Published in February 2016 issue

By Charles Kennedy

The Douglas Aircraft Company’s first jetliner, the DC-8, had a good early run; however, by 1964, sales were faltering, with only 14 ordered, nine of them being top-ups for United Airlines (UA). A radical move was needed to save the program.

Douglas had been considering a major stretch of the DC-8 for trunk routes such as California to Hawaii and New York to Puerto Rico. Compared to that of the 707, which rode considerably closer to the runway, the DC-8’s basic platform was much easier to stretch because of the plane’s high landing gear; also,the DC-8’s modest wing sweep meant that the engine pods would not risk scraping the ground during takeoff and landing.

The DC-8-61 was the first stretched model, with a 200in (5m) plug inserted ahead of the wing and a240in (6m) one inserted behind it. The result was a new fuselage length of 187ft 4in (57m). Some of the additional structural weight was offset by an aggressive weight-saving program that cut 2,000lb (907kg), mostly by replacing non-loadbearing metal parts with plastic ones.

The new DC-8-61 couldaccommodate 269 passengers in seats that werecompatible with any other type of airline seating,attached totwin tracks along the cabin floor (earlier DC-8s had required bespoke seats that attached to the cabin wall). The designers borrowed cockpit instrumentation and lighting from the new Douglas shortfall DC-9 twinjet. They kept the wings and engines from the DC-8-55, making this, despite the impressive new dimensions, a ‘minimum change’ upgrade.

For the DC-8-62, Douglas then turned its attention to upgrading the wings and engines. The designers first focused on the engine pods—changing the reverse-thrust mechanism from three units to one, and relocating the heat exchangers from the pod to the pylon, reducing the former’smaximum diameter by 12%. They increased fuel capacity by 900 gallons by adding3ft to the wingspan and installing new leading edge tanks. The DC-8-62, with its shorter stretch, being only80in (2m) longer than the DC-8-55, and the incorporation of these aerodynamic enhancements, was a true ultra-long ranger, able to fly 6,000 miles (9,656km) with a load of 189 passengers and using the unchanged exit configuration from the DC-8-55.

In a final upgrade, Douglas married the -61’s fuselage stretch to the -62’s wings and engines, creating the world-beating DC-8-63 that would eventually account for a fifth of all DC-8 sales.

The company launched the three variants of the Series -60DC-8 on April 4, 1965, with an initial order from SAS for four DC-8-62s with four more asoptions.United then ordered five DC-8- 61s (and a top-up of various -50s) and Eastern Airlines (EA) eight -61s. By the end of 1965, Douglas had orders for 38 Series -60sas well as 36 -50s, including 12 Jet Traders.

However, with the pickup of the DC-8 and the boom in orders for the DC-9, the cash-flow problems, which had been a nuisance when orders were scarce, ballooned into a full-blown crisis. As the orders poured in, Douglas had to reverse its earlier decision to build both the DC-8 and DC-9 on the same production line, and set up two separate ones. This reorganization alone ate up precious capital.

The first DC-8-61, N8070U, rolled off the line at Long Beach on January 26, 1966. It took to the air for the first time on March 14 in the capable hands of Don Mullin and Heimie Heimerdinger, along with Flight Engineers Joe Tomich and Richard Edwards. The first flight took off with a gross weight of 255,000lb (115,666kg), left the ground at a speed of 137kt and climbed to 31,000ft. The aircraft then descended towards Palmdale airport, north of Los Angeles, where the crew conducted a number of touch-and-go landings before returning to Long Beach four hours and 45 minutes later.

The Port Authority of New York had some concerns about the noisiness of the new stretched DC-8s. These proved to be groundless, but the Port Authority also noted that the DC-8-63 would exceed the 430psi bearing limits of the runways and taxiways at John F. Kennedy airport. Douglas was made aware ofthis issue in time to revise the main landing-gear footprint by moving the wheels 31.25in (79.38cm) apart, as opposed to the 30in (76.2cm) of the older DC-8s. That expanded the tire contact area to from 200 to220sq in.

On August 16, the crew took N8070U on a long-range test flight from Long Beach to Tokyo, which lasted11 hours and 50 minutes. In Tokyo, the plane stayed on the ground long enough to allow Japan Airlines executives and technicians to inspect it. The flight back to North America— Tokyo to Winnipeg, Manitoba—clocked in at just 11 hours. After 124 test flights, totaling 175 hours in the sky, the DC-8-61 receivedits type certificate on September 1, 1966.

The first DC-8-62 made its maidenflight on August 29 with Paul Patten in command, Don Mullin in the right seat, Steve Benya on the Flight Engineer’s panel, and two test technicians in the cabin.

The Douglas sales team, with the new Series -60DC-8s and the short-haul DC-9 to offer, was booking a record number of orders; yet,with Douglas’ persistent cash flow problems, things actually got worse, rather than better. Deliveries fell woefully behind schedule and, with pressure mounting, United asked Douglas to paint a test aircraft in United livery, so the publicity photographs would at least give the illusion that the airline’s new flagship was close to delivery. The Vietnam War added to the difficulties of the commercial division, as the national effort absorbed manpower and resources.

Douglas’s distress was no secret, and potential merger partners circled: North American, Martin Marietta, General Dynamics, Fairchild Aircraft and Signal Oil.

But it was the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis, Missouri, that won out. A merger was announced on January 13, 1967.

With the merger announcement still in the headlines, United finally received its first DC-8- 61 on January 26, 1967, and started service on the busy Los Angeles to Honolulu run on February 25. Eastern Airlines opened DC-8-61PF service between New York and San Juan on March 3.

The first DC-8-63, N1503U, rolled out on March 6. It first flew on April 10; another fivehour sortie, this time with Cliff Stout and Harry Terrell flying.

The DC-8-62 was certified on April 27, the first example being delivered to SAS on May 3. It entered service on the Copenhagen-New York route on May 22. The DC-8-63 followed a similar timing: certified on June 29, the first machine was delivered to KLM on July 15, and put into service on the North Atlantic route on July 27.

In 1968, flight testing focused on getting the freight versions of the Series -60range certified. The DC-8-63CF first flew on March 16 and was certified on June 10. Seaboard World received the first of the type and immediately put it into service on trips to Asia in support of the Vietnam War.

Flying Tigers had ordered 19DC-8-63s and received itsfirst ship in early July 1968. Tiger soon found that braking was poor on wet runways; so,Douglas ran a trial on a flooded runway at its test facility at Yuma, Arizona, and—just as Tiger had reported—found serious hydroplaning. The company therefore reworked the Hydrol Mark II antiskid braking system, making so many improvements that the system was rebranded the Mark III and fitted to all DC-8-63s.

The final variant of the DC-8 was the -63AF, and Douglas delivered the first of its kind to Tiger on October 18. The airline was so thrilled with the aircraft’s productivity that it announced that, based on an acquisition price of $11 million and on each flight grossing $53,000 on a schedule of 16 round trips per month,each airframe would pay for itself in just 12 months.

The very last DC-8-50s rolled off the line in 1968. The last passenger aircraft went to Air Canada on October 16, and the last freighter to United on November 23. Total production of standard DC-8s (series -10, -20, -30, -40 and -50) had come to 294 aircraft, including 39 convertibles and United’s 15 oddball windowless DC-8-54AF freighters.

Total deliveries for 1968 numbered a record 102. This was doubly impressive, given that the production line was small, the size of the aircraft, and that much of the work was done outside, on the flight line.

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With the DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011 wide-body peoplemovers coming, sales for the narrow-body DC-8, which had always come in volatile peaks and valleys, were winding down for the last time.

However, in 1969, the last year of DC-8 sales, Douglas wooed four new customers: World Airways, American Flyers Airline, West German leisure carrier Air Atlantis, and Air Zaire. Existing operators put their hat in the ring one last time—Airlift, Braniff, and Japan Airlines all placed top-up orders. SAS placed the last order, in April 1971, for a final DC-8-63.

Production was slowly reduced, from 1968’s 102 aircraft to 85 in 1969 to 33 in 1970, 13 in 1971, and a final four aircraft in 1972. SAS got its last -63 on May 17 and, with that, production of the first Douglas jetliner came to an end. It wasn’t quite the sad occasion it might have seemed, because McDonnell Douglas was keen to free up the production space to build the DC-10 wide-body, which went on to outsell the competing Lockheed L-1011 Tristar by nearly two to one.

Although revenue generated by DC-8 sales exceeded $4.5 million, because of the high development costs of so many variants and of the production costs of endless customization for different airlines, it is hard to say whether the program truly made a profit for Douglas. The residual income generated by spares sales and product support certainly added to the bottom line for decades after the end of production.

The early standard -10, -20, -30, and -40 series played a major role in the early part of the jet age—when flying was reserved for the mega rich, movie stars, captains of industry, diplomats, and spies; passengers got paper tickets written by hand and climbed stairs to board and deplane; and safety records were uncertain even on household-name airlines.The advent of the -50 series, with its fan engines, alongside the Boeing 707-320, opened up the skies towards the end of the decade, as fares started to come down.

In the 1970s, the Series -60machines dominated, becoming trunk liners in an era in whichair travel was starting to look like it does today, with reservations handled by computer for the first time, boarding by air bridge, fares down, and passenger numbers way up. No longer did every gentlemanwear a tie, nor every lady hat and gloves. The great human migration by air had begun in earnest.

The 1970s also saw DC-8s finding their way to the second-hand market—to new homes at airlines such as Loftleidir, which provided cheap transatlantic passenger flights via its home base in Iceland. Secondtier North American carriers such as Canada’s Nationair, Ontario Worldair, and Quebecair, and the Caribbean’s Air Bahama, Cayman Airways, and Air Jamaica allsnapped up spare DC-8s for transatlantic trips and winter vacation flights. Other second-hand frames began migrating to Africa, to carriers such as TAAG Angola and Air Zambia.

European leisure carriers fell in love with DC-8s across the continent. Major operators of second-hand aircraft included SATA and Balair (both Switzerland), Spantax, Air Spain, TAE, Canafrica (all Spain), Sudflug (Germany), Sterling (Denmark), Birgenair (Turkey), Point (France), Martinair (Holland), and Pomair Ostend (Belgium). Some of Iberia’s machines migrated to Spanish domestic carrier Aviaco for use as people movers in the heavily-traveled Spanish domestic market, including the world’s busiest domestic air route, Madrid to Barcelona.

In 1972, the Heath Technica Corporation of Kent, Washington, offeredan aftermarket ‘wide body’ interior upgrade to DC-8 operators. United Airlines installed it, starting with its own aircraft. Douglas soon offered a wide-body interior upgrade as well. Both versions offered a lower, rounded ceiling, new side walls and window frames, pull-down blinds to replace the oldfashioned curtains, and enclosed overhead bins to replace the open hat racks. Japan Airlines eagerly adopted the new-look interiors and made the conversions at Tokyo’s Haneda airport using kits made under license from Douglas by Atlantic Aviation.

As the 1970s moved on, airlines that were ready to upgrade from DC-8s to newer hardware sold their aircraft for as little as half a million dollars (in the case of the older -20s and -30s), even though the airframes still had a few decades of life left in them. As a result, cheaply acquired older DC-8s, especially Jet Traders, which already had main deck side cargo doors, began to be converted to freighters, starting in 1974 with the Charlotte Aircraft Corporation. The modifications involved only the strengthening of floors, the installation of roller loading systems, and the replacement of window panes with sheet metal blanks. The main deck side cargo doors were relatively easy to add. Charlotte Aerospace modified at least 25 DC-8-30s—and nine early-build -10s and -20s—to DC-8-30Fs.

The demand for DC-8 freighter conversions became so great that,in March 1976,Douglas opened a production line at its facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The modifications included upgrading old -10s, -20s and -30s to -50 standard aircraft by fitting Pratt & Whitney JT3D turbofans and the accompanying newer pylons. Even two Rolls-Royce Conwaypowered -43s were converted to -43Fs, and ended up at AeroPeru. Three other -43 series were refitted with Pratt & Whitney JT3Ds, to make them -54Fs; these aircraft went to Zantop and Airlift.

UTA Industries ofParis (a highly capable aerospace spinoff of UTA/Aeromaritime Airlines, alater achievement of which included building two Supper Guppy Turbine super transporters for Airbus out of kits supplied by Aero Spacelines) converted two -33s to -54Fs for the French Air Force. Aeronavali in Italy also did some conversions.

Later, passenger Series -60and Series -70DC-8s began being converted to freighters, also by Aeronavali, on behalf of customers such as Air Canada, UPS (with 13 ex-Delta passenger liners, the last of which flew in service on May 1, 1989, from Baltimore-Washington to Atlanta), and Guinness-Peat Aviation (with all 29 ex-United -71s).

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Despite the type’s continuing popularity with many passenger carriers and a growing fan club in the air cargo business, towards the end of the ‘70s,a twoprongedthreat began to loom over the first generation jetliners: increasingly stringent noise regulations, and fuel prices increases.

Incredibly, Douglas briefly considered outfitting DC-8s with the General Electric CF-6 engines found on the wide-body  DC-10s and Boeing 747s; such an excess of power would have surely made the one-off trip through the sound barrier achieved back in August 1961 by that Canadian Pacific DC-8-40 a routine affair.

As early as July 1975, General Electric also had meetings with airlines about its planned CFM-56 turbofan, but the form of the future noise regulations was too vague for GE to take any expensive initiatives, especially on an as-yet unproven engine.

In 1977, retired Douglas executive Jackson R McGowan, along with other former top brass from the company, formed a new company to contract for any type of DC-8 retrofit projects. The new outfit, called Cammacorp, returned to General Electric to discuss the CFM-56, which GE was producing in cooperation with SNECMA (SociétéNationale d’Étude et de Construction de Moteurs d’Aviation). McDonnell Douglas wasn’t incredibly thrilled about the development, trying as it was to sell new DC-10s, an enterprise already hampered by a perceived safety crisis after a series of public and deadly crashes.

In May 1978, Delta Air Lines(DL) became the first airline to consider re-engining its fleet of DC-8s, as no replacement aircraft type existed that could perform the same missions with the same payload (a problem that plagued all DC-8 operators to some extent!).

Pratt & Whitney offered a competing re-engining program based around its new JT8D engine in early 1979. Developed for the DC-9-80 (later rebranded the MD-80), it was initially an early favorite with United (an order was actually announced on March 29, 1979), partly due to its lower purchase price ($980,000, compared with $1.5 million for a CFM-56). But Flying Tigers convinced United to take a second look at the CFM offering. Tiger was worried that the Pratt & Whitney product would offer less thrust in a noise-abatement departure climb, and calculated that the additional fuel efficiency of the higher-bypass CFM would soon offset the higher purchase price.

In mid-April, Tiger went ahead and announced that it had contracted with Cammacorp to convert the nine DC-8 Series -60s it owned (seven -63CF and two -61CF machines). Delta followed with a deal for upgrades to 13 DC-8-61s.Soon, McGowan had orders for 78 conversions from seven airlines, worth $12 million per aircraft.

Cammacorp struck a deal with McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach to provide all engineering support and to do the actual conversions at its facility in Tulsa. It lined up Grumman Aerospace to manufacture the engine nacelles and pylons in May 1979. The first aircraft to be converted was N8093U, a United DC-8-61, which arrived in Tulsa in October 1980.

At this point, the company announced that re-engined -61s would become DC-8-71s; reengined -62s would become DC-8-72s; and re-engined -63s would become DC-8-73s.

More customers for re-engining came through in 1981, including Cargolux, Air Canada, Overseas National Airways and Capitol Airways. Spantax placed an order, but went out of business before it could be completed. Flying Tigers convinced the owners of its nine leased DC-8s, five of which belonged to the Transamerica Corporation, to do the conversion. The first Tiger DC-8-63 arrived in Tulsa in April 1981. Delta took an unusual route, getting the first of 19 done at Tulsa, then performing the rest itselfin the hangar at Atlanta.

The FAA granted certification for the DC-8-71 on April 13, 1981; certificates for the -72 and -73 followed in May. Delta put its first -71 into service from Atlanta to Savannah on April 24. United followed from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, on May 16. Transamerica was first to fly the -73 in revenue service, on a long-haul trip from Oakland to Shannon with 254 passengers aboard.

Although the order book was healthy, Cammacorp continued looking for new business opportunities. On April 3, 1983, itshowed off the almost-unlimited capabilities of the re-enginedDC-8 Series -70by flying its DC-8-72 test and demonstrationmachine from Cairo to Los Angeles in 15 hours46 minutes,with former Douglas test pilot Don Mullin in command (on arrival, the aircraft still had enough fuel to fly for another 1,000 miles). UPS, German Cargo, and Emery Worldwide signed up to have their DC-8s re-engined.

A delay inthe implementation of the FAR Stage 2 noise restrictions from 1983 to January 1, 1986eased the airlines’ sense of urgency. The availability of cheaper hush kits for JT3Dpowered aircraft took some of the bite out of Cammacorp’s sales presentations. After a while, there were fewer and fewer remaining airframes suitable for conversion. In mid-1986, Cammacorp began winding down.

However, the remaining not re-engined DC-8s still had to comply with FAR 36 Part 2 noise regulations. The market responded by producing more hush kits, such as the Dyan Rohr package supplied by Rohr Industries under contract to Aeronautic Development Corporation, of Jersey, UK, which built and sold 50 shipsets, or the Quiet Nacelle Corporation of Waco, Texas, which sold 28 of a competing design. Snow Aviation (supplied to Worldways Canada), Burbank Aeronautical Corporation (supplied to Airborne Express), and UAS Engineering also provided hushkit options.

A highly symbolic torch was passed in May 1988. Douglas announced that it had sold the rights to manufacture spare parts for all Douglas Commercial aircraft from the DC-3 to the DC-8 to Gulfstream Aerospace. This allowed Gulfstream to fabricate any part or tooling at its Oklahoma City factory using technical data supplied by Douglas, which, for many years, fully occupied a team of over 200 staff.

At the time of writing, there are only a tiny handful of DC-8s left flying in the world: a couple of VIP machines, a couple of freighters (Agro Air in Sri Lanka, Stabo Air of Chad operating domestic within DR Congo) and a NASA flying laboratory.

The last active DC-8 simulator has been decommissioned. That makes training harder; the absence of training devices requires the use of an actual aircraft to pound the circuit; this is expensive and, for emergency procedures by pilots new to type, even risky. Parts are harder to come by; retired aircraft parked in the desert that would traditionally have been used as Christmas trees for spares have been scrapped over the years due to low demand.

Fifty-six years on, the DC-8 era is coming to an end, but its impact on the world aviation scene is permanent. Even now, there is still is a Diesel Eight in the air every day somewhere in the world, flying on the wings of a heritage that stretches back to the century before last, to the birth of its creator, Donald Douglas Sr, in 1892.

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On August 21, 1961, N9604Z, a DC- 8-43 destined to become CF-CPG at Canadian Pacific, made history by flying supersonic during a test flight over the Askania Tracking Range near Edwards AFB. This was the first time a commercial airliner had exceeded Mach 1, a feat that was not repeated until a Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic airliner broke the speed of sound on June 5, 1969 (followed by the Concorde’s first trip through the sound barrier on October 1 of the same year).

The idea originated with Douglas test pilot Bill Magruder (who later became head of the FAA). The flight had been carefully planned, with 5,000 pounds (2,268kg) of ballast loaded in the rear cabin to provide an aft center of gravity to assist with maneuverability during the pull-out. N9604Z was accompanied by a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and a two-seat North American F-100 Super Sabre, made available by the United States Air Force Flight Test Center to check speed and atmospheric data, which was also corroborated by a weather balloon.

The Pilots were Bill Magruder, Paul Patten, and Joseph Tomich, accompanied by Flight Test Engineer Richard Edwards. The track for the accelerating dive started at the southern tip of Rogers Dry Lake and ended at the southern tip of Rosemond Dry Lake.

N9604Z climbed to 52,090ft (setting thealtitude record for an airliner in the process). Then, weighing 170,600lb (77,383kg),31,000lb (14,197kg) of which werefuel, it pushed over into a 15° descent with a negative G load of 0.5 being experienced for the first 15 seconds.

The highest speed achieved was Mach 1.012, at 660.6mph,while descending through 41,088ft, with a maximum true airspeed of 662.5mph achieved at 39,614ft. Recovery was initiated at 42,000ft and the aircraft was fully recovered at 36,000ft with the Mach number back down at 0.95. Maximum G load during the pullout was 1.7. No buffeting was experienced during the transonic period, although some was while decelerating through Mach 0.94 at 35,000ft, along with a buzzing sensation on the ailerons and rudder tab.

CF-CPG, with a small plaque testifying to her place in history on the forward bulkhead, flew for Canadian Pacific right up until retirement and scrapping in 1980. The rest of the hours it had flown—70,567—had all been subsonic.