Review: McDonnell Douglas MD-11


By the 1980’s, it was apparent that the era of trijet international airliners had long since passed and the Douglas DC-10, with its not so stellar reputation for safety, hadn’t helped. The future appeared to be twinjets or four engined aircraft; including the Boeing 767, Airbus A300 and updated versions of the Boeing 747.

However, McDonnell Douglas maintained the trijet legacy and brought us the MD-11, the last hurrah for three-engined international airliners.

Planning for a stretched version of the Douglas DC-10 go back as early as 1976. Considerations for this project involved one of two lengthened variants of the aircraft; the DC-10-10 being stretched by 40ft and the DC-10-30 by 30ft. The -30 would eventually be built and was capable of transporting up to 340 passengers over 5,300 nautical miles. However, proposals for a stretched DC-10 variant went hand in hand with the company’s desire to reduce wing and engine drag on their trijet models.

A Continental Airlines Douglas DC-10 was leased by McDonnell Douglas to test the effectiveness of winglets on the trijet design.

Over time this project would become known as the DC-10 Super 60 project, and would incorporate aerodynamic improvements in the wings and a fuselage lengthening of 26ft 8 inches; allowing up to 350 passengers to be seated compared to 275 in the same configuration of the DC-10. Eventually, in 1979, three variants of the Super 60 were planned, the -61, -62 and -63. The -61 would have a fuselage stretch of 40ft and a final capacity of 550 passengers in an all-economy layout. The -62 fuselage would be stretched by 26ft with an increased wingspan and fuel capacity; being capable of carrying up to 440 passengers in an all-economy layout. Finally, the -63 would incorporate both the fuselage of the -61 and the wingspan of the -62. However, after the multiple deadly crashes of the DC-10 throughout the 1970’s the reputation of the aircraft, and trijets in general, was severely damaged; with airlines refusing to take on any more. The result was a complete shutdown of the Super 60 project.

However, plans for an upgraded DC-10 were still toyed with in the background and a Continental DC-10-10 was leased to conduct research on the effects of fitting winglets to aircraft. The DC-10 was taken to Yuma, Arizona and fitted with a variety of winglet designs with technical assistance provided by NASA. The general plan by McDonnell Douglas was now to incorporate winglets into any new DC-10 variant to increase fuel efficiency, while more efficient engines would be developed in collaboration with manufacturers Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney. Eventually, these two engine builders would develop engines specific for the MD-11, the Pratt & Whitney PW2037 and Rolls-Royce RB.211-535F4.

The intention of these new developments was to create a unique selling point for the future aircraft, now going under the name MD-100, to combat the comparatively inefficient competition. Proposed in two variants, the MD-100-10 would have been shorter by 6ft than the conventional DC-10; with a seating of 270 passengers. The longer MD-100-20 would have been stretched by 20ft over the regular DC-10 in order to carry 333 passengers.

MD-11’s undergo construction at McDonnell Douglas’ Long Beach plant in California.

However, trouble brewed during a major recession in the early 1980’s and the aviation industry’s fortunes looked bleak; especially for McDonnell Douglas. While Boeing was able to keep its head above water with the new Boeing 757 and 767, Douglas suffered very poor sales, resulting in no new DC-10 orders being received. As such, it was feared there would be no demand for the new MD-100 project and all work was once again ceased in November 1983.

While the DC-10 plodded on with new orders from the U.S. Air Force, the DC-10’s civilian variants remained somewhat hit and miss. The design of the DC-10 dated back to the 1960’s which made it highly uncompetitive against its newer rivals. McDonnell Douglas remained adamant that a new DC-10 derivative was needed and in 1984 the development program was once again restarted; this time under the designation MD-11. Again this was based on two variants being built, the MD-11-10; with a range of 6,500 nautical miles, and the MD-11-20; with a longer fuselage, 331 passenger capacity and a range of 6,000 nautical miles.

The MD-11 prototype, seen here in unpainted metal, lifts off the runway at Long Beach during an early test flight.

Eventually, the McDonnell Douglas used the time gained before the end of DC-10 production to consult with potential customers and to refine the proposed new trijet. In July 1985, the Board of Directors authorised the Long Beach plant to offer the MD-11 to potential customers. At the time, the aircraft was still proposed in two versions both with the same fuselage length; a stretch of 22ft over the DC-10. A year later, as several airlines had committed to the MD-11; the situation now looking optimistic. The aircraft had been revised into a 320-seater baseline and defined as an 18ft stretch over the DC-10. Power was derived from new advanced turbofans offered by the major engine manufacturers and giving it a range of 6,800 nautical miles.

The MD-11 project was officially launched on December 30th, 1986, with 52 firm orders and 42 options made by a variety of airlines including Alitalia, British Caledonian, Dragonair, FedEx Express, Finnair, Korean Air, Scandinavian Airlines System, Swissair, Thai Airways International, and VARIG. The first MD-11 was put together from March 1988 with proposed maiden flight taking place a year later. However, industrial disruption at the Long Beach factory meant that the launch was delayed until January 10th, 1990. The first two production aircraft were built in cargo configuration with forward cargo door and were used as test aircraft before being delivered to Fedex in 1991.

The advanced cockpit design of the MD-11, making use of CRT monitors and removing the Flight Engineer, is in evidence.

The overall design of the final MD-11 differs from the DC-10 with a stretched fuselage, winglets (that improve efficiency by 2.5%) and a glass cockpit with CRT monitors and the removal of the Flight Engineer. Features on the glass cockpit include an Electronic Instrument System, a dual Flight Management System, a Central Fault Display System and Global Positioning System. Category IIIb automatic landing capability for bad-weather operations and Future Air Navigation Systems were also available. The MD-11 also learnt lessons from its predecessor by incorporating hydraulic fuses so as to prevent catastrophic loss of control in event of hydraulic failure. This was done in response to the crash of United Airlines Flight 232, a DC-10, at Sioux City.

Finnair were the launch customer of the MD-11, this example being adorned in characters from the famous Finnish series of stories; the Moomins.

The first MD-11’s were delivered to Finnair on December 7th, 1990 and flew its first revenue earning service from Helsinki to Tenerife 13 days later. Delta Air Lines became the first American operator of the type, taking delivery of their first MD-11 in 1990 as well. However, problems quickly rose with regard to the MD-11’s range and fuel efficiency which had failed to meet its targets. As such, American Airlines and Singapore Airlines, who had slated the MD-11 as a replacement for their DC-10’s, chose not to follow up on their orders for the MD-11. American Airlines would also cite problems with the performance of the airframe and the Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engines as reasons for the cancellation. Though American Airlines did eventually operate 19 MD-11’s they were all retired by 2001; replaced by Boeing 777’s instead.

American Airlines considered using the MD-11 as a way of replacing their older DC-10’s, but chose to take on the 777 instead.

However, although the MD-11 was treated to early sales success due to its fantastic range, high efficiency and larger fuselage design, when its rivals eventually got back on their feet the trijet really did take a beating.

Boeing struck back first with Extended-Range (ER) versions of its Boeing 767-300, which, while slightly smaller than the MD-11, did give it the range it needed to make it competitive. In 1993 and 1994, Airbus brought forward its latest family of wide-body jet airliners; the Airbus A330 and the A340. The A330 was a twinjet with comparable range but half the fuel consumption and running costs. The A340 on the other hand was larger and gave greater range than the MD-11; seating 335 against the -11’s 323.

However, the aircraft that did the most damage to the MD-11 was the Boeing 777 of 1995. The 777 was not only larger than the MD-11, but was also incredibly efficient and highly advanced; truly Boeing’s magnum opus for the decade and one that still holds a strong reputation today. The comparatively low running costs but equal performance of the 777 meant that not only did it give the MD-11 a thrashing, but would even go on to take down the then seemingly unbeatable Boeing 747-400.

Delta Airlines was among the largest operators of the MD-11 in America, but retired them early on to standardise their fleet to twinjets.

Add in a variety of other detrimental factors, including the poor reputation of McDonnell Douglas after the many crashes of the DC-10, and you have a recipe for disaster. This doesn’t mean that the MD-11 wasn’t popular among the airlines that operated it. Many flag and mainline carriers outside of the USA were proud to operate the MD-11, including KLM, Finnair, Swissair, Eva Air, Mandarin Airlines, Martinair and Aeroflot. In the realms of cargo operators particularly, the MD-11 was considered an ideal choice to help replace the DC-8 and DC-10. Fedex was particularly fond of the type, using it to replace the aforementioned DC-8’s and DC-10’s, as well as ageing Boeing 747’s inherited from Flying Tiger Line.

However, it simply wasn’t selling in enough numbers to make it profitable. From 1993, sales took a plunge from 36 deliveries that year to just 17, incrementally decreasing as time went on. In the end, only 200 units were ever sold and the chances of keeping the trijet concept in mainstream commercial aviation was in tatters.

The amount of money spent on the MD-11 project crippled McDonnell Douglas. Plans for a fully double-deck, four-engined aircraft (akin to the Airbus A380) known as the MD-12 were scrapped and even though the ongoing MD-80 series was still putting up strong competition against the likes of the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families it wasn’t enough to reverse its fortunes. In the end, cash-strapped McDonnell Douglas was merged into longtime rival Boeing on August 1st, 1997, bringing an end to one of those early and legendary aircraft manufacturers.

D-ALCN, seen here, was the last MD-11 to be built, delivered to Lufthansa Cargo in January 2001.

The McDonnell Douglas name did last however, even under Boeing’s control. The MD-11 and MD-80 ranges were honoured, with even the advanced version of the MD-80 series, the MD-95 (later Boeing 717) having their development completed and put into production by Boeing. MD-11’s remained on sale, but only in their cargo-configuration; their sales numbers slashed to just 8 aircraft sold in 1999. The passenger MD-11 built was delivered to Sabena in April 1998.

In the end, to avoid the prospect of internal competition between the MD-11 and Boeing’s own 767-400 and 777, it was announced that production of the trijet would cease. Construction slowed until eventually, in August and October 2000, the last two MD-11’s were completed; these being delivered to to Lufthansa Cargo on February 22nd and January 25th, 2001 respectively.

HB-IWF, the aircraft involved in Swissair Flight 111, is seen on the ground at Zurich two months before its destruction.

The MD-11, much like the DC-10 that came before it, sadly doesn’t have a clean safety record; though its rate of incidents is not nearly as numerous as its predecessor. As of 2016, the MD-11 has been involved in 26 incidents; including nine hull-loss accidents with 240 fatalities.

The first major incident involving the MD-11 was Swissair Flight 111 on September 2nd, 1998; which plunged from the sky after declaring an emergency over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Halifax in Canada killing all 229 aboard. The cause of the crash was determined to be a fire caused by improper wiring of the on board entertainment system units added for Swissair. The fire started at the front of the aircraft and quickly grew uncontrollable; attributed partly to the poor flame retardant properties of its metalized mylar insulation.

On August 22nd, 1999, China Airlines Flight 642 flipped over and crashed while attempting to land at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport during a typhoon; killing three passengers. The image of the upside down MD-11 has since become a commonly used public domain picture for use in demonstrating a plane crash.

N526FE is seen departing Narita less than 24 hours before it was destroyed while landing at this same airport on the return flight.

A more recent incident occurred on March 23rd, 2009, when Fedex Express Flight 80 flipped over and crashed at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport while landing in windy conditions. Airport surveillance video showed the aircraft becoming airborne again after the first touchdown then impacting nose-first the second time and turning onto its left side; erupting into flames. The aircraft rolled upside-down before coming to rest some distance left of the runway. The two flight crew members, the aircraft’s only occupants, were killed.

Images of KLM MD-11’s coming in low over Maho beach in St Maarten became synonymous with this island’s connection with aviation.

However, even though the MD-11 didn’t sell, myself and many others still consider it a success in its own right; being a highly reliable, incredibly flexible and useful aircraft. Today, 127 of these aircraft are known to continue flying; the five largest operators being FedEx Express (57), UPS Airlines (38), Lufthansa Cargo (14), Martinair Holland (4), and Sky Lease Cargo (4). Sadly the MD-11’s days with mainline passenger carriers have long since faded, with KLM operating the final scheduled on October 26th, 2014, from Montréal to Amsterdam, followed by three special round-trip flights on November 11th, 2014.

Though consigned to the history books for passenger service however, the MD-11 is still a fondly remembered and loved aircraft, with many people looking on it favourably over the DC-10 it replaced. Today you can still find plenty in your neighbourhood, especially if you live in Europe or the USA. I personally love the MD-11, an aircraft that maintains the handsome lines of the DC-10, but has good, strong reliability to back it up. Long may it continue to reign!

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