MIAMI — Death Contraption 10, Death Cruiser 10, Daily Crash 10, Donald’s Disaster, and Crowd Killer. These are just a few of the unfortunate nicknames which were bestowed upon the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 in its first few years of service. It goes without question that the DC-10 had serious issues in its early years, but are the nicknames warranted?
The DC-10 was introduced into commercial service in August of 1971 with American Airlines. The new tri-jet wide-body aircraft was smaller than the rival Boeing 747, but aimed at providing similar long-haul service. Unfortunately, the aircraft almost immediately encountered severe issues with its design.
In 1972, the cargo door blew off an American Airlines DC-10 just after departing Detroit. The rapid loss of cabin pressure caused a portion of the cabin floor to collapse, severing or degrading the capability of several flight control mechanisms. Thankfully, the pilots managed to get the aircraft back on the runway without a single fatality. This was the first major accident for the aircraft type. The NTSB made several safety recommendations to ensure this incident would not happen again.
Just two years later, the same exact defect reared its ugly head once again, killing all passengers and crew on board Turkish Airlines Flight 981. This time, the DC-10 was grounded and barred from United States airspace until a permanent, and reliable fix, was found. Following the cargo door accidents, the DC-10 suffered several more high profile, major crashes, the most notable of which was United Airlines Flight 232. On a flight from Denver to Chicago, the tail mounted engine suffered a catastrophic failure, taking out several flight control systems, leaving the pilots with nearly no control. Miraculously, the crew nearly managed to land the stricken airliner, with 111 deaths out of 285 passengers and 11 crew members.
Four major accidents seemed to seal the fate of the DC-10, doomed to always be remembered as the “death cruiser.” Is such a nickname fair, however?
The Aviation Safety Network reports a total of 32 hull-loss incidents, which are incidents where the aircraft had to be scrapped. Over the life of the model, there have been 1,439 deaths as a result of the aircraft. In comparison, the Airbus A300 has been involved in 31 hull-loss incidents, claiming a total of 1,436 lives. While fewer A300’s than DC-10’s were delivered, the A300 is a much newer aircraft than the DC-10, and would have the benefit of lessons learned from the DC-10.
One of the most notorious crashes occurred in Chicago when the engine of an American Airlines DC-10 separated just after takeoff, causing the jet to fall back to earth, killing everyone on board. This crash happened to be caught on video, giving the DC-10 stigma a literal image that it would never be able to shake off.
The NTSB investigation later showed that the crash was not related to the previous design flaws, but rather faulty maintenance practices at American Airlines. While the aircraft itself was later found not not be at fault, the damage to the aircraft’s reputation was done for good.
Yes, the DC-10 had major issues early on in its life, issues which will never be forgotten. Since those issues, however, the DC-10 has proved itself a worthy airliner. When all was said and done, McDonnell Douglas produced 446 DC-10s, with the final delivery occurring in 1989. To this day, The DC-10 is still serves many functions.
FedEx Airlines has a fleet of over 60 DC-10s flying in 2014 as it slowly purchases newer Boeing 767s. The United States Military uses the DC-10, or KC-10, as the backbone of its airborne refueling system, with about 60 still in service. Evergreen uses the DC-10 as a “supertanker” to help fight forest fires. The DC-10 even serves as a flying eye hospital with the group ORBIS.