Folded Wings: the Last Douglas DC-10 Passenger Flight

Folded Wings: the Last Douglas DC-10 Passenger Flight

BIRMINGHAM — The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 carried its last passengers on February 20, 2014, after nearly forty-three years of service.

The last Bangladesh Airlines (BG) DC-10 flight, dubbed Biman Bangladesh 008, was greeted by a mob of passengers and the press after the final passenger flight landed and rolled to the gate of Birmingham Airport (BHX), in the UK.

Cake and champagne were served A total of 200 boarded this last flight, coming from around the world to do so. On board, BBC’s Janice Long, a radio personality and former flight attendant performed the in-flight safety briefing announcement.

The First Leg

The airplane’s three General Electric CF6-50C2 engines, each with 52,000 pounds of thrust, lifted the half-empty airplane (it only weighed 185 metric tons) at 141 knots into the skies over the UK, despite being de-rated by 15%, in only 43 seconds. The noticeably loud and thrilling cacophony of engine noise ingesting our fifty tons of fuel, along with shaking overhead bins, provided the day’s audio entertainment while we waited to reach our cruising altitude of 24,000 feet over Scotland.

Yet almost immediately, everyone left their seats (mine was 31A), walking up and down the aisles, snapping photos, and chatting—feeling more like a reunion of old friends than a memorial service. A mad rush to the cockpit also began, in the hopes that the flight-deck door would be open (it was not).  

An employee with Ian Allen Tours, the group that organized the last flights, walked up and down the aisle hawking DC-10 SWAG joking saying “I will lose my job if I don’t sell this stuff. Save my job!” The CEO, flight attendants, and flight crews became celebrities, posing for photos, and stopping for hugs in between offering water and juice to passengers.

Speaking of crew, a total of fourteen pilots showed up in Birmingham, rotating in and out of the flight deck through the course of the weekend’s nine scenic flights (which had a unique smell combo of lilac and nicotine on board). Each flight was manned by an additional eight cabin crew, all of whom were sad to see the airplane go.

Flight crewmember Aporna said, “This was like our home. We love it and we are emotional [it is leaving us]. This is [a] really comfortable [airplane] and wider in leg space and my passengers are happy.

“More stable than a 777-300 [and a better ride].” All that love, even despite the airplane making the crews work hard (it had a five-degree upward angle while cruising, meaning flight crews had to push carts up the plane). Aporna had an even more personal connection: her husband proposed to her on the DC-10. Most of the cabin crew will be transitioning to the carrier’s new Boeing 777-300ER airplanes.

Meeting the Passengers

During my short time in the cabin, I had an opportunity to chat with many of the people on board. The mood was electric and energetic the entire time, unlike anything I’d flown on before. One family I met, the Wohlfarth’s from Switzerland, all had connections to the DC-10.

Husband Thomas was a mechanic on DC10 for Swissair (LX), wife Barbara first flight was on DC-10, Julia daughter first and last time on DC-10. It was Barbara’s idea.

“It’s the real way to travel back in time.” Mark Headay, from Birmingham, was on the DC-10 for the first time in twenty years. His first flight was with Iberia, to Lima, Peru. He said he found out about these scenic flights at the last minute and “wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Cody Diamond, of Miami, Florida, was on the final DC-9 and now the last DC-10 flight. He remarked that the festivities for the -10 were much better. Airline Reporter’s Bernie Leighton was on his fourth flight on the DC-10 trip. He said the airplane was to him and Western Canada because it’s what we flew to Hawaii as a kid so the CP Air empress class placards on overhead bins made him nostalgic.

Anthony Marcus, from Washington, DC, flew on the last Northwest Airlines DC-10 in 2007. That was a normal scheduled flight but this is much more of a party, he remarked. He said the plane takes him back to the 1970s, a memory he will enjoy.

Captain Ishrat Ahmed, a 27-year veteran of Biman, talked about the DC10 being a “pilot’s aircraft, very stable. Of course, I will miss it, but you can’t argue with the comfort and 35% increased fuel efficiency of our new Boeing 777-300ERs.” Ahmed has logged an impressive 10,000-plus hours on planes himself over the course of twenty years.

After only an hour, the airplane began its descent at 4:03 pm, forty-three minutes after our departure at 3:20 pm. The airplane loudly shook and shuddered when the spoilers deployed, and the airplane then turned whisper quiet for the rest of the smooth flight. Seeing the engines and control surfaces in action was quite spectacular.


The Last Leg

The final flight landed at 4:17 pm local time to huge applause on board, and a water cannon salute was had after a lengthy tour of the Birmingham ramp. It was a nice change to the mood on the earlier flight of the day, when the mood on board turned silent through much of the descent, with only the drone of the engines to hear. You could almost hear a pin drop when they throttled back for a landing.

Once we greased the runway at 136 knots, the thrust reversers kicked in and brought us to a stop, breaking the silence. Only when the thrusters stopped did thunderous applause take over.

Unlike a regular commercial flight, there was no rush to disembark and everyone stopped for cockpit photos as the engines shut down at 4:30 pm local time with a press conference following.

Nearly forty-five minutes later, when I left, the airplane was still mobbed.

The Aircraft

Biman Bangladesh’s DC-10, S2-ACR, first flew in January 1988, and was delivered to the airline in December of that same year and named “New Era.” 

As line number 445 out of 446 DC-10s built, the airplane was one of the last delivered to any airline, with Nigerian receiving the last one in 1989. It spent a few decades plying the skies over Southeast Asia, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf region. The aircraft arrived in Birmingham on Thursday from Dhaka, Bangladesh via Kuwait City for three days of one-hour special enthusiast flights.

In a last-minute twist of fate, the airplane would be ferried back to Dhaka to be scrapped in a last-minute twist of fate the next day. Originally destined for the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the plan was mothballed when the museum did not have the space to house the airplane for six months.

Unfortunately, the airplane was due for service in only two months and Biman’s license to fly it expires at the end of the month, making it financially unsustainable to wait. A UK museum had offered to take it, but the airline wound up receiving a substantial offer for the parts, particularly the GE CF-6 engines and understandably caved in.

In total, the airplane, which first flew on January 9, 1988, completed over 22,000 cycles and over 80,000 hours in flight.

A Retirement Flight to Remember

I have been on a number of inaugural flights of an airplane, including the Airbus A380, Boeing 787, and 747-8, but until this flight, I had never been on a retirement one of an aircraft. These first flights were often full of paying, normal passengers. This is the first all AvGeek flight I have ever been on, and there’s not exactly the normal fanfare.

It’s all geeks, some of whom have never flown on the DC-10 before, including many who were born after the DC-10 ended production.

The last time I flew a DC-10 was LAX-JFK where I sat or slept in the last row (all five seats empty) on American Airlines (AA) in Nov 1996. My first time was LAX-HNL in November 1992. I don’t have a long history with the aircraft flying in it, but as I grew up in Tulsa, OK where AA maintained the DC-10s, I have a very personal connection to it.

When American Airlines (AA) DC-10 Flight 191 crashed on May 25, 1979, I was ten years old and an AvGeek, many of my friend’s parents worked at AA and that and the consequential grounding were the talk of many of my friend’s and their parents. It was a shock to all of us. I remember where I was when I heard the news. Time stood still at the tragedy of it all and lingered when the type was grounded.

The tri-jets are certainly in their sunset years. Later this year, the handful of remaining passenger MD-11s, now only flown by KLM, will be a thing of the past. Its lifespan, entering service in 1991, of 23 years is almost half the service of its older brother, the DC-10. Yet, while it is possible that we’ll see a few scenic flights, it seems unlikely that the MD-11, or any other large jet, will see anything but a similar fate.

Unlike prop aircraft like the DC-3, DC-6, Ford Tri-Motor, or Lockheed Constellation, the track record of retired jets (such as the 707, 727, DC-8, etc.) is not great for enthusiast flights, often simply by virtue of size (and thus operating costs) alone. After the DC-10 and then the MD-11, I asked myself, “What’s the next plane to end its flying life?” “The IL-62? The A300? A310? Even the A318?”

The Last Farewell

Airlines are typically very sentimental, so I’d like to congratulate Biman, who is in a recovery phase after a steep dive, for actually doing something so special for AvGeeks and those who loved the airplane.

Many airplanes are quietly pulled from service, and most don’t want to draw attention to themselves. Biman did something that some have said is a public relations stunt, but CEO Kevin Steele, who was involved with Concorde, says he “understands enthusiasts’ desire to say goodbye.”

Still, I find it unfortunate that it was flown all the way here only to be flown all the way back to die. Whether it was the never confirmed Museum of Flight, Future of Flight, or Bruntingthorpe Aviation Museum in England, it is tragic that at this point, no DC-10 passenger airplanes will be on display barring a last-minute change. The airplane will continue to live on as a cargo hauler for FedEx for some years to come, but its days are clearly numbered.

Back in Birmingham, Steele, wearing jeans and a DC-10 last flights T-shirt, said, “I’m a little sad with a lump in my throat but this is as much about celebrating Biman’s past as its future.” Let’s raise a toast to the DC-10, and Biman for a job well done, and blue skies ahead. The carrier will be back at the airport soon – they begin service to New York City soon: via Birmingham using a brand new state-of-the-art Boeing 777-300ER.

This article was first published on February 24, 2014. Featured image and all photos: Chris Sloan/The Airchive

Chris Sloan is a curious human with far too many passions and advocations: a long-time aviation journalist, television producer, philanthropist, entrepreneur, photographer, businessman, drone operator, wanderluster, storyteller, and dad. On the side, he runs the webseum of commercial aviation,

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