MIAMI — By this time next week, the last passenger DC-10 flight will be completed, and a 43-year reign will be over. As our co-editor-in-chief travels to Bangladesh for the last set of flights, we take a look back at the extensive history of the airplane in a two part series.

The story of the DC-10 starts not with commercial aviation but with the US Air Force. In the early 1960s the USAF was seeking an enormous airplane capable of carrying lots of equipment and troops, known as the CX-HLS. All of the big names got involved, including Boeing, Lockheed, and Douglas. The three all submitted ambitious proposals, looking to snag what was sure to be a lucrative contract. Despite a strong bid from all three, Lockheed wound up winning the contract, leaving Boeing to go on to produce the 747, while Douglas pondered what was to be next.

With the CX-HLS contract now officially lost, Douglas attempted to salvage the work already done by creating a combo passenger/freight version of the same airplane. Later dubbed the D-918, the fully double-decked, high-wing airplane would have been able to fit up to 900 passengers. The project was scaled down into the D-950 and D-952. Neither was to be. Expecting supersonic (SST) passenger jets to crowd out subsonic passenger travel in the near future, the company predicted demand would be minimal for such an airplane. As a result both were scrapped.


Belief that a market existed for a subsonic, transcontinental freighter—Douglas opted out of the SST race—spurred the creation of the D-956 in 1966. The double-decked, low-wing airplane had a swinging nose for main deck cargo loading and could accommodate up to 400 passengers. But it too was left languishing on the drawing board of history, however, after American Airlines (AA) put out a request that was too good for Douglas to pass up.

In April 1966 American’s senior vice president of engineering Frank Kolk put out a request for a 727-style replacement. The request was largely centered on being able to operate in and out of New York LaGuardia’s congested ramp space, short runways, and increasingly restrictive noise levels. Ideally it would seat 250 passengers at a cruise speed of Mach .82 with an 1850 nautical mile range.

Once Douglas made the decision to chase the challenge, a flurry of designs for the new airplane came and went through the remainder of the year.  The airplane began as a twin engine with a raised cockpit—the D-966. As Douglas began to work with other airlines, including United, the D-966 morphed first into the three-engine D-967, and then the four-engine D-968.

Douglas became McDonnell Douglas in 1967, after Douglas put itself up for merger while facing insolvency. After the merger, the design work continued to go back and forth between other two-, three-, and four-engine concepts (J2/J3/DC-10-3DC-10-4) before settling on a version of the D-967, which eventually became known as the DC-10A. The bubble-style upper deck cockpit and swing-nose that was original to the D-967 design was ultimately abandoned in mid-1967 as potential customers backed down on cross-over freighter potential, leading to the single deck version we know today.

As the airplane settled into its present form, the last major design decision involved the now iconic tail engine. Several options, including a Tristar-like S inlet, long tail pipe option, and long inlet version were considered. At first, the design incorporated a weird looking tail engine assembly with a bifurcated inlet. It was dropped after wind-tunnel testing proved it was not viable, leading to the long pipe-style inlet we have today.

Final design in place, McDonnell Douglas began to offer the airplane for sale in the first weeks of 1968. First stop, American Airlines. While the airplane may not have fit the original proposal, it still fit the majority of the carrier’s requirements. AA was also seriously considering the DC-10s direct competitor, the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, which had been put up for sale several months ahead of the DC-10. Still, the DC-10 proved victorious, and AA placed an order on February 19, 1968 for 25 airplanes and 25 options on the condition that two other carriers also placed orders.

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The jubilation would not last long. Only six weeks later the Tristar began a banner month. Eastern and TWA jointly announced their respective orders for a total of 94 airplanes, while a British holding company picked up 30. Delta wound up deciding to pick up 24 of the L-1011s, fearing that the DC-10 would not make it past paper. These decisions left the company chasing down the remaining big two airlines: Continental and United.


To make the DC-10 more appealing the company made several design changes, incorporating requests from American and recommendations from United. These included wing changes, modifications to the tail engine, altered dimensions, and, crucially, acceptance of the General Electric CF6-34 engines at 39,500 pounds of thrust each. The modifications and solidified design was enough to hook United, which ordered 30 jet plus 30 options on April 25, 1968.

Despite only having two of the needed three customers, the jet began production shortly following United’s order. Iron Birds, which are basically full-scale, fully equipped non-flying models were built to test fit the sections and systems. Sub-assembly production began not long after, and incorporated a vast system of suppliers and subcontractors. Wings were built in Ontario, Canada, fuselage barrels were made in San Diego, California, and horizontal tail parts were produced in Italy, just to name a few. Final production, along with production of parts too large to transport, took place in the company’s mammoth Long Beach, California facility. Several hangars were built specifically for the purpose of producing the jet on site.

Final production began on January 9, 1970 in Long Beach. Unlike previous airplanes, the DC-10 was in some ways a snap-together aircraft. Major subsections arrived largely completed with piping and wiring, requiring connections rather than extensive onsite assembly. The company planned five aircraft for the test program, with the first four airplanes structurally complete by the time the plane was formally rolled out.

The very first DC-10 was rolled out, or rather, in, on July 23, 1970. Then vice president Spiro T Agnew and California governor Ronald Reagan were among the VIPs in attendance as the airplane taxied under its own power to a crowd of over one thousand. McDonnel Douglas received a spate of sales shortly thereafter, booking orders, or firming options with Continental, Finnair, Lufthansa, Sabena, and UTA.

The first DC-10 rolled down a runway and into the skies over Southern California for the first time on Saturday, August 19, 1970. The airplane stayed aloft for three hours and 26 minutes before landing at Edwards Air Force Base. The life of the DC-10 had now officially begun.

The test fleet began its second flight only two days later, and by October 6th had logged 100 hours of airtime. By the end of the year, four of the five aircraft had joined the test fleet, with ships three and four in American and United liveries, respectively.

Deliveries were first made to American and United on June 29th, 1971, in a joint ceremony. Following the ceremony, both airplanes taxied out to the runway and took off. As the airplane had received a provisional FAA approval, the carrier’s could begin crew and flight training, but were unable to start service. Four weeks later the airplane received its FAA Type and Production Certificates, allowing the carriers to begin scheduled service.


With these regulatory obstacles cleared, American and United raced to be the first to begin scheduled DC-10 service. Initially American was to run the airplane between Chicago and Washington, DC but then switched to Chicago and LA on August 17th. United then planned to begin service on August 14th between San Francisco and Washington, DC. But American slid up the entry into service by two weeks, running flight AA184 from Los Angeles to Chicago on August 5th.

As the airplane entered service, both airlines  struggled to fill cabins due to the recession, and came up with a creative way to solve this problem: lounges. American added a first-class lounge in the very forward of the airplane, and a coach lounge in the rear. United added a lounge for each cabin as well, adding them fore and aft the galley, respectively. The lounges were incorporated on a number of other carriers, though as the global economy ramped back up carriers quickly ditched them again in favor of paying seats.

By the end of 1971 a total of 136 aircraft were on firm order, with 80 options. New carriers included Air New Zealand, KLM, National, Swissair, and Western. The orders also now included the derivativeSeries-30. This new variation, which was technically launched in the summer of 1969, featured GE CF6-50A engines at 49k pounds of thrust each, a new payload to 104k pounds, and a range of 4,750 miles. It also featured the now well-known center main wheel bogie to support the increase in weight.  It would go on to be the most popular of the nearly one dozen variations introduced before the type was retired.

Editor’s Note: Check back tomorrow for part two: Problems, Popularity, and Post-Production!