The DC-10 program was launched by McDonnell Douglas in 1968, after a request from longtime Douglas customer American Airlines to create a widebody aircraft for shorter routes not requiring the capacity of the Boeing 747. McD was in competition with Lockheed, which was developing the Lockheed Tristar at the same time to fulfill the same request.
Both Lockheed and McD's aircraft were almost identical: three-engined jetliners with a capacity of around 250, except for one very important feature. On the DC-10, the third engine was mounted on the tail fin. On the Tristar, the third engine was mounted at the rear end of the fuselage, and air was brought in to the turbofan by an S-shaped duct leading to an intake at the front of the tail fin.
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By the time the DC-10 made its first flight in 1970, three months ahead of Lockheed, American had already decided to go with McD's aircraft, ordering fifty. It already looked like the DC-10 was going to defeat Lockheed's entry in every way.
However, the first models of the DC-10 had a serious defect in their aft cargo doors: the locking pins on the doors weren't long enough to adequately secure them. On June 12, 1972, one of American's DC-10's, operating as American Airlines flight 96, lost its cargo door shortly after taking off from Detroit: the cabin lost its pressurization and the hydraulics failed, leaving the pilots unable to steer the airplane. Fortunately, they were able to land the plane solely with its three throttles: a unique capability made possible by the DC-10's engine layout. McD promptly issued a warning to airlines to change the locking mechanisms on their cargo doors.
Many overseas carriers didn't listen to this warning: one, Turkish Airlines, paid for it with the loss of 346 lives after one of their aircraft, Turkish Airlines flight 981, went down outside of Paris on March 3, 1974.
Things went smoothly for the DC-10 program over the next five years, before all hell broke loose again. On May 25, 1979, American Airlines flight 191 lost one of its engines and crashed after takeoff from O'Hare, killing all 272 people on board. Three days later, every DC-10 in the United States was grounded while the National Transportation Safety Board checked the problem out. The problem: weak pylon design, which made it easier for engines to fall off if they were mishandled during overhaul procedures. The problem was fixed, and the DC-10's returned to the sky again.
Then came the July 19, 1989 crash of United Airlines flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa. In midair, the aircraft's tail engine exploded, again killing every hydraulic system on the aircraft, and this time leaving the captain with only two engines to fly with. However, the Sioux City crash was almost a testament to the DC-10 rather than a damnation: even with only two engines, the captain was able to bring the aircraft from cruising altitude down to the runway, only losing control at the last minute and plowing into the ground. Most of the passengers on board survived. The DC-10 was, in many ways, vindicated.
The last production DC-10 was delivered in 1990, and the aircraft was phased out in favor of its newer version, the MD-11.
DC-10-10: The original variant of the DC-10 first flew in 1970.
DC-10-15: Introduced in 1979. It was a DC-10-10 with the high-powered engines from the DC-10-30. It was dubbed the "DC-10 Sport" and purchased by Aeromexico and Mexicana for use from high-altitude airports in the mountains of Latin America. Seven were built.
DC-10-20: Introduced shortly after the DC-10-10 model, from a request from Northwest Airlines for a longer-range version capable of flying transpacific routes. It is larger and can fly one and a half times as far as the -10.
DC-10-30: By far the most popular model, it was introduced in 1972 and was the first DC-10 to use General Electric turbofan engines, which increased its range beyond even that of the 20 model. It was also the first DC-10 to be offered in a convertible freighter version, and in 1986 was ordered by FedEx in an all-cargo configuration.
DC-10-40: The rarest DC-10 model: it was introduced in 1975 and is essentially a DC-10-20 with improved Pratt & Whitney engines. It has a slightly longer range than the -30 model, but is otherwise very similar in performance. Japan Airlines was the only customer for this type.
KC-10 Extender: A tanker aircraft ordered by the United States Air Force to augment its older KC-135 Stratotanker fleet: on the outside, it is essentially identical to the 30 model. Sixty were built, and continue to operate in the USAF fleet.
Capacity: 277 in three-class configuration: up to 380 in all-economy
Length: 55.3 m
Wingspan: 47.35 m (-10), 50.4 m (-30)
Range: 6100 km (-10), 9400 km (-30)
Today, FedEx, Northwest Airlines, and the Air Force are the largest operators of the DC-10. Most major airlines have sold their DC-10's to either FedEx or the military, and Northwest is waiting on its first Airbus A330 deliveries so it can join its peers.
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