Remembering the DC-10: A Pilot’s Perspective

Remembering the DC-10: A Pilot’s Perspective

DALLAS – Airline pilots live and die by their “number,” or seniority number, that is. During your first day in new hire ground school, “Basic Indoc,” before you’re even assigned an aircraft, someone will come in, welcome you aboard, and dispense a class roster.

You’ll eagerly search for your name and note the number beside it. This is your all-important system seniority number.

You’ve spent years trying to acquire this innocuous little number and, over the course of your career, it will determine the equipment that you fly, from which seat, whether as a block holder or reserve, domestic or international, whether you have Christmas off or can attend your kid’s soccer games.

As the years pass and your waist-line gets bigger, this number will get smaller as those senior to you retire; but never quickly enough.

DC-10-40 at the gate in SEA waiting to leave for HNL. (Credits: Author)

DC-10 Ground School Training

My name was displayed prominently on company bulletin 91-44, effective September 1, 1991.  My number had come up! After just six years with Northwest Airlines, seniority number 3536 (flying as a DC-9 copilot) had been awarded a DC-10, reserve first officer position at Boston’s Logan International Airport.

For the first time in my career, domiciled for the first time somewhere near my home, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven… no more commuting to Detroit. Well, at least for a while.

At the very least, the DC-10 ground school training in 1991 was thorough. Oral exams could last as long as three hours and consisted of questions concerning every nut, bolt, and switch on the flight engineer’s panel. This is a rather efficient method of testing all aircraft systems, performance, and company procedures.

Efficient for the inquisitor anyway, and you could gauge your performance by the examiner’s grimace. But this was before distant learning training, back when instructors were men or women of knowledge, not CDs or DVDs mailed home by a clerk.

Examinations were intense, but so was the training as spirited systems discussions ensued every day utilizing schematic diagrams and lectures. An experienced instructor actually stood before us prepared for questions and problems.

Cockpit DC-10. (Credits: Author)

My Turn at the Barrel

After ground and simulator training in Minneapolis, fourteen of us piled into a DC-10-40 one afternoon to practice takeoffs and landings in Rochester, Minn. Six years earlier, we’d done this too in a DC-9, but it was at midnight with a box of stale donuts. This requirement has long been eliminated by sophisticated, six-axis, full-motion simulators.

The first time you fly an airplane now is during a scheduled flight with unsuspecting passengers. Being the junior man on this training mission, however, the check airman assigned me galley duty: I was responsible for heating our crew meals, making the coffee, and icing down the Cokes. Now, this was the way to train.

It did have its advantages, though. As my fellow trainees sat in first-class awaiting their “turn in the barrel,” I’d step from the galley into the cockpit just prior to landing and start to build a sight picture. Also, being the last to perform, I was designated to fly the airplane back to MSP and experience one more landing.

My first DC-10 flight from Boston to Frankfurt, December 1991. (Credits: Author)

Trans-Atlantic “Track”

A couple of weeks later, after completing IOE (Initial Operating Experience), I got the nod. I knew how a Triple-A player felt when called up to the majors. The First Officer had phoned in sick for flight 52, and I’d be off to Frankfurt, Germany later that night. 

This was my first trans-Atlantic “track” experience; flying past Nova Scotia, Greenland, Iceland, 30 West, north of Ireland, over Scotland, and into Germany.  I plotted the tracks, noted Lat/Longs, accomplished INS checks, VOR checks, altimeter checks, waypoint checks and logged it all.

But with my untrained ear, I successfully communicated with Gander and Shanwick for oceanic clearances, deciphered ATIS, and spoke with Frankfurt Approach. In short, as the new guy, I was hanging on to the tail!

Crew meals provided some respite, though, and no longer consisted of a cold, cellophane-wrapped sandwich and chips in a box, gulped down between approaches. Tonight I enjoyed a steak, au gratin potatoes, vegetables, rolls, a fruit tray, and salads, served on linen with engraved utensils. This was preceded by a hot towel to refresh our faces and clean our hands. 

And just when I thought that it couldn’t get any better, the lead flight attendant brought in hot fudge sundaes in parfait glasses and a huge tray of chocolate chip cookies and chocolate caramels. “There’s plenty more where these came from fella’s,” she said as she headed back to first class. My biggest surprise was that the captain and engineer acted like all this was normal as I stashed food in my suitcase for later consumption.

Just a week later, as a seasoned Atlantic veteran now, I departed San Francisco on a trans-Pacific crossing to Honolulu, with captain Sherm Cornell on his retirement flight. I’d grown accustomed to this DC-10 flying, had gained a little weight, but remained dual qualified and regularly went back to flying DC-9 trips to Fort Wayne, South Bend, Kalamazoo, and Gulfport.

Once you’ve seen the bright lights of Paris and experienced the fine cuisine in first class, though, it’s hard to return to domestic DC-9 flying. This is another practice, dual qualification, that has thankfully been eliminated.

DC-10-30 at the gate HNL. 240NW, MSN 48319. (Credits. Author)

A Leisurely Manner

Starting in 1972, Northwest flew two DC-10 models, the –30 and –40, only a year after D.B. Cooper hijacked NWA flight 305 from Seattle to Portland. The –40, flown only by NWA and Japan Airlines, was equipped with a Pratt and Whitney JT-9D-20 producing 45,000 pounds of thrust. With a max gross takeoff weight of 530,000 pounds, 32-business class and 256 coach passengers were served. 

Purchased used, or “preowned” as we’d say today, mostly by Swissair and Thai Airways, the –30 had General Electric CF6-50C engines that produced 51,000 pounds of thrust with a takeoff weight of 555,000 pounds. The industry story about NWA and its Pratt-powered Tens was Mr. Nyrop’s statement, “If I want a toaster, I’ll call GE; if I want a jet engine, I’ll call Pratt & Whitney. ” It makes for a good story anyway!

Although a short-timer on the DC-10, what flying I did was most enjoyable. Prior to my experience on the 747-400, it was the most comfortable and stable aircraft that I’ve ever flown. Sitting up high, with electric seats, huge windows, and a spacious cockpit, watching icebergs pass beneath those magnificent wings gave the impression of lounging on a cruise ship.

I preferred its gunmetal gray cockpit color to today’s brown or blue “behavioral scientist’s” choice. The DC-10, her wonderful flight characteristics, and leisurely manner, are reminiscent of another era, one that I already miss. I certainly miss the hot fudge sundaes.

This is NWA’s last DC-10 flight. Flight 98 HNL to MSP pushing from gate 11 in HNL, 8 Jan 07. Sorry, it’s a bit blurry, I took it from a 757 as I taxied past on my way to the gate in low light. I’d arrived from SEA and Maui. (Credits: Author)
Forward coach section, DC-10. (Credits: Author)
One of my first flights in a DC-10-40, to Frankfurt w/ captain Andy Baker. (Credits: Author)
Two DC-10 tails, MSP, last livery and old bowling shoe livery. 240NW, MSN48319. 236NW MSN46934. (Credits: Author)
DC-10-40 landing 30L MSP. (Credits: Author)
Cockpit DC-10. (Credits: Author)
DC-10-30 in its last NWA livery. 239NW, MSN 48290. (Credits: Author)

Article written by Captain Rand Peck. Featured image: Northwest DC-10. Photo: Author

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