Just after Boeing announced its 707 program in 1952, Douglas Aircraft, feeling left out of the upcoming jet age, announced that it, too, would build a jet airliner: the DC-8. There were a lot of things going on then that made Douglas wary of devoting its resources to jets: the DC-6 and DC-7 production lines were moving quickly and raking in cash, and the recent troubles of the de Havilland Comet made jet travel seem unsafe to the public. Lockheed didn't even get into the jet transport market: they kept working on a turboprop plane, the Lockheed Electra.

Boeing had major advantages in the race between the 707 and DC-8. They had already developed two jet bombers, the B-49 Stratojet and the enormous B-52 Stratofortress. This relationship with the Strategic Air Command gave them the upper hand in bidding for a tanker construction contract from the United States Air Force, and it minimized the investment Boeing had to make in the development of the 707. The 707 program cost Boeing $17 million; the DC-8 program cost Douglas almost $500 million.

In 1955, Pan Am shocked both companies by placing orders for 20 707's and 20 DC-8's, officially starting the jet age. American Airlines, the largest U.S. domestic carrier, ordered 707's, but United Airlines and Eastern Airlines placed orders for the DC-8, with Delta Air Lines jumping in the following year. The two models were neck and neck in terms of sales until 1958, when the 707 finally pushed ahead and became the undisputed favorite.

The DC-8 came in many models over the years, starting with the DC-8-11 and ending with the DC-8-73 (which was being produced as late as 1986). -10 and -20 series DC-8's were designed for shorter routes within the United States, while the -30 series had larger fuel tanks for international flights. The -40 series was the first to use turbofans, and the -50 series used the same jet engines that powered the 707.

In the mid-1960's, with DC-8 sales slowing to a halt, Douglas revitalized the program by introducing the "Super Sixties" models. The -61 was stretched by 34 feet, allowing it to carry up to 250 passengers sardine-like, or up to 210 passengers comfortably. The -62 had a more modest stretch of 6 feet, but could fly up to 5,000 miles without refueling. To top off the series, Douglas introduced the -63, which had the range of the -62 with the capacity of the -61. Finally, in the eighties, McDonnell Douglas began refitting -60 series DC-8's with newer, quieter CFM engines, resulting in the -71, -72, and -73.

Today, there are 200 DC-8's in service, mostly with air cargo operators who value its capacity and versatility (Fine Air flight 101 was a DC-8). In contrast, there are half as many 707's left, even though twice as many were built: this is because the 707's lighter structure, which made it more economical to operate, also reduced its operating life.

The DC-8 also holds the distinction of being the first airliner to fly faster than the speed of sound: in 1961, Douglas' chief pilot put a DC-8 into a dive and reached Mach 1.012 at 41,000 feet.