MIAMI — The second in our two part series on the giant McDonnell Douglas jet, we take at look at the troubled service life of the airplane and its end years. If you missed part one, you can find it here!
The first half of 1972 was going rather swimmingly, with a steady stream of new orders, firming of options, and all around success. The good run came to an end, however, on June 13th of the same year, when American Airlines flight 96 had a problem. While climbing through 12,000ft, the rear cargo door blew off due to a latch that had failed to lock properly.
Upon parting with the aircraft, the door hit the horizontal stabilizer and number two engine, damaging both. But the worst damage came when the main cabin floor collapsed due to the resulting pressure differential, breaking several hydraulic and systems controls andcables. Fortunately, the plane landed safely in its origin city of Detroit despite these issues. Fixes were introduced, but the situation was to repeat itself only a few years later over France.
Meanwhile, only one week following the AA96 incident, the first -30 series took to the skies. The first flight reached speeds of Mach .88, an impressive feat, and stayed aloft for 5 hours and 25 minutes. The airplane was cleared for service by the FAA on November 21, 1972, after nearly 369 hours of flight time. KLM and Swissair took the first deliveries, though the latter was the first to introduce the type on a flight between Zurich and Montreal on December 15th.
The year 1974 started well, with orders from Air New Zealand, KLM, JAL, and VARIG. But March was not to be a good month. On the third, a THY Turkish Airlines DC-10-10 crashed outside Emmenonville, France. Operating as THY 981, it had been climbing through 12,000 feet after taking off from Paris-Orly when it experienced an explosive decompression, lost control, and dove into the ground. All 346 perished in the crash.
It didn’t take long to discover the cause. Six seats and the rear cargo door were found nine miles from the location of the main wreck. A ramp worker in Paris had forced the door shut when it refused to close, functionally rendering the locking mechanism useless and ultimately causing the crash. Changes required after the AA incident two years earlier had not been incorporated. Worse still, since the door had been partially closed but not fully locked, the cockpit instruments read that the door was secured even though it was not. The FAA mandated that the door locking system, which opened outward, not inward, be completely redesigned and installed on new and existing planes by 1977 (interestingly, the 747 also faced a similar problem).
The next several years saw a mostly-steady trickle of fresh orders and conversions to firm on existing ones, mostly for the increasingly popular -30 version. Once again, however, luck would not be kind to the DC-10. On May 25, 1979, American Airlines flight 191 crashed moments after takeoff from Chicago O’Hare airport in full view of the terminals when engine number one and pylon separated from the airplane. The separation heavily damaged multiple control lines, leaving the pilots with limited options. They were unable to gain control as the plane rolled heavily to the left, and with fire trailing from the wing, crashed into a trailer park killing five more on the ground.
The FAA moved quickly, grounding the airplane on May 30th after multiple aircraft in the US were found with cracking and damage in the same location during mandated inspections. Other agencies worldwide followed the FAA’s lead, and all 275 active frames wound up being banned worldwide. As it became clear that the damaged airplanes were limited to US carriers, the investigation uncovered that improper removal procedures for engine maintenance were the primary cause of the accident. American was fined $500k, and Continental $100k for the practice, while McDonnell Douglas later settled a lawsuit despite being cleared of responsibility in court.
The streak of bad luck continued later that year when an Air New Zealand DC-10-30 crashed on a sight-seeing flight over the Antarctic, while a Western DC-10-10 landed in Mexico City on a closed runway and hit a building. Neither was the fault of the aircraft, but both accidents contributed to the growing perception that the airplane was both dangerous and ill-fated.
Sales of the passenger versions slowed following the AA 191 crash, due in part to the crash as well as increasing competition from the larger 747, particularly for slot-restricted Asian carriers. Meanwhile, the freighter versions of the DC-10 began to pick up more steam, especially from FedEx, and the tanker version, the KC10, appeared on the drawing board in 1982.
Despite creating a number of additional options and subvariations through the mid to late 1980s, it was becoming clear that demand for the airplane was drying up. The increasing popularly of the 747 and a glut of used DC10s at decent prices, along with the planned launch of the airplane’s successor, the MD11, led to the decision to shutter the line in 1988. The last airplane rolled off the line in 1989, production number 446. Biman Bangladesh, FedEx, Japan Air System, Thai Airways, and Nigerian were the last to receive the type.
The last major change to the airplane came in 1996, eight years after its production retirement, when FedEx and McDonnell Douglas teamed up to release the MD-10. The upgrade changed the cockpit instruments to fully glass, eliminating the need for the flight engineer and aligning the MD-10 and MD-11 flight experience.
On the safety front, the DC-10 continued to have incidents throughout the remainder of its service-life like any other aircraft, but one in particular stood out: United 232. On July 19, 1989 the United Airlines DC-10 had been cruising at 37,000 feet when the fan-disk in the number two (tail) engine failed, causing an un-contained engine failure. Debris from the explosion wound up cutting through all three hydraulic lines, rendering all control surfaces useless – a situation that had been deemed so improbable no one had ever considered how to deal with it.
The pilots, including an off-duty DC-10 instructor who happened to be on board, were miraculously able to guide the airplane to a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa utilizing only the engines. Only 111 of the 285 on board died despite a fiery arrival.
The crash was later blamed on United mechanics, who were aware the fan disk could develop fatigue cracks but failed to locate it during inspections. The design of the DC-10 was also partially to blame, by virtue of clustering the hydraulic systems together.
Despite the sketchy looking safety record, the airplane successfully completed thousands of flights worldwide for dozens of airlines. But like many other airplanes past its production life, the airplane went on to cycle out of first tier airlines and onward through second and third tier carriers around the world. Most US airlines ditched their DC-10s prior to the year 2000, such as American and United in the late 1990s, Eastern in 1986, and Delta in 1975.
Despite the introduction of significantly newer aircraft such as the Boeing 747-400, 767, 777, and the Airbus A340-300 and -600, the airplane still remained in use around the world well past the turn of the century, including a few carriers in the US. Continental ditched its triholers in October of 2001. Northwest was the last US carrier to operate the airplane with regularly scheduled service (PHOTOS), keeping them in the fleet until 2007. Charter company Omni Air kept them in use until 2012.
The rest of the world didn’t hang on to the aircraft much longer, leaving Biman Bangladesh as the sole scheduled passenger operator in the world for the last several years. Finally, after nearly 43 years since the first flight, the carrier announced the decision to retire the venerable airplane late last year. The airplane will begin its retirement tour this Thursday in Dhaka, Bangladesh, as it treks to its first stop in Birmingham, UK. It will operate several scenic flights over Birmingham, two of which Airchive will be on, before making its last hop over the pond to a as-of-yet undisclosed museum in the US.
The departure of the DC-10 from the world of aviation brings us all one step closer to the final retirement of the tri-jets for good. The DC-10′s replacement, the MD-11, is still flying for Dutch airline KLM, though it will be retired from service in late 2014. Once gone, the era of the passenger tri-jet will be over.
Editor’s Note: Join us for live coverage this week from Dhaka, Kuwait City, and Birmingham as we follow the tour and bring you the final days of the DC-10. Find us on Facebook, and Twitter to join the fun!