots of lineage there.
There were numerous DC-9 permutations over the decades, including the popular MD-80 and MD-90 series, hundreds of which are still flying, mostly in the U.S. (For the record, I hated when McDonnell Douglas switched from the graceful-sounding “DC-” prefix to the more workmanlike “MD-“.)
When Boeing took over McDonnell Douglas, it changed the name of the final MD-90 variant, the MD-95, to the “Boeing 717” — a designation intended for a never-realized military project many years ago.
So call it what you will, the DC-9 lives on.
And so does the DC-10, at least in one capacity. For a while, anyway, you can still catch a glimpse of one in the white-and-purple colors FedEx, which continues to operate a sizable fleet of DC-10 freighters. Albeit they are now known officially as MD-10s, having been upgraded with a two-pilot cockpit. A limited number of MD-11s — a modernized DC-10 variant with the same basic profile but distinguished by winglets — also remains in service.
Initial plans were for Biman’s DC-10 to be installed in an aviation museum in the British town of Lutterworth. The plan fell through, however, and the jet returned to Bangladesh, where, like the derelict ships on the beaches of Chittagong, it will be cut up for scrap.