A tarnished safety record

The DC-10 (Douglas Commercial type 10) was designed and built in the late 1960's at the request of launch customer American Airlines which wanted an aircraft capable of carrying 250-300 passengers on major trunk routes within the United States. It was the time the widebody era was evolving. Boeing was busy designing the 747 Jumbo Jet at the request of Pan Am. Mc Donnell Douglas, previously Donald Douglas, was always making airplanes for American Airlines since the 1930's so it was a natural move from American to turn to Mc Donnell Douglas, asking them to design the airplane wanted: a widebody trijet carrying some 300 passengers on high density routes. The project was almost abandoned until United, always loyal to Boeing, was next to order the DC-10. Northwest followed shortly. TWA and Eastern instead turned to Lockheed requesting them to design a similar aircraft, the L-1011 Tristar.

The DC-10 rolled out of the Long Beach plant in 1970 and made its maiden flight. Test flights were conducted over Southern California, where the plant was located. It was in 1971 that the DC-10 entered service with American on the Chicago-Los Angeles flight. United followed quickly. American and United were the first two and most important operators of the DC-10-10, the baseline variant designed for medium haul flights.
Northwest was next to phase in the DC-10, in 1972. Unlike American and United which requested their DC-10's to be fitted with General Electric engines, Northwest requested Pratt & Whitney engines. The variant built for Northwest was initially called DC-10-20.
Shortly after the 20 was introduced, Mc Donnell Douglas proposed a long range version of the DC-10, the DC-10-30 also fitted with GE engines but generating more thrust. Mc DD thought that it would appeal more to international airlines for long haul operations. Northwest wasn't happy about the idea that the DC-10-20 was a downgraded version compared to the 30, so the DC-10-20 was renamed DC-10-40. Only Northwest and Japan Airlines would eventually operate the -40.
Many airlines in Europe ordered the DC-10-30 in the early 1970's for their long haul operations. An alliance was formed in Europe, the KSSU consisting of KLM, SAS, Swissair and UTA, to order the -30. Alitalia, Iberia, Sabena, Lufthansa, Finnair and British Caledonian followed as well. And so did many other operators worldwide including Aero Mexico, Varig, Singapore, Thai, Turkish, Air Zaire (I remember Air Zaire very well, they used to fly the DC-10 from Kinshasa to Brussels for a long time), Air Afrique, Canadian Pacific, and probably other small airlines that I cannot think of.

The history of the DC-10 cannot be told without speaking of technical incidents and disasters.
-In 1972, an American DC-10 suffered a decompression in flight but fortunately the pilot managed to land the aircraft safely in Detroit.
-In 1973, an Iberia DC-10 was damaged beyond economical repair upon landing in Boston. It hit approach lights on very short final in low visibility conditions. It is possible that even though the aircraft was equipped with minimum visibility landing equipment, the pilot tried to perform a visual approach in low visibility.
-In 1974, a Turkish Airlines DC-10 crashed on take off in Paris. There were no survivors. The accident was due to a faulty cargo door which opened while the cabin was pressurized. It became then clear that the DC-10 had pressurization problems, the FAA as well as other aviation authorities required all DC-10's to have their doors inspected throughly.
-In 1978, a Continental DC-10 aborted its take off in Los Angeles. The aircraft had a blown tire.
-In 1979 another major disaster hit the news. An American DC-10 crashed shortly after take off in Chicago, killing all occupants. It started with an engine blown up under the wing but it wasn't what caused the disaster. What caused the disaster was all hydraulic lines were severely damaged following the engine failure and so the aircraft became uncontrollable. The DC-10 lost lift and fell like a heavy stone on the ground near O'Hare. After that disaster, all DC-10's were grounded by the FAA until further notice. It was found that the disaster was due to an incorrect maintenance procedure. The DC-10's resumed flying a few weeks after but many passengers would refuse to fly on those for a while. American changed their titles from "DC-10 Luxury Liner" to simply "Luxury Liner".
-Also in 1979 (or in 1980 I'm not sure exactly when it was), an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed in Antartica. This disaster was due to a navigation error.
-In 1988, an American DC-10 aborted take off in Dallas. All passengers escaped safely but the aircraft was damaged beyond economical repair. The decision by the pilots to reject the take off probably came from a warning light, the front landing gear was inoperative. My father was among the passengers on that flight, bound for Frankfurt.
-In 1989, a United DC-10 bound from Denver to Chicago lost hydraulic power because the tail engine exploded. The aircraft made a forced landing in Sioux City. Out of the 290 passengers, 180 of them survived the crash.
-Also in 1989, a UTA DC-10 was lost over the African continent. This disaster was due to a terrorist act. It was a bomb that was placed inside the aircraft.

It was the disaster history that made Mc Donnell Douglas not successful in the sales of the DC-10. Newer versions, such as the DC-10 Twin and the DC-10-60, were planned but never left the drawing board. Only 446 DC-10's were built including 60 KC-10's, tanker DC-10's built for the United States Air Force. The last DC-10 to roll out the Long Beach plant in 1989 was delivered to Nigeria Airways.

Despite the history of the DC-10 that made of it a poor reputation to the public, Mc Donnell Douglas launched in the mid 1980's a successor to the DC-10, the MD-11.

In the late 2000's, very few major airlines were still flying the DC-10 (I believe only Biman Bangladesh still flies the DC-10 in pax config) or MD-11 (KLM and Finnair still fly the MD-11 in pax config) but many of those aircraft are seen flying for cargo operators. Fed Ex is the most important operator of the DC-10 and MD-11 in Freighter version.
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