Review: Douglas DC-8

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The first jet airliner from the legendary Douglas Company, and one that would become a staple of many major airlines, the DC-8 was the embodiment of sleek design, incredible performance, and was, at the time, one of those prime pinnacles of early jet air travel; helping to make the world a smaller place.

However, we seldom remember the DC-8 and its endearing achievements, as its early success against the Boeing 707 would ultimately come to nought. It did better than most of its rivals, but in this industry there’s no silver medal for second place.

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The Douglas DC-3, the most successful pre-war commercial airliner.

Following the end of World War I, Douglas was the undisputed champion of commercial aviation. While Boeing may have pioneered the idea of metal-body civil air travel with the 247, Douglas perfected it; and cornered the market with the DC-2 and DC-3.

Then came World War II, after which Boeing dedicated a majority of its resources into the development of military bombers in order to prepare for a cataclysmic war with communist Russia that would never happen. When they weren’t building jet powered nuclear strike craft like the B-47 and B-52, the company’s attempts at building commercial airliners only extended to the conversion of ex-World War II bomber designs to passenger configuration. For instance, the B-29, the same aircraft type as the ones which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was converted initially into the Stratofreighter, before eventually entering passenger service in the form of the Stratocruiser; one of the world’s first double-deck airliners.

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While Boeing busied itself with making bombers, Douglas swept in with some highly successful airliner designs; like this DC-6.

Douglas, on the other hand, set its sights firmly on the world of commercial aviation. With major innovations in aircraft technology developed for bombers and fighters, such as pressurised cabins and jet engines, the Douglas Company was determined to put this technology into a whole range of models; starting with the DC-6 in 1946.

Douglas dominated the American commercial aviation scene, its only rival being Lockheed and its beautiful Constellation. The influence of the company meant that by 1950 nearly every airline in the world had at least one Douglas product in their fleet.

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The De Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet-powered commercial airliner.

The aviation game, however, was drastically altered in 1949 following the launch of the De Havilland Comet; Britain’s pioneering entry into the world of jet aviation. While previous jet technology had only been put on bombers and fighters, the UK had placed it onto a commercial airliner with fantastic results. Immediately, the Comet delivered a level of speed, luxury and performance that couldn’t be rivalled by contemporary propeller models.

While Boeing was somewhat preoccupied with its military obligations, at the time developing a new transport aircraft which would become the 367-80, Douglas began to consider the possibility of creating a jet airliner to combat the British Comet.

The first inklings of a jet airliner design by the company emerged in around 1952, where studies were made into converting some of their existing models, such as the DC-7, into jets. By 1953, Douglas were well on their way to designing a dedicated jet airliner; dubbed the DC-8. The original concept considered an 80-seat, low-wing aircraft powered by four Pratt & Whitney JT3C turbojet engines mounted in pods under wings; which were swept back at a 30 degree angle to improve aerodynamics. Unlike the comparatively diminutive Comet, Douglas desired a perfect mixture of speed and capacity; being both larger and faster than their British rival.

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The Comet is seen undergoing simulated pressurisation tests using tanks filled with water to try and determine the cause of its multiple crashes.

However, following a series of horrendous Comet crashes throughout 1954, the idea of jet aviation for the commercial market was put into doubt. Both Douglas and Boeing waited anxiously for the findings of the British investigation into the Comet crashes, which determined that the aircraft’s square windows exacerbated the then unknown phenomenon called metal fatigue. Metal fatigue occurred due to the constant pressurisation and depressurisation of the cabin, forming microscopic cracks in the hull that would grow over time. The fitting of square windows, while panoramic for the passengers, were not structurally sound; therefore resulting in the aircraft suffering catastrophic failure once the fatigue cracks had reached a certain length. Eventually, it was determined that oval windows were far more suitable for pressurised flight, being a more rigid and acting as a self-supporting structure.

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Boeing’s 367-80 is seen at its official rollout.

While Douglas got to work redesigning the DC-8 to suit these new design requirements, Boeing were pretty much already there with a flying prototype; the 367-80 (Dash 80). The Dash 80, while designed as an air-to-air tanker for the USAF, could be easily converted for passenger use, and thus Boeing got to work designing the airliner variant of this already tried and tested concept.

Douglas and its DC-8, meanwhile, were still on the drawing board and the design still had to be proven to work. As mentioned, the concept was reworked to accommodate the recommendations of the Comet inquest, but also modified to make the aircraft comparable to Boeing’s own prospective jet airliner. The fuselage was widened by 15-inches over the original 80-seat concept for six-abreast seating, while fuel capacity was increased to improve the range.

In 1955, the company began a major marketing campaign to try and appeal to as many airlines as possible, knowing full well that Boeing, and what was now dubbed the 707, would most likely be launched before their DC-8. Going to their roots, the company outlined their successful heritage as a commercial aircraft builder while Boeing were comparatively inexperienced. The plan worked, and Pan-Am was the first to place an order for 20 707’s and 25 DC-8’s. This was followed by United Airlines, National Airlines, KLM, Eastern Airlines, Japan Air Lines and SAS. The race between the 707 and the DC-8 was very much neck and neck, and anticipation was high. By the end of 1956, the DC-8 had also added Delta Air Lines, Swissair, TAI, Trans Canada and UAT to the list; resulting in 133 DC-8’s on order against 150 Boeing 707’s by 1958.

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The huge Douglas Factory at Long Beach, California, was built specifically to produce the DC-8.

To satisfy the massive backlog of orders, Douglas attempted to expand its home factory at Santa Monica Airport in California; the same factory that had built the DC-3 twenty years earlier. However, major complaints from the local population resulted in the company moving its factory to Long Beach Airport on the Pacific shoreline in the dockyards of Los Angeles. The first DC-8 was rolled out of the factory on April 9th, 1958, and flew for the first time on May 30th. This prototype, a DC-8-10, flew for 2 hours and 7 minutes without incident.

However, Douglas was very much behind when it came to its rival, as that same year Boeing delivered its first 707; which immediately taken the aviation market by storm. Very soon, 707’s were parked at every gate and lining up on every runway at every international airport in the Northern Hemisphere; an endearing aircraft design that won over the hearts and minds of the travelling public.

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The Douglas DC-8 prototype is seen on its first flight over the California coastline.

Douglas, meanwhile, were undeterred, and worked strenuously to get FAA airworthiness as soon as possible. During testing, no less than ten test aircraft were on the go at once above Long Beach. A launch in 1959 was initially considered, but teething issues regarding inefficient brakes (which had a tendency to lock-up if pushed) meant that the engines had to be redesigned to accommodate reverse thrusters; while the leading edge of the wings were fitted with slats to improve low-speed lift and thus allow it to land on shorter runways.

When it came to speed though, that’s where the DC-8’s party piece truly lay. With a 30 degree swept wing, the more streamlined aircraft could fly much faster than the comparatively clunky 707. This testament to its speed was proven on August 21st, 1961, when a DC-8 became the first commercial airliner to break the sound barrier; flying at a speed of Mach 1.012 or 660mph. This was, admittedly, due to the aircraft being in a 16 second controlled dive from 41,000ft; but it was still a bona fide record nonetheless. The DC-8, however, wouldn’t fly supersonic in regular service; such a feat not being achieved until the launch of Concorde in the 1970’s..

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The first version, the DC-8-10, was not spectacularly popular due to its constrained performance.

The DC-8 eventually entered service simultaneously with Delta Air Lines and United Airlines on September 18th, 1959; with eight DC-8’s being produced per month by the end of the year. To allow some customer variation, Douglas improved the aircraft’s flexibility by creating a slew of designs which gave different engines and fuselage lengths; all of which shared commonality with the overarching DC-8 design.

First was the DC-8-10, the shortest variant used for high-capacity domestic operations for major carriers including United Airlines. This was complimented by special wingtips and leading-edge slots that allowed for improved low-speed performance so that the aircraft could land at airfields with shorter runways.

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A DC-8-20, seen in the colours of Aeromexico.

However, the -10 wasn’t a popular choice with only 28 units built, and by the end of the decade most had been upgraded to the DC-8-20 or the DC-8-50.

The DC-8-20 was essentially the same size as the -10, but was fitted with high power versions of the Pratt & Whitney JT4A-3 engines to allow for an increased amount of weight to be carried. This aircraft proved slightly more popular, with 34 units built; while fifteen DC-8-10’s owned by United Airlines were converted to -20 specifications in the mid-60’s.

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The DC-8-30 was the more popular of the ‘small’ DC-8’s.

Next was the DC-8-30, which was the first model designed for intercontinental operations within the United States. For this, fuel capacity was increased and the fuselage and landing gear were strengthened.

Originally, the aircraft came fitted with JT4A-9 engines, but later modifications allowed for conversion to the -11 engines which, when combined with altered flap linkage, would improve efficiency at cruising altitude. In all, 57 of these aircraft were built and used by a variety of carriers on both internal U.S. and Transatlantic flights.

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The poor sales of the DC-8-40 reflected the poor marketing of the aircraft within the USA.

The DC-8-40 was basically identical to the -30, but was fitted with Rolls-Royce Conway 509 turbofan engines for better efficiency, less noise and less smoke.

The Conway was an improvement over the turbojets that preceded it, but the -40 sold poorly because of the traditional reluctance of U.S. airlines to buy a foreign product and because the still more advanced Pratt & Whitney JT3D turbofan was due in early 1961. While Douglas attempted to market the aircraft for the European market, by the time they got there they found the whole continent had been sown up by Rolls-Royce fitted Boeing 707-420’s; resulting in a sales disaster for the -40. The result was only 32 of these units being sold.

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A DC-8-50 is seen landing at Los Angeles in the colours of CP Air.

Next was the shortest of the DC-8 family, the DC-8-50. This was created to allow for increased range over the Boeing 707 through lighter weight, and proved comparatively popular among the range with 55 units built.

The DC-8 “Super 60” series was next, a lengthened design with a higher capacity and medium range. The wings, engines and pylons were identical to the -50, but range was sacrificed in favour of higher payloads. To do this, the fuselage was stretched by 20ft ahead of the wing, and 17ft aft; making it 187ft long and allowing for between 187 and 200 passengers. By comparison, the longest variant of the Boeing 707, the 707-320, had a fuselage of 145ft and could only carry 189 passengers at a stretch.

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A KLM liveried DC-8-63 is seen on the ground during the 1980’s.

The Super 60 series was divided into three variants; the original -61, the -62 and the -63. The -61 was the original Series 60 design, while the -62 extended the range through modified wingtips, engines and other structural alterations. The range of the -62 was therefore 6,000 miles; 2,400 more than the -61 and 1,000 more than the 707-320.

The -63 was the final as-built variant of the DC-8 family, and combined the long fuselage of the -61 with the performance of the -62. However, the mixture of the two meant its range wasn’t comparable to the -62, therefore it could only fly 4,600 miles. Regardless, the Super 60 series proved to be the most popular variant of the DC-8 fleet, with a combined total of 262 units produced.

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An example of the DC-8-70; note the improved engine design.

However, further versions of the DC-8 did exist, but these were aftermarket conversions that extended to the replacement of the highly inefficient JT3D engines with all-new CFM56-2 engines from the Boeing 737 Next Generation series and the Airbus A340. These were combined with modified nacelles and pylons built by Grumman Aerospace and fairing of the air intakes below the nose. The DC-8-71 achieved the same end but required more modification because the -61 did not have the improved wings and relocated engines of the -62 and -63. Maximum takeoff weights remained the same, but there was a slight reduction in payload because of the heavier engines. All three models were certified in 1982; eventually topping out at 110 conversions by the programme’s end in 1988.

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DC-8’s are seen awaiting delivery at the Long Beach factory in California.

The 1960’s proved to be anyone’s game when it came to the rivalry between Boeing and Douglas as both their flagship jet airliners sold incredibly well among major carriers such as United Airlines and Delta. By comparison, attempts by their smaller rivals were utterly trounced by the success of these two Goliath’s. Convair attempted to market speed over capacity with the 880 and 990 Coronado, but failed to factor in range and thus saw sales calamity, while the Vickers VC10 matched the two for capacity, and even outmatched them for speed and performance, but was hampered by incredible inefficiency and a highly complex design. The only other rival was the still limping De Havilland Comet, but by the time it reentered sales in 1958, its technology and reputation had been consigned largely to the gutter; and it was doomed to sales mediocrity for the rest of its production run.

However, by the middle of the decade, it was apparent the 707 was pulling away, with Boeing winning lucrative gains by having their aircraft in the fleets of American Airlines and pretty much every carrier in the world outside the United States. The DC-8 meanwhile had a fair amount of success in America and Asia, but was comparatively lukewarm in Europe; resulting in a lower market share.

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The next long-haul airliner in the Douglas range, the DC-10, would seal the fate of the company after a series of deadly crashes.

As such, by the time production ended in 1972, only 556 DC-8’s had been built compared to the 1,032 707’s; which would continue to be built until 1979. The failure of the DC-8 to truly compete with the 707 saw a major turnaround for the company’s place at the top of the commercial airliner food chain; and was essentially the beginning of the end for the firm. While Douglas saw significant success on the domestic market with the DC-9, which would remain a popular buy through its various iterations until as late as 1992, its losses on the long-haul airliner market could not be overlooked. Although the wide-body trijet Douglas DC-10 was a huge success initially, the aircraft was a rushed design thrown together to do battle with the Boeing 747, and after a series of devastating crashes caused by improperly fitted cargo hold doors the reputation of the company was in tatters. Attempts at a comeback with the MD-11 in 1990 failed to sell, and eventually the company would meet its end in 1997 when, after a string of substantial losses, it was purchased by longtime rivals Boeing for $13 billion.

As for the DC-8, while it was a successful and quite reliable airliner, it sadly wasn’t free from tragedy. As of 2015, the DC-8 had been involved in 146 incidents, including 83 hull-loss accidents and 46 hijackings resulting in 2,258 fatalities.

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Wreckage fills the streets of New York after the crash of United Airlines Flight 826.

The first loss of a Douglas DC-8 occurred on December 16th, 1960, when United Airlines Flight 826 collided in mid-air with TWA Flight 266, a Lockheed Constellation, over Staten Island, New York. The crash resulted in both airliners tumbling from the sky and crashing down into the streets of New York City. Initially, 133 were killed including 6 on the ground, but one survivor from the DC-8, 11-year old Stephen Lambert Baltz, was thrown clear from the wreckage when the plane crashed. Travelling alone to see his family, he was taken to hospital and described the disaster to investigators before eventually succumbing to his wounds next morning; his lungs having been seared by burning jet fuel. This crash stood as the worst accident in aviation history until 1968.

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The scattered remains of Air Canada Flight 621 after it exploded mid-flight.

Another major incident occurred on July 5th, 1970, when Air Canada Flight 621 exploded and crashed near Brampton, Ontario, killing all 109 aboard. It was later found that due to a design flaw in the spoilers, activating them in flight resulted in the fuel tank being ruptured and caused the plane to explode.

On June 14th, 1972, Japan Airlines Flight 471 crashed in the River Yamuna while on approach to Palam Airport, India; killing 82 of 87 on board and three on the ground. The cause was disputed, with Japanese investigators claiming a false glide path signal leading to a descent, while Indian investigators claimed a disregard of procedure.

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The final moments of Fine Air Flight 101 are captured in this amateur footage.

On December 12th, 1985, Arrow Air Flight 1285, carrying troops of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, stalled and crashed just seconds after taking off from Gander International Airport in Canada; killing all 256 people on board. The cause of the crash, however, remains disputed.

The latest crash of a Douglas DC-8 was on August 7th, 1997, when Fine Air Flight 101, a cargo carrying DC-8-61F, crashed while departing from Miami International Airport onto NW 72nd Avenue; less than a mile from the airport. The freight pallets were improperly secured and shifted during takeoff, causing the aircraft to stall.

In terms of hijackings, the DC-8 shared a similar fate as the Boeing 707 in that because of its prominence as a major airliner working primarily for U.S. carriers, it was subject to several either successful or attempted takeovers.

The first hijacking of a DC-8 was on February 21st, 1968, when a Delta Air Lines flight was hijacked by the mentally unstable Lawrence Rhodes, who demanded the flight from Tampa, Florida, be diverted to Cuba. Upon landing, Rhodes eventually released the plane after a three hour standoff, with passengers receiving lemonade, coffee, cigarettes, and pictures of Che Guevara before the aircraft was allowed to fly home.

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Swissair Flight 100 is seen in the company of a TWA 707 and a BOAC VC10 at Dawson’s Field after being hijacked.

Perhaps the most notable hijacking of a DC-8 was on September 6th, 1970, as part of the infamous Dawson’s Field hijackings. The DC-8, operating Swissair Flight 100, was hijacked over France minutes after departing Zurich bound for New York’s JFK Airport. The aircraft was flown to Dawson’s Field in Jordan, where it was joined by a TWA Boeing 707 and a BOAC Vickers VC10; with a total of 426 passengers being taken hostage. After a week in the desert, the passengers were eventually released by the hijackers, but the three empty airliners were blown up with dynamite for fear of a counterattack by Jordanian forces.

Though the DC-8 wasn’t able to match the success of the mighty 707, it did garner a major following among most large airlines; which continued to operate the type throughout the 1970’s. By the time the 1980’s began, however, most carriers were starting to see the benefits of wide-body airliners such as the 747, DC-10 and the upcoming 767. Additionally, the advent of improved technology and the implementation of glass cockpits, as was the case with the Boeing 757 narrow-body, meant the DC-8 was seen to have comparatively pedestrian performance and was cumbersome to operate. Come the mid-80’s, most DC-8s had been removed from front line operations, with many converted to cargo while the rest were either used for testing by NASA or scrapped.

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DHL operated DC-8’s through franchisee Astar Air Cargo until the latter’s collapse in 2012.

However, the aircraft’s life as a cargo plane proved it to be an incredibly useful tool for companies such as DHL, who, after adding hush-kits and upgrading the engines through the Super 70 conversion, saw the aircraft operated regularly through 90’s and into the late 2000’s. DHL, through franchisee Astar Air Cargo, would operate the DC-8 until 2012 when Astar ceased trading, while BAX Global, a cargo airline operating King County, Washington, would use DC-8 Super 70’s until it was acquired by DB Logistics and ceased flying in 2011. Today, only three Douglas DC-8’s are known to operate in commercial service, those being with Trans Air Cargo Service of the Congo. 9Q-CJL (a DC-8-62H(F) delivered to Alitalia in 1967), 9S-AJG (a DC-8-62H(F) delivered to United Airlines in 1969), and 9Q-CJO (a Douglas DC-8-73CF delivered to World Airways in 1971) continue to lead a charmed life in the employ of the African cargo airline; the last examples of a truly bygone age when commercial aviation was still somewhat in its infancy.

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A rare glimpse at 9Q-CJL, one of only three DC-8’s left in revenue earning service.

But, the biggest question of all, was the DC-8 a good aircraft and why couldn’t it compare to the 707?

To summarise, the DC-8, while practical, was too complex for its means. By comparison, the 707 was a simple aircraft with a simple range of models; while the DC-8 had a very complicated range of aircraft.

In truth, sales of the aircraft were only really supported by the DC-8-60, as it provided both the range and the capacity that airlines wanted in order to supply demand. The other DC-8 models on the other hand were either too small or too specialist for mainstream use and therefore failed to support the range as a whole. There was no need for a domestic DC-8 as purpose-built regional airliners such as the Boeing 727 and Douglas’ own DC-9 could fill that particular void; therefore, the company was building planes that no one really wanted.

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The prototype DC-8 takes off in a cloud of afterburner smoke in May 1958.

The 707, on the other hand, knew what it wanted and knew who it was supplying. They were building an international airliner, and therefore provided aircraft with a variety of ranges and engines that would appeal to a global market. The DC-8, meanwhile, was a bit too America-orientated, with the spectacular failure of the Rolls-Royce powered DC-8-40 being a sentiment to that fact.

Essentially, that’s what the DC-8’s failure boils down to; its misunderstanding of market forces and its failure to appeal to an international audience. With a trimmed down range of models and a better promotional run, the DC-8 could’ve truly given the 707 a run for its money, especially the Super 60 series; which was far superior to its Boeing rival in terms of range and capacity. If Douglas had scrubbed the poorly performing -10 to -50 range (with the possible exception of the -30), and focused its marketing specifically on the Super 60 series, they could’ve truly been onto a winner.

Instead, the DC-8 fell quickly into obscurity and has largely been forgotten by most; although it does hold a place in the hearts of many aviation enthusiasts. It wasn’t a bad plane, just the victim of misguided marketing.


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