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The DC-10: This Wide Body Jetliner Never Shook Its Bad Reputation

DC-10s Actually Had Comparable Safety Records But Were Overtaken By Newer Designs

DC-10-20 prototype in flight. Image via McDonnell Douglas/Boeing in public domain.

The DC-10 was the first commercial jetliner built by McDonnell Douglas after the merger between McDonnell Aircraft Corporation and Douglas Aircraft Company in 1967. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 jetliner flew for the first time on 29 August 1970. The first two airlines to order the new jumbo, American Airlines and United Airlines, ordered 25 and 30 of them respectively- United with an option for another 30 in 1968. The aircraft received its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) type certificate on 29 July 1971 after undergoing 1,551 hours of testing over 929 flights. On 5 August 1971, the DC-10 began service with American Airlines on a round trip flight between Los Angeles and Chicago.

DC-10-10 rollout ceremony. Image via McDonnell Douglas/Boeing in public domain

The two launch customers configured their jetliners slightly differently. American DC-10s were set up with 206 seats; United DC-10 cabins had 222 seats. Maximum passenger capacity of the DC-10 was as many as 380 passengers. Designed and built as a replacement for the company’s highly successful DC-8 series of four engine jetliners, the wide body of the DC-10 allowed increased capacity. Equipped with three of the more powerful General Electric CF6 high-bypass turbofan engines, the jet incurred reduced maintenance costs as opposed to four engine jetliners.

By Aero Icarus [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The competition between the DC-10 series and the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar series made for interesting market positioning. Lockheed had exited the commercial airliner market but saw the L-1011 as the right design to get them back into the game. The L-1011 was actually more technologically advanced than the DC-10 series but McDonnell Douglas sold 136 more DC-10s than Lockheed sold Tristars– primarily because the L-1011 was more expensive and its entry into service was delayed by nearly a year after the DC-10 entered service with American.

By contri from Yonezawa-Shi Yamagata, Japan (United Airlines DC-10-30 (N1852U/47811/302)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The DC-10 was plagued by design flaws in the aircraft’s cargo doors. But the FAA withdrew the DC-10 type certificate on 6 June 1979 after the crash of American Airlines flight 191 in Chicago- the deadliest aviation accident in US history. As a result, 138 US-registered DC-10s were grounded and foreign-owned DC-10s were banned from US airspace- even for ferrying empty aircraft between airports. Changes to the leading edge slat actuation and positioning systems, stall warning systems, and power supplies were then incorporated into the DC-10 fleet, lifting the ban, but not removing the reputation that the jetliner was dangerous.

By clipperarctic (Western DC-10-10russavia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Predictably, sales of the DC-10 suffered. In 1983, McDonnell Douglas announced they planned to stop building the jets, though production continued until 1989. Reputations are often easily earned but much tougher to change. The crash of United flight 232 in Iowa during 1989 didn’t help the DC-10s case. The Sioux City crash also resulted in upgrades and revisions to the fleet- keeping the jetliner in the air for several more years. The overall safety record of the DC-10 was actually comparable to the other jetliners of it generation.

Eastern Airlines DC-10 via Wikipedia- image in public domain

DC-10s were built in three series. The DC-10-10/10CF (convertible freighter) series were shorter-range jetliners with two-class cabin layouts and 2700 miles loaded range. The DC-10-15 was equipped with uprated CF6 engines intended for operation from higher altitudes and 4,000 miles loaded range. The DC-10-20 was powered by Pratt & Whitney JT9D turbofan engines. The DC-10-30/30CF/30ER (extended range)/AF (all freighter) and DC-10-40 series were slightly stretched and equipped with an additional centerline main landing gear. Range in the -30 and -40 was closer to 6,000 miles, making them capable of flying international routes. Another DC-10 variant, the DC-10-50, was configured with Rolls-Royce RB211-524 engines for British Airways with additional range beyond the -30 and -40, but the -50 was not built. The US Air Force bought 60 KC-10A Extender aerial refueling tankers based on the DC-10-30.

By Ken Fielding/https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenfielding [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The DC-10 was eventually largely replaced by the MD-10 and MD-11. The MD-10 is an upgraded DC-10 with electronic flight instrumentation screens (EFIS) from the MD-11 in the cockpit and other upgrades. The MD-11 is a stretched DC-10 with some improvements, including winglets and uprated CF6 engines. DC-10 commercial passenger operations came to an end on 20 February 2014. The 446th and final DC-10 rolled off the Long Beach production line in December 1988 and was delivered to Nigeria Airways in July of 1989. As the final DC-10s were rolling off the production line, tooling was being set up to build MD-11s. More than 160 airlines operated the DC-10 series. Freight carrying DC-10s are still operating – many of them with Federal Express or FedEx. DC-10s are also being used as aerial firefighting tankers and the Orbis International Flying Eye Hospital.

By clipperarctic (Continental DC-10-30) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

DC-10 Trivia

FedEx became the first U.S. carrier to equip its aircraft with an anti-missile defense system in 2006. The gray oval Northrop Grumman Guardian pod can be seen on the bellies of FedEx MD-10s located between and just aft of the main landing gear.

The DC-10-40 was equipped with Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines- the same as those powering the Boeing 747.  Northwest Orient Airlines wanted the DC-10-20 to be renamed DC-10-40 and powered by JT9Ds for fleet engine commonality. The improved jetliner was distinguishable from the CF6-powered DC-10s by the slightly larger intake one the number two (tail mounted) engine.

By Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Royal Netherlands Air Force (Koninklijke Luchtmacht  or KLu) flies a pair of KDC-10 aerial refueling tankers based on the DC-10-30CF.

FedEx still operates 32 DC-10/MD-10 freighters. When asked about the legacy of the DC-10, one airline analyst remarked, “The DC-10 is going to be remembered as a better cargo plane than passenger plane.”

By Tomás Del Coro from Las Vegas, Nevada, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
One former American Airlines DC-10-10 was operated by the Missile Defense Agency as the Widebody Airborne Sensor Platform (WASP).

The unflattering nicknames Death Contraption 10, Death Cruiser 10, Daily Crash 10, Donald’s Disaster, and Crowd Killer were all bestowed upon the DC-10 after its first few years of service and its unfortunate safety record at the time.

By clipperarctic (National Airlines DC-10) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The DC-10 engines were numbered one (port wing), two (tail mounted), and three (starboard wing).

The first major accident for the DC-10 occurred when the cargo door blew off an American Airlines DC-10 just after departing Detroit. The sudden loss of cabin pressure caused part of the cabin floor to collapse, which knocked out several of the flight control mechanisms. The pilots were able to return to the airport with no loss of life aboard the aircraft.

Western Airlines DC-10 via Wikipedia- image in public domain.

DC-10s were involved in a total of 32 hull-loss incidents, and 1,439 deaths have resulted from these incidents. Compare that with the Airbus A300, a much newer aircraft, involved in 31 hull-loss incidents, and 1,436 lives lost as a result of them.

On 7 April 1994 FedEx employee Auburn Calloway attempted to hijack FedEx flight 705. Calloway was deadheading on the flight and armed with hammers and a speargun he had smuggled aboard the jet in a guitar case. He pled temporary insanity at his trial.

By Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
On 19 September 1989 a DC-10 operated by French carrier UTA was destroyed by a bomb hidden in luggage by Libyan terrorists over the Sahara desert. All 170 souls on board were killed.

Enjoy the McDonnell Douglas promotional film uploaded to YouTube by Classic Airliners & Vintage Pop Culture.

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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