1/10/1990: MD-11 Prototype Takes to the Skies

1/10/1990: MD-11 Prototype Takes to the Skies

DALLAS — On January 10, 1990, the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 made its inaugural flight from Long Beach, California, in the United States. McDonnell Douglas had been searching for a replacement for its popular DC-10 tri-jet since 1976.

The research project, initially known as the ‘Super 60,’ eventually led to the development of the MD-11, which was officially launched in December 1986. A total of ten airlines placed 52 firm orders for the aircraft, with an additional 40 options.

Construction of the MD-11 prototype began on March 9, 1988. However, several assembly delays caused the first flight of the jet to be postponed. Finally, on December 20, 1990, the MD-11 entered into service with Finnair as the launch customer. Delta Air Lines (DL), the US launch customer, introduced its first MD-11 into service on February 5, 1991.

A special ceremony was held at Long Beach to mark the handover of the first MD-11 to Finnair. Photo: McDonnell Douglas

Purpose of the MD-11


The MD-11 was designed to address the negative reputation of the DC-10 and featured improvements such as a two-person glass cockpit, eliminating the need for a flight engineer onboard. This digital setup not only saved the airline space but also reduced costs.

McDonnell Douglas, and later Boeing, manufactured the MD-11. It was developed from the DC-10 and achieved FAA certification on November 8, 1990. The first delivery was made to Finnair (AY) on December 7, 1990, and it entered service on December 20, 1990.

The MD-11 significantly impacted aviation history and marked the continuation of McDonnell Douglas’ widebody development following the DC-10. However, the MD-11 had a relatively short production run, and its shorter variant, the MD-95, eventually became the Boeing 717 after the merger with Boeing.

Several MD-11s from various operators are on the production line. Photo: McDonnell Douglas

Performance Issues


During the early months of its service, the MD-11 faced various performance issues. These problems ultimately resulted in Singapore Airlines (SQ) canceling its order for 20 aircraft and opting for the rival Airbus A340-300 instead. American Airlines (AA), which initially had a significant order of 50 MD-11s, ended up operating only 19 for less than eight years.

Despite initial promises that the MD-11 would be a revolutionary aircraft designed to compete with the Boeing 777 and Airbus A330/A340, McDonnell Douglas faced financial constraints during the development phase. As a result, compromises were made, leading to the emergence of performance flaws.

The MD-11 fell short of its intended targets for range and fuel efficiency. AA attributed these issues to engine and airframe problems, and SQ stated that the MD-11 was unsuitable for their long-haul routes.

KLM was the final operator of the passenger variant. Photo: KLM

End of Production


The McDonnell Douglas MD-11 was available in four different models: passenger, freighter, convertible freighter, and a “combi” variant that could accommodate both passengers and cargo.

In 2000, production of the MD-11 came to a halt following Boeing’s acquisition of McDonnell Douglas. The final aircraft was delivered on February 22, 2001, marking the completion of 200 airframes. KLM (KL) eventually retired the MD-11 from passenger service on October 26, 2014.

The last MD-11 ever built is operated by UPS. The cargo airline is in the process of phasing out its MD-11s and replacing them with more fuel-efficient Boeing 767 freighters.  Photo: Chris Goulet/Airways, taken 01/10/2023
The last MD-11 ever built is operated by UPS. The cargo airline is in the process of phasing out its MD-11s and replacing them with more fuel-efficient Boeing 767 freighters. Photo: Chris Goulet/Airways, taken 01/10/2023

Featured Image: FedEx took on many ex-passenger MD-11s and had them converted to freighters. Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways

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