McDonnell Douglas DC-10: A Trijet That Remains Relevant Decades On

The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 is still flying in 2019. While this statement may not come as a surprise for aviation enthusiasts well-aware of the DC-10’s prowess as a cargo aircraft, back in 1979, few would have expected the DC-10 to fly for another four decades.

Arguably redeemed by decades of reliable service, the DC-10 was, in many ways, a flawed aircraft. In 1979, it was deemed so flawed that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) withdraw its type certificate, grounding all DC-10s in the United States for a while.

Although the FAA let the DC-10 back in the American skies again, the aircraft never fully recovered from its tarnished reputation among consumers worldwide. Instead of becoming an aircraft that airlines are proud to offer their consumers, the DC-10 ended up the opposite.

Needless to say, in the age of grounded Boeing 737 MAX, the DC-10 story remains as relevant as ever.

Douglas DC-10 FAA Grounding
McDonnell Douglas DC-10. (Credit: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

Two Aisles, Three Engines

For McDonnell Douglas, the DC-10 was a natural successor to its highly successful medium-to-long-range DC-8 narrow-body aircraft. With a wide-body layout and a seating capacity far surpassing that of its predecessor without a significant increase in aircraft length, the DC-10 was a definite upgrade compared to the DC-8 in almost every aspect – and a worthy alternative to the Boeing 747.

However, the DC-10 wasn’t the only tri-jet wide-body aircraft to take on the 747’s wide-body dominance. Lockheed also saw the vast opportunity presented by the jet age and the introduction of long-distance air travel to the middle class and decided to enter the commercial airliner market. The Lockheed L-1011 TriStar looked almost identical to the DC-10 to the untrained eye and meant potential trouble for McDonnell Douglas as it hoped to corner the market with its DC-10.

McDonnell Douglas, with its long history in designing and producing commercial airliners, was able to incorporate many technologies from its previous aircraft models into its DC-10 design, reducing development costs and the time it took to bring the aircraft to market. Lockheed, meanwhile, created a genuinely next-generation aircraft that would prove unexpectedly costly and challenging to bring to the market on time.

The result was that the DC-10 was both cheaper and earlier to the market than Lockheed’s competitor. The subsequent disappointing sales of the L-1011 Tristar prompted Lockheed’s exit from the commercial aircraft business after production of the type had ended.

FAA’s First Fleet-Wide Grounding

While, at the outset, the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar seemed like the DC-10’s biggest competitor, it was the DC-10’s safety record that would eventually prove to be the biggest enemy of its success.

A series of incidents related to its outward-opening cargo doors prompted criticism and skepticism of the DC-10’s design. Most notable was the tragic crash of Turkish Airlines Flight 981 in France, which, with its 346 fatalities, ranks as one of the deadliest aviation incidents in history.

What ultimately sealed DC-10’s reputation as an unsafe aircraft was American Airlines Flight 191 in 1979, which to this day is the deadliest non-terrorism-related aviation incident in U.S. history. As a result of the crash, the DC-10 came under intense scrutiny by regulators, media, and the general public, scrutiny that intensified even further when the FAA withdrew the DC-10’s type certificate. Consequentially, all US-based DC-10s were grounded, and foreign-owned DC-10s were prohibited from entering U.S. airspace.

The investigation into American Airlines Flight 191 eventually found faulty maintenance procedures to be the leading cause behind the deadly accident. However, at that point, the DC-10 was already a damaged brand and at the receiving end of substantial criticism over design decisions and flaws that had already proven deadly in other incidents.

A view held by many is that the competition from the L-1011 Tristar prompted McDonnell Douglas to rush the DC-10 to market, causing compromises to be made to its design. So, while the DC-10 may have beaten Lockheed’s trijet to market, this also may have contributed to its unceremonious fate.

In a way, the situation was similar to today’s situation with the Boeing 737 MAX where the manufacturer might have felt pressure from Airbus’ A320neo gaining traction.

Decades of Reliable Service

Despite all the safety and public perception-related problems the DC-10 faced in its early years, the aircraft would eventually enjoy a relatively successful run as a commercial aircraft. Thanks to resolved safety issues and improved maintenance standards, the DC-10 in the end enjoyed an entirely acceptable safety record and decades of service under different airlines all around the world.

That said, in 1983, only four years after the DC-10 got grounded by the FAA, McDonnell Douglas announced that it would cease production of the aircraft due to lackluster demand.

It would deliver its last DC-10 in 1989, the year prior to the commercial launch of the DC-10’s successor, MD-11. By then, 386 DC-10s had been delivered for civilian use, many of which remained in service for decades.

After Biman Bangladesh Airlines flew its last scheduled flight with its last DC-10 in 2014, the aircraft is now solely operated by cargo companies. Although public perception was a problem for the DC-10 throughout its run, it had enough fans to warrant scenic farewell tours around Birmingham, the destination for Biman Bangladesh Airlines’ final DC-10 flight.

McDonnell Douglas DC-10
An Aeroflot Cargo DC-10.

DC-10’s Legacy: The MD-10 and MD-11

Although the DC-10 would disappear from McDonnell Douglas’s production lines before the beginning of the 1990s, the legacy—and largely the design—of the DC-10 would live on in its successor, the McDonnell Douglas MD-11.

Sporting a, in many ways, strikingly similar design to its predecessor, the MD-11 would carry the DC-10’s torch for another decade before the trijet was scrapped under new Boeing ownership.

McDonnell Douglas MD-11
McDonnell Douglas MD-11.

Fortunately for users of the DC-10, some fruit of the labor that went into the MD-11’s design would also make its way back to the DC-10 as an optional cockpit upgrade that also changes the DC-10’s designation to MD-10. Importantly, the MD-10 upgrade meant that upgraded DC-10s would have the same type rating as newer MD-11s, allowing both aircraft models to share the same pilots.

It also meant that the DC-10s would get to live on for a few more years.

McDonnell Douglas MD-10
The MD-10 is a modernized DC-10.

Summary

Today, the DC-10’s fate is either a cautionary tale or an optimistic outlook for Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX, depending on whom you ask.

To some, the DC-10 is proof that troubled aircraft can be redeemed through hard work. To others, it’s proof that an FAA-mandated grounding deals permanent damage to an aircraft type’s reputation.

Only one thing is for certain: the story of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 remains relevant to this day.

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