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DC-10: The Flying Coffin Turns 50

Never have we flown more. The beach in Barbados? Bird watching at the Black Sea? Culture in Berlin? Street life Bangkok? Dining in Baltimore? Photo shoots in Buenos Aires? Sightseeing in Beijing? No problem. Those airlines will take us there in no time. And the main thing is: They will do so safely.

The times during which the risk was high are long gone. In the 1970-s, passengers were actually in danger, because their exploding numbers turned out to be a challenge, in several ways. Within a few years, the number of flights doubled, even though the size of popular aircraft models did too.

When jumbo jets were introduced, such as the brand new Boeing 747-100 and the DC-10, things got crazy at big airports around the world. Several problems made flying dangerous.

The DC-10 had flaws. By the time that model was offered to the airlines, it had obviously not been tested well enough. At the same time everyone was keen on purchasing it, since, with its three engines, it was more economical than the 747, while seating almost the same number of passengers.

The DC-10’s manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, believed it had hit the big one, by fitting that model with the minimum number of engines needed for intercontinental flights across oceans, according to the rules of the 1970-s. A total of 386 DC-10s were built between 1968 (50 years ago) and 1988 (30 years ago). Quite a few of them crashed, killing hundreds of passengers.

During the career of the DC-10, a total of 55 accidents were registered, including as many as 32 so-called hull-loss incidents, meaning the aircraft involved were damaged or destroyed beyond repair. What this means is that one twelfth of all DC-10s ever built crashed.

This DC-10 serves as a FedEx freighter. Photo: Alan Radecki

In the many DC-10 wreckages, 1,261 passengers and crew members lost their lives. There was one bombing, which would have destroyed any aircraft model. It was responsible for 170 deaths. And there was a hijacking during which one person was killed. This leaves 1,090 DC-10 deaths, but those were partially the consequence of pilot errors.

From the perspective of a teenager who flew from Frankfurt to Mexico City and back all the time between 1978 and 1985, and who luckily did not know about all of those terrible accidents, namely the author of these lines, the DC-10 seemed weird.

At takeoff, the three engines seemed to be screaming like an animal which was just being slaughtered with a knife. The walls around the on-board galleys were shaking like hell. Once those monsters finally turned their noses towards the sky, things seemed fine.

The DC-10 has an angry countenance, due to the way its cockpit windows and nose were designed. So, not only did it scream like an animal. It also looked like one. An angry bird.

A discarded DC-10 is waiting to be taken apart. Photo source: Youtube

It may sound weird, but from today’s perspective, the DC-10 actually has an acceptable safety record, since its flaws were corrected at some point, and because it kept on flying afterwards and made up for all of those terrible accidents.

In November of 1973, part of an engine detached in flight and broke a window of a National Airlines DC-10. One passenger was sucked out of that window.

Things were far more serious on March 3rd, 1974. A DC-10 owned by Turkish Airlines, loaded with 333 passengers and 12 crew members, was climbing after taking off from Orly Airport in Paris, when a cargo door blew out. The resulting sudden decompression brought the plane down, killing everyone on board, instantly.

This terrible crash was caused by the main DC-10 design flaw: Under certain circumstances, the cargo doors were marked as closed properly, when they were not.

Five years after the Paris tragedy, on May 25th, 1979, an American Airlines DC-10 raced down the runway at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Flight number 191 was supposed to take 258 passengers to Los Angeles. But it did not get far at all. During takeoff, the left engine detached from the wing.

The flight could have survived that problem, had it been the only one. But several hydraulic lines were damaged. Once in the air, the aircraft banked to the left sharply. The crew could not stop it. A total of 273 people were killed, including the crew and two on the ground, when this DC-10 crashed into an airport hangar.

The design flaw which led to this terrible accident had nothing to do with any baggage doors, but with bolts holding the engines, and the location of the hydraulic lines.

In 1979, two more DC-10s and a lot of lives were lost in Mexico City and in Antarctica. In these cases, more than 300 people died due to pilot errors.

The last huge DC-10 accident happened in Sioux City. On July 19th, 1989, United Airlines flight no. 232 was on its way from Denver to Chicago, when a fan disc belonging to the central engine detached and damaged all hydraulic lines. The fact that the pilots even reached the airport in Sioux City was a miracle, since they could not really control the aircraft anymore. During a crash landing at Sioux City Airport, 111 people on this DC-10 were killed, while 185 survived.

The baggage door flaw led to one of the harshest measures ever taken by the American Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). On June 6th, 1979, it grounded all 138 DC-10s registered in the United States, and made sure those purchased by foreign airlines were either grounded too, or would not even come close to airports in the U.S..

More than a month later, on July 13th, 1979, after several modifications were made, the DC-10 was allowed to fly again. It even got a successor, the MD-11.

Some three years ago, in 2015, a total of 56 DC-10s and MD-11s were still in service. But most of them were converted to freighters. By now, the number of flying aircraft of that type has probably been slashed in half. The angry bird is basically gone.

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