Farewell Douglas

Two McDonnell Douglas jetliners are put to pasture, and the world of aviation becomes that much less interesting


End of the line for the McDonnell Douglas DC-10

It’s the end of the line for the McDonnell Douglas DC-10

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.

Biman DC-10 marquee

“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.'”

Biman DC-10 cake

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.”

Biman DC-10 interior

Biman DC-10 cabin crew

Biman DC-10 cockpit

Biman DC-10 port side

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.


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97 Responses to “Farewell Douglas”
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  1. Paul Ross says:

    The Biman DC-10 still flies, well in model form anyway!

    I was walking past their office in Mayfair, London, and there in the window, proudly awaiting its next call to duty, is a lovely model DC-10 in Bimin colours. You can see it on Google StreetView: 17 Conduit St, Mayfair, London W1S 2BJ. They kindly let me photograph it from inside the office which I can send to you if you like.

  2. Scaredy Passenger says:

    “For the record, I hated when McDonnell Douglas switched from the graceful-sounding “DC-” prefix to the more workmanlike “MD-“.”

    So did we all!

  3. Vickid says:

    I loved working on the DC9. I wish I could find one of those old beverage carts!!!!

  4. Tom in Vegas says:

    My first flight was on American 265 Heavy, Chicago to San Fran. In a DC-10, in 1974. I was a teenager and the interior was huge and only 2/3 full. A great flight with meals and a movie.

  5. Carlos Si says:

    2014 saw a lot of type retirements; American’s transcon 762s, KLM’s MD11s, US Airways’ 734s, and the two Douglas aircraft mentioned in your post. Everything consolidated to 73G and a320s, even the wide-bodies are getting replaced with frequency rather than a 1-1 replacement, like Delta’s 76Ps.

    I personally liked the “jammed engine 2” through the fin; I thought the L1011 looked weird with the curvy thing, although it’s not a bad weird.

  6. Roger Lemberg says:

    Permit me to make a small correction: the Boeing 717 was the KC135’s original designation.

  7. Battery H says:

    Can’t let a falsehood go uncorrected, even years later. Ronald Reagan had nothing to do with the deregulation of the airlines (for good or bad), the legislation was sponsored by Ted Kennedy, and signed by Jimmy Carter. Better luck next time!

  8. Robert Sudock says:

    118° 8’25.17″W

    Along the northeast perimeter of KLGB are the coordinates of the iconic neon sign “Fly DC Jets.” This sign adorns the roof above the southern hangar doors to the building where where every DC, MD, and 717 jet was assembled and finished. This is how I remember it.

    Since 1963, my home is 5,480 feet due north of this hanger and have often driven past – marveling at how close Lakewood Boulevard was to the aircraft. If you had a ladder and were walking down the sidewalk, you could literally touch the nose, wingtip, or tail, depending how the aircraft was oriented.


    The logo combines that of the original Douglas Aircraft with Boeing’s

    Just to be clear, DC jets (DC-8,-9, and-10) were manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company. The MD-series (MD-10,-11,-80, and -90) were the result of the merged McDonnell-Douglas companies. (There were a few MD-10s.) And Boeing’s acquisition rebranded the MD-95 as the 717.

    • Robert Sudock says:

      Clumsily, I forgot to add the most important point about this sign: Boeing sold the property to Mercedes-Benz, who are using the hangar as an office, training, and finishing facility for vehicles imported through the Long Beach/Los Angeles harbor complex. Part of the agreement was that Mercedes-Benz was to maintain the “Fly DC Jets.” The sign should endure for the decades to come.


      • Parker West says:

        Your right on the Port of Long Beach, although I had to look it up. It still makes no sence to bring Mercedes vehicles through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, but who am i to question Mercedes.
        Mercedes-Benz USA uses the port of Baltimore for 40% of its vehicle imports, while Brunswick and Long Beach each handle 30%, according to the OEM’s James Kasamis, manager, national import and domestic logistics. For exports from its plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it uses Brunswick for 80% of its volume, with the rest moving through the ports of Jacksonville and Savannah, Georgia. Currently, Mercedes-Benz’s imports account for 70% of its port throughput, which Kasamis says are growing slightly faster than exports. Beginning next year, however, the carmaker will build the C-Class series in the US and end imports of the car from South Africa, which may reduce overall imports.

        I’m happy about that sign FLY DOUGLAS JETS

  9. Gloria says:

    0h, I had a white knuckle flight from EWR to LAX in 1981 on a business trip. The floor of plane buckled under my feet! The descent into LAX seemed to be straight down! I happened to be sitting next to a Boeing
    engineer who had been telling me how Boeings were superior. He was having white knuckles, too. My boss, sitting few seats away, had made this trip often…she was pale as a ghost.

    On the return, she said plans had changed…we were going to take a red-eye back…an L-1011. I was stuck in the last row and I felt like the center engine was in my lap and it was unbearably noisy!

    That had to be the worst flights I ever took….shortly thereafter I decided getting on a crappy plane for a miserable job wasn’t worth risking my life for!! I got out of marketing!!!

  10. Jeffrey L. says:

    We still see these DC-10’s in Puerto Rico. We golf at the Punta Borinquen golf club, located on the former Ramey SAC base in the NW corner of the island, and FedEx has a big facility there, and it’s also an unloading and (perhaps) refueling stop for Martinair flying flowers in from Chile, with an occasional Lufthansa-liveried variant of this plane also freighting in flowers, maybe leased to Martinair for their overload? Anyway, the golf course is right under the final approach and it’s quite a site to see one of these monsters at around 125′ on final to BQN airport. There was one stuck there for about 8 months…it had had some kind of engine failure on the starboard wing, and they wouldn’t fly it out to a better maintenance facility on just two engines. It should be airworthy enough if empty and the other two engines work, yes? I had figured they’d fly it to Miami where they have better maintenance facilities. Perhaps there were other issues with it. So there it sat for 8 months waiting for a replacement engine. Gone now.

  11. Whaler31 says:

    In the mid-80’s, United used to fly DC-10s from LAX to SFO, believe it or not. I used to take that flight with about 15 people on-board.

    Oh the good old days of US Regulated and Subsidized flying…but Ronald Reagan got rid of that.

    Flew the DC to Hawaii a few times, I guess I was lucky my DC flights were always empty. The stewardesses took super good care of you, because they had nothing else to do!

  12. Chris King says:

    I saw a DC-10 at the Toronto Airport on Monday Sept 1st 2014.
    What a site.

  13. Gay Twilight ( John Marino ) CA 4K OWNER and Wide feet owner & Grand Lux Cafe eater and DC-10 seller says:

    I sell DC-10s door to door. I want to live the good life. My dad said this is a good idea. I think I sold one DC-10 to a fat man. He told me I have to have sex with him to sell the plane. My dad said this is a good idea. I am looking forward to selling the plane. I am looking at million dollar homes so I can live the good life! DC-10 are safe but watch out for Sabotage!

  14. Neal says:

    My first ever commercial flight was on DC-10 in October of 1991, a very full Lufthansa flight 423 from BOS-FRA. I remember the steep climb and seeing the lights of Revere Beach out of the port side windows (I was on the aisle in the center section). I also remember, at 17 years old, thinking that it was the longest flight possible (at about 7 hours, it hardly is, of course), the meals, dinner and then breakfast, which included smoked salmon, the hot towels that smelled like Vicks Vaporub and then landing in Frankfurt in the fog the next morning and the chaos of navigating FRA with my class at the same time that many of the other transatlantics arrived. It was my first flight anywhere and I’ll never forget it, as I have virtually almost all flights since.

  15. John Hardman says:

    To pick up on a reference someone made to the ‘debris-on-the-runway’ factor in the Paris Concorde disaster, I found an article in an old,thrown-away,airline-interest magazine (ca. 2000) in which a pilot recounted how, when travelling from Washington as a passenger in the ‘back’ of an Air France Concorde in the late ’70s,he saw a large hole appear in the wing adjacent to his seat as the ‘plane left the runway.His frantic attempts to alert the pilots via the stewardesses were, not unnaturally, ignored (just another panicky crazy).Only when he was able to leave his seat and drag one of the flight-crew to see for himself (just before the ‘plane would have reached a speed that would have caused the damaged wing to break up) was anything done to turn back to Washington.
    This incident was very likely caused by a burst tire, rather than by the direct impact on the wing of thrown-up runway debris,but was anything done after this incident to protect/strengthen those areas towards the rear of the thin wing’s underside that were vulnerable to debris-damage? There were only a handful of Concordes,anyway,but did someone decide to let it go and not to ‘pull’ the aircraft in order to protect their image?

    • Jeffrey L. says:

      It always appeared to me there was more to the Concorde story than we knew. Considering the vast sums of money spent on this project, they folded the tent and dropped it. Why wasn’t it used on a route where it’s credible speed could really have been utilized, like SFO or LAX to Tokyo, or South Korea, or the Philippines, for example? It just seems like they bailed on it pretty quickly after spending so much to make it happen. Just my humble opinion.

      • Captkirk_4 says:

        It didn’t have the range, also it was so incredibly expensive that it had to be on a route frequented by the super wealthy.

  16. Bill Cowper says:

    I flew on a DC-10 only once, in the summer of 1977. Believe it or not it was Flight 96 from LAX to Detroit. I met a flight attendant on that flight that I met again on my return flight 3 weeks later (that was a Boeing 707). We both lived in San Diego and started dating. Sadly she was working AA-191, most of the flight attendants on that flight were from San Diego. Still, that only DC-10 flight that I had, brings back many warm memories.

  17. Vic says:

    I’ve seen a DC-10 in recent weeks near YYZ Toronto, once on approach and once on takeoff. Looks like KLM but as I’ve been driving both times I didn’t get a long enough look to see if they were cargo or passenger. Definitely 10’s though, engine straight through the tail, not done and out the body. Beautiful birds though.

  18. Sarah C. says:

    I know I’m really late to the commenting game for this post, but KLM has 2 DC-10s in full livery parked next to the highway that passes next to (and under one of the runways at) Schiphol. They’re for sale, or at least that’s what we were told when we went on an airport tour a couple of years ago, and they’re gorgeous. It’ll be a sad day when they do go, even if it’s off to new adventures, because they’re familiar landmarks.

  19. Jeff Harrison says:

    I went to work for McDonnell Aircraft in 1979 and retired from Boeing in 2007. I was startled to discover this deep and enduring antipathy between Douglas and McDonnell. As an example, shortly (very shortly) after the merger the McDonnell Douglas neon sign on the manufacturing building was taken down and replaced by a Boeing neon sign. It took almost a year for that to happen in St. Louis. Personally, I’d always preferred Douglas’ airliners to Boeing’s and the sad consequence of the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas merger was the complete destruction of Douglas. Boeing didn’t need the MD-80 series of DC-9 variants nor did they need the MD-10/11 variants of the DC-10. The MD-95, which was supposed to be Douglas’ entry into the regional jet market and rebranded as the 717 was never pushed by Boeing and production ceased after only a few aircraft were built.

    A sad end to a proud company that produced many amazing aircraft and was the ascendant airline maker until it was lapped by Boeing with the 707 that ushered in the jetliner age.

  20. Seth says:

    Here’s a link to a video I shot earlier this year at MHT of a FedEx MD-10 that began life in 1972 as a DC-10 carrying passengers for United. 42 years old and still going strong!


  21. Brian Parker says:

    I have fond memories of British Midland’s Diamond service DC-9 flights to and from Amsterdam and Heathrow back in the mid-eighties. The idea was to attack the over-priced and under-in-flight-serviced BA and KLM flights with their exorbitant business class and pathetic economy class.

    British Midland took their noisy cramped little planes on a short route and just threw service at us for an economy price. Warm food, great cabin crew and an endless supply of booze made some of these flights even more fun than the destination.

    Tears in my gin as I remember.

  22. John Cavilia says:

    In addition to the FedEx cargo planes still serving, another DC-10 variant is still in service, and will probably be flying for at least a decade or two longer. You mentioned the Air Force’s KC-10 tanker, but did not note that more than 50 of them are in service, and won’t likely be retired until replaced by the KC-46 (a 767 variant), a process that is proving very slow.

  23. Fritz says:

    Sorry – but good riddance to this over cramped, rattling bucket of bolts. Rode on many flights spanning the globe, and cannot count the number of times that the shaking luggage compartments, noisy interior, very uncomfortable seats, and early history of key components falling off in flight would keep me awake with one eye opened. MUCH preferred the FAR SUPERIOR Boeing, and later Airbus products. Bye Bye DC-10 – Don’t come back!

    • Captkirk_4 says:

      Nothing beats the uncramped 2-3-2 seating on the 767 for a long flight, sadly they are starting to go as well.

    • smstachwick says:

      Those things are typically because of the airline you fly with. Especially in the case of major disasters like AA191. Engines don’t just fall off airplanes unless you damage the pylon. In fact, McDonnell Douglas specifically instructed American Airlines NOT to remove the engine and pylon as a single unit. They did it anyway, and the FAA was about an inch away from shutting them down because their maintenance procedures were in direct violation of their Air Carrier Operating Certificate.

  24. Lime D. Zeze says:

    I always loved the DC-10, one of my favorites. Probably due to growing up in SoCal and having a dad who worked at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach I am a little biased.

  25. Wes says:

    Out here by IAD, we are treated to a handful of FedEx ’10s each week. Last Tuesday, the 4th, I got to see N366FE on final for 1C. Originally delivered to United as N1803U in June 1971, the 8th DC10 built, still flying strong. Absolutely tickled my mind to think of the taxi and apron space this plane has shared over her nearly 43 years!

  26. Vidiot says:

    I’m just shocked that Patrick, of all people, didn’t mention the DC-10’s appearance in the lyrics of the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs”, contrasting the violence of the Basque bombings (and the bygone days of Spain’s Civil War) with planeloads of tourists arriving to stay in the hotels targeted by ETA:

    Spanish bombs rock the province
    I’m hearing music from another time
    Spanish bombs on the Costa Brava
    I’m flying in on a DC-10 tonight

    • Patrick says:

      Oh come on, THIS POST was only a few inches down the home page, and mentions that song specifically (one of the more annoying songs on the “London Calling” album, unfortunately).

      It’s in the book too!

  27. Seth Knoepler says:

    Anyone know why the L-1011 was a distant memory when the DC-10 was (and, for freight, still is ) making money for some carriers? I remember there being a perception that Lockheed had sweated the details in a way that Douglas hadn’t and that L-1011’s coach configuration felt more humane despite the same number of aisle and window seats. Were those pre-oil embargo Rolls Royce engines gas guzzlers?

    • Irwin says:

      Douglas stayed in the commercial airliners business longer than Lockheed and continued to improve the DC-10, eventually into the MD11 series. And there was also support from Douglas (and Boeing) on freight conversion. That’s the main reason why DC-10 lasted a lot longer than L-1011 in revenue service.

    • D R Lunsford says:

      Seth – yes, the L-1011 could only use RR RB211 engines, there was no chance of an upgrade that would save fuel. Also there were very few of the later -200 series with sufficient capacity and a large enough cargo door to be of any use.


    • smstachwick says:

      That RB211 is a decent engine. They still use them on 757s.

  28. Edward Furey says:

    There was another incident during the early testing of the DC-10. The first time they pressurized the cabin in a ground test (or one of the first times), the defective cargo door blew open and floor collapsed. An engineering memo on the problem noted that this would normally result in the “loss of the aircraft.” That memo proved to be costly to MD when it emerged in the lawsuits that followed the Turkish Airlines crash. The door did not close properly (sometimes) but gave a false positive indicator that it had been secured. For some reason, even after this and the American Airlines incident, MD did not make a proper fix.

  29. Irwin says:

    My last DC-10 flight was LAX-HNL-LAX on United… right before UA retired the type. I remember several people asking me where I was staying in Honolulu, which was (is?) a typical thing people ask each other on the way to HNL because you can share cabs to Waikiki hotels, and I replied “nowhere… I’m coming right back to LA”. I got several blank stares when people tried to process what I just told them.

  30. Johnny Rogers says:

    I’m really, really sorry, but I can’t get past those disasters. The DC-10 was always a marked plane after that for me. Then when its imitator, the L-1011 (well, they looked alike to me) had the Sioux City deal and the 25 cent nose gear lightbulb malfunction that brought one down in the Everglades — you know, the one with Ernest Borgnine going around haunting all the other planes they’d installed “practically new-condition” equipment from that crash (Flight 401, if I’m not wrong) into other planes of the fleet and crew kept seeing “ghosts” . . .

    Well, I say, goodbye and good riddance to both aircraft. They terrified me when I had to fly in them and my only memory of them is bad (I believe the Kiwi plane that plowed into Erebus was an L-1011 as well) so I’m afraid there will be no champagne glasses clinking in this household to say goodbye.

    Yes, I know the 747 has had more possibly far worse crashes but she inspires nothing but trust in me and always has since I flew one in 1970 from Heathrow to JFK.

    Goodbye, goodbye, may you turn regularly over in your grave there in the Boneyard while you remember your victims.


    • smstachwick says:

      Air New Zealand Flight 901 was a DC-10, as was United Airlines Flight 232 (the Sioux City crash.). If anything, the four most significant DC-10 accidents made flying safer than before. Ditto with any large-scale aviation disaster.

    • smstachwick says:

      I also feel obligated to point out that AA191 was caused by deficient maintenance at American Airlines, and that Air New Zealand flight 901 was caused by crew error and the airline’s failure to update the navigation charts. UA232 was caused by manufacturing defects in the engine and negligent maintenance at United Airlines, not the aircraft itself. And of course, if the TK981 baggage handler had been trained correctly in operating the cargo door, the accident would not have occurred. None of the fatal errors lie entirely with the DC-10’s design. If anything, the crew’s maneuvers on FedEx Flight 705 showed that the airplane was in fact very strongly constructed. By the end of its passenger career, the DC-10 ended up with a safety record comparable to other widebody aircraft of the era, including the 747.

      • Siotu says:

        The loss of the DC-10 at Mt Erebus, Antarctica, was due to company processes and procedures. A change was made to the route data and navigation instructions to be loaded into the flight computer without informing the pilots of the fact that alterations had been made, nor the effect of said alterations. The result of this needlessly careless oversight was that when the aircraft arrived at Antarctica the flight crew understood their position to be quite different from what it actually was. Perhaps this would not have been an issue, except that the aircraft flew into a whiteout right behind which waited Mt Erebus. As far as the pilots were concerned their location was safely above McMurdo Sound, not headed directly towards a towering volcano…

        During the subsequent Commission of Enquiry the presiding judge (Justice Mahon) was so appalled at the behaviour of the company, its cover-ups, destruction of evidence, general wickedness and dishonesty that he commented on how he had been subject to “an orchestrated litany of lies”. He was no fool and saw straight through to the truth of what had happened and what was going on. The conclusions were that the pilots were not informed of the reprogramming of the flight computer and this was the primary cause of the crash. It was also concluded that the company had engaged in poor (careless) practices and that high level executives had engaged in a cover up. That is, it was not a flaw of the DC-10 aircraft.

        • Siotu says:

          So, there are three points to make. Firstly, the loss of the DC-10 at Erebus was not crew error. Secondly, the loss was not due to a shortcoming or flaw of the DC-10 aircraft. Finally (and most interestingly), the findings of Justice Mahon were never overturned. They were ultimately upheld by the Privvy Council.

          For those who are interested, what occurred was that the company appealed the finds of the Commission to the Privvy Council. The findings were upheld in total, although the Council did state that Judge Mahon ought to have allowed those whom he determined to have engaged in the cover-up, and who presented the “orchestrated litany of lies”, a right of reply. It was a matter of natural law that they ought to have been allowed the opportunity to defend themselves and contest evidence of their malfeasance. The company desperately presented this procedural objection to the public as a great victory and behaved as though they had been vindicated. They hadn’t been. All the Judges findings and conclusions (that documents had been suppressed, that witnesses had lied etc) were not over-ruled. The Privvy Council did not repudiate what the Judge had found and take the position of the company that any of it was false. Subsequently, Justice Mahon, who by this time was retired, wrote a book (“Verdict on Erebus”). He calls out the company management and states directly what they had done. If he was wrong, here was the opportunity to sue. They ran away and hid…

    • gerry says:

      the everglades crash was an L-1011. Piloted by a captain who was intent on investigating a stupid light bulb failure.

  31. Jim says:

    My first-ever job as a manufacturing engineer was McDonnell/Douglas at Long Beach. I work for another firm now and am glad they saved the big neon sign that said “Fly DC Jets” which used to sit on top of the building where all the DC-10s were made on Lakewood Blvd. But the real reason I’ll never forget the DC-10 is that back in 1992 at Christmas my then-fiancé and I (encouraged by lots of free champagne the attendants were serving us once they found out we were engaged)joined the “Mile High” club in the discrete confines of the aft-most right hand lavatory. Tight, but doable and as far as we could tell, undetected.

    • Fritz says:

      Just made my point about why this bucket of bolts was such a piece of crap – the so-called “engineers” were busy screwing around when they should have been paying attention to safety issues. Hope you are retired and out of the gene pool.

  32. Dave M. says:

    Flew redeye from honolulu to LAX in the early 90s on a half-full DC-10.

    Had the whole center row to myself in the back of the plane.

    best. flight. ever.

  33. Moghni Rahmat says:

    Malaysia Airlines System (MAS) entry into wide body was the DC10-30 in 1976. I was posted to the Douglas Factory at Long Beach as the Airline Production Inspector though out the assembly of our first two DC10 Fuselage # 228 ( registered as 9M – MAS ) and # 240 ( registered as 9M – MAT ) over a period of 18 months.
    Mr John Brezendine was then the President os DAC then and I wonder if Ernie Mitchell, Larry Utberg of Customer Services whom I got aquainted well, and not forgetting the helpful secretary attached to us Ms Sandy Schumaker, are still around.
    I had the opportunity to meet with other customers rep outside the USA accepting the DC 10 and DC9 aircraft, like UTA, SAS, Yugoslav,KLM and of course our close neighbour Garuda of Indonesia.
    DAC was a good company with personal touch to its customer and they make sure that the aircraft is delivered to our satisfaction in our specifications.
    Still I use to tease DAC that they are still primitive then what I call the ” bicycle chain, pulleys and control cable technology ” in their flight control system as compared to the sleek hydraulic servo system of Boeing. MAS operated B 737 and B 707 before buying the DC10. Their answer was simple. “It works, why not?”
    Anyway DC 10 is robust but one must “nurse” it well. We in MAS had no major problem with it.

  34. Ron Edwards says:

    A WW2 P51 pilot loved the DC 10 because thrust at take off reminded him of his war flying days. I always enjoyed DC 10 take offs myself!

  35. Peter Foss says:

    Bernie Leighton described the “rocket launch” of an almost-empty DC-10.

    Several years ago, I flew a Lufthansa 747-400 First Class FRA/DFW.

    Without a doubt, it was one of the most enjoyable flights I have ever had (and I have done a LOT of traveling).

    The plane landed in Atlanta, and emptied out. Then we continued to DFW. I was the only person in First Class; there were three in Business, and a smattering in Coach.

    The aircraft lined up with the runway, and the pilot put the pedal to the metal. I swear it felt as though the plane only rolled ten feet before shooting into the air like a fighter jet. I believe we must have reached cruising altitude before the end of the runway. It was truly one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had in an aircraft.

  36. […] much less interesting. With some marvelous photos by Bernie Leighton of the final DC-10 flight. https://askthepilot.com/douglas-retirements/ Enjoy. […]

  37. Lee says:

    I love to fly, I’m happy as a clam in any plane I’m in, even some God-awful boxy wing-over-fuselage 2-engine prop plane that USAir had going from Richmond to Pittsburg and Richmond to Newark. (Maybe someone knows what model that is.) The business travel I did usually had me in a 737 and I’ve always liked that plane. But when you’re poor like me you rarely if ever fly first class and I don’t pick a seat over the wings because I want a view so that puts me behind the engine exhaust so it’s noisy. Then one day I caught a flight on a DC-9 and it was so quiet I thought I died and went to heaven. It’s also got great lines from any and every perspective.

  38. Jeff Latten says:

    FedEx uses them for freight. We see one come in every morning to BQN, their hub here in Puerto Rico. I think Lufthansa also uses them for freight and MartinAir also….bringing flowers from South America to I don’t know where, with a refueling stop here.

  39. […] her first flight as an infant. Now, as Patrick Smith reports, both the DC-9, and the larger DC-10, have flown their last flights. The DC-10 went out with a bang (bad metaphor for that plane), with special flights scheduled for […]

  40. Randy says:

    Doesn’t the Forest Service (or whoever does such things) use the -10 as a forest fire fighting aircraft: water and chemicals?

    Coming home from Vietnam in December of 1972 I flew first from Honolulu to LAX, then a second plane to O’Hare. The second flight was a -10. A guy was buying me drinks (because I was a veteran) and said he “never took Douglas aircraft–he liked 747’s better. He pulled out a list of flights (United, maybe??). They were ALL 747’s except our flight that evening. He was pissed. That, I think, is my only -10 experience.

  41. Mark Harrison says:

    Hi Patrick,

    I just happened to see that Air Crash Investigation episode on the DC-10 at O’Hare this week.

    I knew most of what happened from contemporary memory but the most interesting part was that the pilots didn’t realise that they were stalling. The stick shaker was powered by the number 1 engine! So the poor buggers performed the exact opposite manoeuvre to what was needed trying to climb and losing airspeed.

    Even more depressing when the NTSB simulated this and found that with the stick shaker working the pilots had a fighting chance. Of course, all sorts of other problems might have happened after that so we will never know.


  42. […] it out by now, I’m interested in transportation. So, naturally, I found this article about the retirement of the last DC-10 and DC-9 in passenger service fascinating. I actually see DC-10s on a regular basis — as our van exits the 105 to drop off […]

  43. andrew willard says:

    I had a chance to ride the DC-10 on a round trip Boston to Freeport Bahamas in the mid-80’s on a Spring Break college junket. It was a charter flight with limited food/drink and a staff that did not care.

    I will never forget that first look walking down the aisle of see 5 across the middle! Commented to my now wife, I would not want to fly this cross country…

  44. Tim says:

    There was a time (1989-1990)when I flew from EWR to SFO on a regular basis. Continental devoted a part of the cabin to make a proper rectangular sit down bar. (In economy). They had regular airline seats at the sides, in case of turbulence, but IIRC the bar was just like any other bar on the ground. I remember, once the seatbelt sign was turned off you could just get up and take your seat…drink for 4 1/2 hours, have a chat, and then go back to your seat for landing. That’s my favourite memory of the DC-10. And a great way to cover 3000 miles.

    • Peter Foss says:

      Yes, I recall those bars as well. There were Pong consoles where one might amuse oneself by trying to hit a slow-moving erratic ball with a paddle.

      For a while Frank Sinatra Jr. used to play piano(!) on American’s transcontinental flights.

      And then the bean counters ruined everything………….and continue to do so today.

  45. Crocodile Chuck says:

    The blogger omitted this 1979 catastrophe from the history of the DC-10:


    • Michael W says:

      Unlike the Paris (especially) and Chicago (less so) crashes, at Erebus the plane was not at all to blame, so it shouldn’t affect people’s opinion of the DC-10.

  46. chris dinvb says:

    Grew up a short bicycle ride from Purdue’s LAF where Hugh Hefner kept the bunny jet DC-9. I think I remember a bubble on top for map-and-pencil navigation if everything else went to hell. And spent some of my twenties near the old Stapleton in Denver. I’d ride a bicycle to the fence near the end of 26L and watch a line of aircraft descend toward the airport. DC-10 was my favorite, and in part because of it’s distinctive sound. Both of these, to my eye, attractive airplanes. And they became to me what commercial aviation is about.

  47. Patrick says:

    I flew on the first revenue flight of Wardair’s first DC-10 YYZ to LAX. This was back in the days in Canada, when charters really were. We were booked on a 707, but just before the flight they got delivery of the DC-10. They couldn’t sell more tickets under the charter rules in those days, but switched in the DC-10 anyway.

    Fantastic flight lots of room, the typical fantastic Wardair service. Not a cloud in the sky and the pilot gave us a tour of the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. A great plane

    • Vic says:

      My first ever commercial flight was a Wardair DC10 from YYZ to Malaga Spain in 1985. Love the DC10, nothing like it. I hope they don’t all end up as scrap in the end. I will still pull over on the 401 if I see one taking off or landing at YYZ!

  48. Chris says:

    My only flight on a DC-10 was one leg to London on Northwest. The takeoff climb seemed to be much steeper than any other I’ve had on a comparable widebody. Does anyone know if that was a characteristic of the DC-10’s performance? Or just my perception or the oddities of the weather that day?

  49. Robert says:

    We can expect to see a few DC-10s fly in a very specialized role in the US for a number of years to come. 10 Tanker has converted a pair of DC-10s (and are rumoured to be converting a third) for aerial firefighting. The airplanes are distinctive not only for their regular profiles; they also have a series of tanks (containing almost 12,000 gallons) slung underneath its belly and are painted with bright orange highlights.
    I was fortunate enough to ride in the jumpseat for about 15 missions and can attest to the Imax-worthy view that Patrick mentions. However, my flights were infinitely enhanced by the fact we were making repeated low level runs above active forest fires at a mere 200 feet above the tree canopy. Yes, in a DC-10.

    • JimV says:

      A worthy purpose which the aircraft in the article should have been converted toward instead of being broken up for scrap — fire-suppression tankers will likely be in great demand across the US west and Australian outback, and perhaps in a number of other areas as well.

  50. Rob says:

    I was wondering what sort of “personality” a DC-10 has when flying. I heard that the MD-80’s are known as “mad dogs” and that MD-11s are squirrely on landing. I don’t fly, so I don’t have any data myself. Did the DC-10 have any interesting flight characteristics?

    • Robert Levine says:

      I’m told the DC-10 was a very benign aircraft in terms of how it flew, except that it tended to pitch up when spoilers were deployed, which could be a little tricky after touchdown. The MD-11 is a different story. The fuselage was lengthened and the horizontal stabilizer shortened so much that there’s an electronic enhancement to help the pilots in low-and-slow situations. There have been a few crashes where MD-11s touched down very heavily, bounced, and landed on one of the main gear. Unfortunately the main gear is attached directly to the main wing spar, so the wing breaks, the plane rolls on its back, and catches fire. Apparently that accident didn’t happen to any DC-10a.

  51. Scott Hawthorn says:

    Good riddance. I always hated that design for aesthetic reasons, and an unreasonable fear based upon its scary history. Maybe, as a Boeing Boy, I believed too much of the negative hype.Speaking of ‘unreasonable,’ that tail always looked, to a layman, as if it might fall off in a summer breeze. I traveled Seattle/Hawaii a bunch of times on those lovely HA L-1011s, even though a little nervous about all the smoke on spool-up.

    Sure, modern transports look far less interesting and more generic, but I feel much safer in one. (Perception is not always reality.)

  52. Kathy says:

    My first commercial flight was a New York Air DC-9 from Logan to LaGuardia. However, a DC-10 also figures into that flight as during taxiing, there was a clear view of World Airways Flight 30 sitting in the water.

    I thought it was an incredible view, but it didn’t do anything good for the people on our trip who were nervous flyers.

    • Patrick says:

      Funny you mention World 30. I flew out of Boston less than 48 hours after that accident, on an Eastern Shuttle flight to LGA (I was in 10th grade at the time), and I clearly remember the headless DC-10 sitting there on the break-wall, it’s nose somewhere down under.

  53. John says:

    Interesting story. But let’s not also forget UA232 – the United DC-10 that crashed in Sioux City, Iowa on July 19, 1989 after losing all 3 hydraulic systems following turbine failure in the no. 2 engine. Off-duty Captain Denny Fitch controlled the aircraft using only the throttles and the crew managed to make it to the runway. Over half the passengers survived the fiery landing, a situation that would have been far more deadly if not for the superb airmanship in the cockpit that day.

    • Frank says:

      Let’s not forget that the survival of the many passengers on UA 232 was due to the coordinated efforts of the entire flight crew. I heard a presentation on the crash by Captain Al Haynes around seven or eight years and his talk was absolutely riveting and fascinating. People readily remember Captain Sullenberger’s name, but let’s not forget Captain Haynes as well as the rest of the flight deck crew, First Officer William Records and Second Officer Dudley Dvorak Flight Engineer.

      • Ad absurdum per aspera says:

        Three other names that should be remembered are those of Bryce McCormick, Peter Whitney, and Clayton Burke. Their airmanship (and a nice bit of luck regarding the seat configuration and loading of the plane) got American Airlines Flight 96 back on the ground safely after a cargo-door failure much like that which befell Turkish Airways a few years later.

        Perhaps both incidents could have been prevented — the potential for the problem had become apparent, and the scope of the consequences at least partly grasped, in testing a couple of years earlier. That sequence of events is still studied in engineering-ethics circles and has been the subject of at least one book.

        Early experience with the DC-10 also included National Airlines Flight 27 and a discovery about the dynamics of big turbofans under extreme conditions (which unfortunately were encountered because of, ah, not one of the more shining moments of good decision making in the pointy end). Fortunately it didn’t result in a crash, though one poor pilgrim got sucked out despite a seatmate’s attempts to pull him back in, and his body wasn’t found for another couple of years; there were a number of injuries and significant damage.

        Meanwhile, I’m betting that the US Air Force will use the KC-10 as an aerial refueling tanker for many years to come (unless they don’t, defense matters being in quite a state these days). Although the tragicomic procurement process for this KC-135 replacement may bear fruit any time now, the resulting KC-46 won’t quite do the KC-10’s job (though Boeing has mooted a 777-based tanker that could do even more).

      • Alan says:

        A few years ago Captain Sullenberger came to Seattle’s Museum of Flight to give a talk ob\n aviation safety so I had to go. After the main speech was over he took questions and one of the people who asked a question was Al Haynes so I got to meet not just one but both of them. My father had been a UAL pilor when Al was a new co-pilot so I inquired if they had met, he remembered my dad as one of those “hot-shot pilots” he looked up to but they never worked together unfortunately.

    • Lee says:

      Why was an off-duty pilot flying the aircraft?

      • phoebes says:

        When the plane ran into trouble out of Denver, there was at least one off-duty pilot traveling as a passenger. He was called in to help the on-duty pilots.

  54. David says:

    The other day I saw a FedEx DC-10 (MD-10) flying overhead on an approach to the airport. I paused and enjoyed the moment as I considered that it’s days are numbered, even as a cargo hauler. As is typical in the lifecycle of older aircraft the DC-10 is spending the twilight years delivering boxes, letters, and fresh flowers.

    I will miss it when FedEx finally parks it in the desert in favor of 777s and 330s. Farewell DC-10!

  55. NB says:

    Let’s not forget that the DC10 was also responsible for the Concorde tragedy that killed that wonderful aeroplane – with the Continental DC10 dropping bits on take-off which were then kicked up into the Concorde.

    Having said that, one of my more comfortable economy flights was on a Continental DC10 when I got the whole centre row of 5 seats to myself for the entire flight – an excellent bed.

    But I never liked the plane, always preferring the Tristar.

    • Patrick says:

      Apparently you didn’t see this earlier post, “Untold Story of the Concorde Disaster”…


      • Senrab says:

        I think NB was referring to this particular article lacking the Concorde context.

        Also, I was surprised that you mentioned Turkish 981, but didn’t mention that this accident was preceded by AA96. And I’m shocked that you didn’t mention UA232, especially since it was the pilots’ collective efforts that made that landing as successful as it was.

        • Rod says:

          What I remember about AA96 at the time was that someone in Windsor heard a loud thump in his back yard, went out to investigate, and found an inhabited coffin half-burrowed in the ground.

    • Tony Carbonell says:

      Patrick, I enjoy your column, but you should check flighstats.com. There are PLENTY of DC-9 flights being operated by Venezuelan carriers.


      • Patrick says:

        STILL? I’m startled. I flew an Aeropostale DC-9 in Venezuela in 2005, and even wrote a piece for Salon about the experience called, if I remember right, “Welcome to Venezuela: Where Old DC-9s go to Die.” But that was so long ago. Aeropostale when out went out of business, and I assumed the last of the DC-9s went with them.

        I’ve revised the above, adding the qualifier, “last MAJOR carrier…”

    • smstachwick says:

      That was because of deficient maintenance at Continental, not a problem with the DC-10. Besides, it’s likely that AF4590 was flying with bald tires to begin with.