The first jet from the legendary Douglas Company, and one that would become a staple of many major airlines. The Douglas 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, when the world was starting to become a much smaller place.
Following the end of World War II, 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. During and following World War II, Boeing took to creating a slew of military aircraft such as the B-17, the B-29 and later jet bombers such as the B-47 and B-52. 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 improved engines and pressurised cabins, as well as the advent of the jet, the Douglas Company was determined to put this technology into a whole range of models, starting with the DC-6 in 1946. At this point, Douglas had truly cornered the market, its only other competition being Boeing’s attempts at converting B-29 bombers into commercial airliners, while Flying Boats from the pre-war era were now seen as relics of a bygone age.
The entire game however was changed in 1949 with the advent of 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, and immediately the speed, luxury and performance of the aircraft made it one of the most desirable means of transport in the entire world. Boeing and Douglas quickly saw that they needed to up their game, and that jet air travel was soon to be the future of commercial aviation. The first inklings of a jet airliner plan by Douglas go back to around 1952, where studies were made into converting some of their existing models, such as the DC-7, being converted to run with jets. By 1953, Douglas had already considered a jet airliner, the DC-8, with a concept that wasn’t too far off the final design, an 80-seat, low-wing aircraft powered by four Pratt & Whitney JT3C turbojet engines, mounted in pods under wings swept back at a 30 degree angle to improve aerodynamics. The idea was to create an aircraft that would fly as far as the Comet, but be much, much faster.
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 their rivals Boeing waited anxiously for the report, which found that due to the constant pressurisation and depressurisation of the cabin, combined with the Comet’s square windows, resulted in metal fatigue, which formed cracks in the fuselage that would eventually burst open after so many hours of flying time. The solution was quickly found to change the windows to small, oval designs, with a circular design being a more rigid and self-supporting structure. Meanwhile in the United States, the USAF had put out a tender in May 1954 for a new air-to-air tanker and transport aircraft, with Douglas and Boeing being shortlisted for the task. The bid eventually went to Boeing, who created the KC-135, following a prototype known as the 367-80. It was at this point that Boeing would put their work on transport aircraft and tankers into commercial airliners, namely the Boeing 707.
Douglas suddenly realised that what they had predicted at the beginning of the decade was starting to come true, jet aviation was quickly becoming the new trend. Thankfully, they had already considered the DC-8, and thus reworked the existing design from 1953 to create a suitable competitor to the 707. The fuselage was widened by 15-inches over the concept for six-abreast seating, while fuel capacity was increased to improve the range. In a somewhat pioneering move, Douglas offered the DC-8 in a variety of options, mostly comprising of different lengths and different engine types. In 1955, Douglas began a major marketing campaign to try and appeal to as many airlines as possible, knowing full well that the Boeing 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 both 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. By 1958, the orders stood at 133 DC-8’s sold against 150 Boeing 707’s, but though lagging, they were still very popular.
For the task, Douglas attempted to expand its home factory at Santa Monica Airport in California, the same factory that had built the DC-3 20 years before. However, major complaints from the local population resulted in the company moving its factory to Long Beach Airport. The first DC-8 was rolled out of the factory on April 9th, 1958, and flew for the first time on May 30th. The original, a DC-8-10 (the shortest variant), flew for 2 hours and 7 minutes without incident. The same year, Boeing delivered its first 707’s to Pan-Am, while de Havilland attempted to claw back some standing in the aviation market with a stretched version of the Comet. In any case, the Comet and its tattered reputation was no longer a major player in the world of commercial aviation, so airlines were now dead-set on the American designs. To compete with Boeing however, Douglas had to get FAA airworthiness certification as soon as possible, and thus had no less than 10 test aircraft on the go at one time. Some teething issues, such as inefficient brakes which had a tendency to lock-up if pushed, were replaced with the new concept of reverse thrusters, while the leading edge of the wings were fitted with special slats to improve low-speed lift and thus allow it to land on shorter runways.
The DC-8 however truly came through with regard to its speed. The 30 degree sweep on the wings made it much more streamlined than the comparatively clunky 707, and this design feature was proven to be successful on August 21st, 1961, when a DC-8 on test became the first commercial airliner to break the sound barrier, flying at a speed of Mach 1.012 or 660mph, though this was during a controlled dive from
41,000ft that was maintained for 16 seconds. This action would not be repeated until the advent of Concorde and the Tu-144 in the 1970’s.
The DC-8 eventually entered service simultaneously with Delta Air Lines and United Airlines on September 18th, 1959. By 1960, 8 DC-8’s were being produced by the Long Beach factory per month. As mentioned, Douglas attempted to improve the availability to customers by offering a whole range of aircraft, all of which shared common parts, but differed by way of engines or fuselage length. The range included the shortest model, the DC-8-10, the -20, the -30, the -40, the -50, the -60 and the longest, the -70. The series covered an entire range of operations, with the -10 being available for domestic operations on high capacity routes such as New York to Chicago, while the lengthy -70 was proposed for Trans-Atlantic or Trans-Pacific operations. This was a major advancement over Boeing’s 707, which came in only four options, the -120, the -220, the -320 and the -420, only differing by wingspans and fuselage lengths. For domestic operations, the DC-8 had the inside curve as the -10 was much more capable of landing at airports with shorter runways. Boeing would eventually go on to develop the 720, a domestic version of the 707, but was more so a stop-gap until they could design a dedicated domestic airliner.
The 1960’s proved to be anyone’s game when it came to the rivalry between Boeing and Douglas, both selling incredibly well and both very popular. Other manufacturers such as Convair, Vickers and de Havilland attempted to fight back but simply couldn’t compete with the big two. However, by the end of the 1960’s, it was becoming apparent that Boeing had gained the upper hand, due largely to its less complicated range. The 707 had, as mentioned, four variants of differing lengths and wingspans, the DC-8 had 7, which included different fuselage lengths, wingspans and engines, which most carriers weren’t particularly interested in. All they wanted was a simple jet airliner that would do its job well on a range of operations, with the idea of different engines and lengths, etc. being more an afterthought. As such, by the time production ended in 1972, only 556 DC-8’s had been built compared to the
1,032 707’s. The failure of the DC-8 to truly compete with the 707 saw a major turnaround for the company’s legacy, it being no longer the leading commercial aviation builder. With Boeing’s reputation cemented as the prime builder of jet airliners, unmatched until the rise of Airbus in the 1990’s, the Douglas company would attempt to grasp its way back into the ring with the domestic DC-9, which did become quite successful and spawned a whole range of derivatives, and the absurd DC-10, which garnered a reputation for disintegrating in mid-flight. The disastrous DC-10 and the much-improved but ultimately unsuccessful MD-11 were the final nails in Douglas’ coffin, and the company was eventually bought out by its long time rival Boeing in 1997.
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.
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, 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 tragically passing away the next morning, his lungs having been seared by burning jet fuel. This crash stood as the worst accident in aviation history until 1968.
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, the pilot activating them in flight resulted in them rupturing the fuel tank and causing 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
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 on departure 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.
Though the DC-8 was not the greatest success in the world, it did garner a major following among most large airlines, which continued to operate the type through the 70’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, while narrow-body airliners, such as the Boeing 757, had advanced the technology in spades compared to the somewhat archaic DC-8 and 707. By the mid-1980’s, most DC-8’s had been removed from front line operations, with many converted to cargo while the rest were either used for testing by NASA or scrapped. The DC-8 proved itself a capable cargo aircraft, and with the addition of hush-kits and upgraded engines, it continues to be operated, though not in any great numbers. While the last flight of the Boeing 707 was done in 2013, there are an estimated 36 DC-8’s still known to be in use across the globe, mostly in Africa and South America on cargo flights.
So, the DC-8, was it a good aircraft? In truth, it was, but it was far too complicated for its means. While the 707 wooed the airlines with its simple, barn-door technology and winning design, the DC-8 attempted to be too sophisticated, and this was its main flaw. Yes it was fast, and yes it had the range, but this was done at the price of passenger capacity, which wasn’t enough for most airlines. While they wanted passenger numbers, the DC-8 simply couldn’t offer them, and this is why it fell down in the end. Don’t get me wrong, those airlines that did use it found it a useful and reliable aircraft, and one that was just as capable of doing the tasks of the 707. It truly was a classic bird, an endearing airliner that did paved the way for the future of commercial aviation.