Review: Douglas DC-10

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Much like the Tupolev Tu-144, the Douglas DC-10 is one of those special kinds of aircraft that holds a place in both the hearts and hatred of aviation enthusiasts. While many consider it one of the best wide-body jet airliners of all time, others will be quick to call it among the worst, due largely to its absolutely catastrophic safety record!

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The Douglas DC-10 prototype lifts off from Long Beach during early tests.

The DC-10 project was spawned largely from a concept for the U.S. Air Force, the CX-HLS, a wide-body transport plane that would later be developed into the C-5 Galaxy. The CX-HLS was not considered for the final project, but Douglas chose not to abandon the idea of wide-body aircraft and instead tried to use it in realm of passenger aircraft. At the time, Boeing and Lockheed had both announced plans to create wide-body jet airliners; Boeing with the 747 and Lockheed with the L-1011 Tristar. The advent of the wide-body aircraft meant more passengers per plane and Douglas weren’t going to let this opportunity pass them by. The basic concept of the DC-10 was along a similar track to that of the L-1011; a tri-jet design that was smaller and more flexible than the Boeing 747 but would still be able to carry in excess of 350 passengers.

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DC-10’s undergo assembly at the Long Beach factory outside Los Angeles.

The plan for the DC-10 chose to design an aircraft that would be similar in length to the previous Douglas DC-8. Though it was considered to build a double-deck version of the DC-8, the preferred result was the single-deck tri-jet idea mentioned previously. At the time of development, the Douglas Aircraft Company was merged with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation to form McDonnell Douglas in 1967 and the DC-10 was to spearhead their new company. With heavy promotion and hype, 25 DC-10’s were pre-ordered by American Airlines at first followed by United Airlines with 30 orders and an option for another 30.

The overall design of the DC-10 was at the time fairly traditional for a tri-jet, a low-wing cantilever monoplane configuration with three turbofan engines; two under the wings while the third engine is encased in a protective banjo-shaped structure that is mounted on the top of the rear fuselage. The vertical stabiliser with its two-segment rudder, is mounted on top of the tail engine banjo. The horizontal stabiliser with its four-segment elevator is attached to the sides of the rear fuselage in the conventional manner. The airliner has a retractable tricycle landing gear. To enable higher gross weights, the later -30 and -40 series had an additional two-wheel main landing gear which retracted into the centre of the fuselage. Power came from three General Electric CF6-6D turbofan engines producing 40,000lbf, giving the DC-10 a maximum cruising speed of 610mph and a ceiling of 42,000ft. The aircraft was also built to carry between 250 and 380 passengers depending on specification.

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American Airlines were the launch customer of the DC-10 and operated the largest fleet in order to replace their 747’s.

The DC-10’s first flight took place on August 29th, 1970, and after 929 flights clocking up 1,551 hours the FAA granted it a type certificate on July 29th, 1971, entering service with American Airlines on August 5th of the same year. The haste in getting the DC-10 out in time for the similar L-1011 blunted the initial sales spike, but the DC-10 compensated with a cheaper price; thus hurting the sales of the technically advanced but troubled Tristar. The DC-10 came in three variants; the domestic -10 with a range of 3,800 miles for use primarily within the United States; the -15, a medium range version with a range of 4,350 miles; the -30 long range version which could fly 6,600 miles; and the -20 which was powered by Pratt & Whitney JT9D turbofan engines and had a range of 5,750 miles. Northwest Airlines, the launch company of the -20, asked that it be redesignated -40 due to the improvement of the aircraft over its sister versions; a request that was accepted by the FAA in October 1972.

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The military air-to-air refuelling variant, the KC-10.

In addition to passenger versions of the DC-10, the aircraft was also put to work with the military as an air-to-air tanker. The KC-10 Extender was launched in 1980 to supplement the fleet of existing Boeing 707 derived KC-135 tankers that dated back to the early 1960’s. As seen in the Vietnam War, a lack of KC-135’s meant that many missions suffered a lack of air-to-air refuelling capability, rendering missions more difficult. KC-10 variants were also used as transport aircraft, and entered service with the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

Production of the DC-10 ended in 1988, with 386 aircraft delivered into commercial service, while at the same time 62 KC-10’s were delivered by the time their production ended in 1987. The DC-10 proved highly popular, used by almost every major airline in the world ranging from the launch customers American Airlines and United Airlines, to British Airways, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Biman Bangladesh, Iberia, Japan Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, the list goes on. They also had incredible resale value, with many DC-10’s having second, even third and fourth time owners before they’d be fully retired. Furthermore, many ex-passenger DC-10’s were converted to freight operations which saw them continue to work well beyond their original service life expectancy.

However, this is before we get to the biggest problem of them all; one that almost doomed the DC-10 completely. I would normally break for a section on accidents and incidents, but for the DC-10 its various crashes have become a staple as to why this aircraft has gained such notoriety and infamy. As of 2016, the DC-10 has been involved in 55 accidents and incidents, including 32 hull-loss accidents, with 1,261 occupant fatalities.

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An engineer inspects the damaged cargo hold door of American Airlines 96 after its successful landing.

The first major incident took place on June 17th, 1972, when the cargo-door on American Airlines Flight 96 separated in-flight, causing violent decompression but wasn’t enough to cripple the aircraft; landing safely soon afterwards. This, however, would be a tragic foreshadowing to the next series of disastrous events.

On March 3rd, 1974, Turkish Airlines Flight 981 suffered an almost identical cargo-door separation, only this one caused the aircraft to plunge into the countryside near Ermenonville, France shortly after departure from Orly Airport in Paris. The aircraft during this flight was busier than usual due to a strike by British European Airways staff, forcing London-bound passengers aboard the doomed flight resulting in the deaths of all 346 passengers and crew. At the time this was the single deadliest air accident until the crash of Pan Am Flight 1736 and KLM Flight 4805 at Tenerife’s Los Rodeos Airport in 1977. Crash investigators found that the DC-10’s relief vents were not large enough to equalise the pressure between the passenger and cargo compartments during explosive decompression. As such, a directive was sent out to airlines demanding a mandatory modification to the cargo doors.

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The final terrifying moments of American Airlines Flight 191 are captured as it flips over shortly after takeoff from Chicago.

However, this was not the end of the DC-10’s tragic run. On May 25th, 1979, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed shortly after takeoff from Chicago O’Hare International following the separation of the port-side engine during the take-off roll. The loss of the aircraft’s leading edge disrupted lift on the port-side resulting in the aircraft flipping over and crashing into a trailer park just beyond the end of the runway; killing all 271 passengers and crew together with 2 on the ground. The cause was later found to be improper maintenance procedure on the engine mounting.

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Scorched tarmac and a trail of destruction are all that remain of United Airlines Flight 232 after it crashed at Sioux City.

10 years later, the DC-10 once again made headlines, this time with United Airlines Flight 232 on July 19th, 1989. The DC-10 was flying over Iowa when the fan-blade on the tail-mounted engine split, severing the hydraulic systems and rendering the aircraft almost unflyable. After stellar efforts by the crew and an off-duty United Airlines DC-10 trainer, who manipulated the thrust on the remaining engines to help direct the aircraft, the DC-10 tragically crashed on landing at Sioux City killing 111 of the 296 passengers aboard when the plane broke into multiple flaming pieces. The cause was found to be unattended microscopic cracks in the fan-blade resulting in an explosive disintegration during flight.

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Northwest Airlines was the last U.S. Carrier to operate the DC-10, retiring them in January 2007.

A DC-10 was also notable for causing the crash of Air France Flight 4590, the only crash of the legendary Aerospatiale/BAC Concorde. A piece of debris left on the runway by a preceding Continental Airlines DC-10 punctured the Concorde’s tyres which pierced the fuel tanks, sparking a fire that crippled the aircraft and caused it to crash into a hotel just beyond the end of the runway at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport; killing all 109 passengers and crew as well as 4 on the ground.

All these accidents combined have given the DC-10 something of a poor reputation among both the public and aviation enthusiasts alike; unaffectionately dubbing the unlucky aircraft the “Death Cruiser-10”. Arguments will frequently spring up in the aviation community as to whether the DC-10 justified such harsh treatment, though in all honestly its track record speaks for itself.

It was once noted that the late Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, refused to fly aboard a DC-10 after a concert in Japan, stating the immortal words ‘DC-10? DC-Death more like!”. He wouldn’t depart Japan until 14 hours later, this time travelling Economy-class as opposed to the First-class seat booked aboard the DC-10!

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Biman Bangladesh operated the last DC-10’s in passenger service, working a series of farewell flights before final retirement in 2014.

Today, DC-10’s are rare birds indeed. Though many DC-10’s remained in front-line service with larger airlines such as American, United and Northwest well into the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the fallout of 9/11 and the desire for more efficient and newer aircraft resulted in the DC-10’s being withdrawn promptly; with most of these carriers having the aircraft retired by 2007. The DC-10’s would soldier on in passenger service until 2014 when Biman Bangladesh retired their final aircraft after several good-will flights around the UK from Birmingham International.

This aircraft, S2-ACR, was slated for preservation at the Museum of Flight in Seattle but was turned down due to a lack of space to accommodate it. Hope then came from the Bruntingthorpe Museum in Leicestershire, which stated its interest in purchasing the aircraft for preservation. Eventually, only days before the final flight, Biman Bangladesh secured a deal for the recycling of the aircraft’s engines and thus following the final passenger flight of the DC-10 on February 24th, 2014, the aircraft returned to Dhaka and was stripped for parts and scrapped; a sad end to this unexpected survivor.

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Tanker 911 is a converted DC-10, originally delivered in 1975 to Finnair. It now works up and down the west coast of the USA fighting fires.

Today, DC-10’s you’ll find operating with cargo operators or charter airlines; Fedex making use a sizeable fleet of the type on an extensive network of operations. Fedex aircraft have the distinction of giving rise to a new variant of the aircraft known as the MD-10. The MD-10 was a retrofit project starting in 1996 to upgrade the cockpit and avionics of the aged DC-10 in order to give it a new lease of life. This included the replacement of the original analogue instrument panel with CRT monitors, brought over from the MD-11, as well as removing the Flight Engineer’s position; allowing the aircraft to be flown by only two crew members.

Speaking of the MD-11, that was the next step of the DC-10 journey; though it turned out to be the last. The MD-11 was originally meant to be the largest variant of the DC-10 known as the DC-10-60. However, market forces, a global recession and the

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The MD-11 was a later evolution of the DC-10 which included a larger size and all the latest aviation technology; but failed to gain steam in the sales department.

 appalling safety record of the DC-10 meant that the project was pushed back over 10 years from its original inception in the mid-1970’s; evolving it into the MD-11 of 1990. Though a capable aircraft, the MD-11 was trounced in terms of sales by much more efficient twin-jet designs including the Airbus A330 and the Boeing 777, proving to be the last chapter in the evolution of the wide-body trijet airliner when it left production in 2000.

 

At the same time the U.S. Air Force continues to maintain a fleet of KC-10 tankers for use in various conflicts and tactical situations.

Furthermore, ten DC-10’s have been re-purposed as airborne firefighters. Used mainly in California, they can carry and drop 45,000 litres of water onto an affected area, making them useful allies when the homes of Beverley Hills celebrities are threatened!

Either way, the DC-10 is indeed a mixed bag of opinions; loved with a fervent passion or despised with an immovable hatred. I personally can’t call the DC-10 one of my favourites. As handsome as they may look, their many faults and the fact that they were rushed into production to take on the L-1011 and the 747 meant that they were something of a sellout rather than something that had some love like its rivals. I’ve only ever flown once on a DC-10, that being a UTA example from Marseilles to Paris-Orly, but I have much fonder memories of other aircraft over the unfortunate Douglas. It’s interesting to see them when one happens to pass by, but sadly they don’t really work for me; I always had a soft spot for the Tristar!


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