Designed for Disaster: The DC-10 Airliner

November 16, 2009

4 Min Read
Designed for Disaster: The DC-10 Airliner

Four Part Series Examines Design Problems with the DC-10 Airliner.

In 1966, American and United Airlines were looking for a wide body airliner able to operate from the shorter runways found in tier two cities. The objective was to transport large payloads - more passengers and cargo - to and from those smaller cities.

Airline management felt one key to success was to give passengers a feeling of “being in their living rooms, not in an Aluminum pipe.”  The wide body’s roomy cabins with their high ceilings and comfortable, un-cramped seats represented a significant improvement over what could be found in a single aisle aircraft.

Strange though the concept may seem 50 years later, customer service was actually thought to be a desirable characteristic for an airline company in the mid 1960s.


DC-10 in Northwest Airlines Livery

American Airlines was the first to the dance with a request for proposals quickly followed by United. The result was two proposals, one from McDonnell-Douglas, the DC-10, and another from Lockheed Corporation, the L-1011. And since fuel economy was not nearly as important then as it is today, both the airlines and the airframe suppliers focused on the perceived safety advantages of three engines over two.

Because Lockheed selected Rolls-Royce power plants, with no alternative possible, their entry into the marketplace lagged the DC-10’s introduction by about a year when Rolls-Royce fell upon hard times and had to be bailed out by the British government.


L-1011 Prototype

Though delayed, the L-1011 design was superior to the DC-10’s as events would later confirm. Nevertheless, the one year head start on deliveries gave the DC-10 a greater market penetration resulting in it outselling the L-1011 by a 2:1 ratio. 60 DC-10s were also sold to the US Air Force in the KC-10 tanker configuration.


The KC-10 is still in service with the U.S. Air Force.

But in spite of the sales success,  a series of crashes - either totally or partially attributable to design errors - would result in the DC-10 having its Airworthiness Certificate suspended for a period of time and cause the aircraft to be shunned by large numbers of potential passengers who had lost all confidence in the airplane.

Legions of businessmen instructed their travel agents to never book them on a DC-10. If they found themselves on the airliner due to an equipment change, many would begin drinking adult beverages immediately after boarding and stop only when safely at the destination gate. It got that bad.

Today, the remaining DC-10s are relegated almost entirely to the freight hauling business even though the design errors have been corrected and all aircraft retrofitted.


DC-10 in Federal Express Livery

The magnitude of the DC-10’s problems is forever etched in two National Transportation Safety Board accident reports and one report published by the French Secretariat of State for Transport.

In spite of a courageous attempt to avoid disaster made by Dan Applegate, an engineer who early on perceived the shortcomings in the design, 728 people paid the ultimate price for the manufacturer bringing a product to market that featured ill advised cost reduction attempts and ill conceived system design decisions.

Starting with the next Propellerhead blog, we’ll take a look at each of these crashes and examine the design flaws as well as the human factors that eventually triggered the events.

Next Monday:

Designed for Disaster: The DC-10 Airliner, Part 1

The Cargo Door Fiasco - American Airlines Flight 96: Prelude to a Catastrophe.

The following Mondays will feature:

Designed for Disaster: The DC-10 Airliner, Part 2

The Cargo Door Fiasco - Turkish Air Flight 981: 346 Dead.

Designed for Disaster: The DC-10 Airliner, Part 3

Engine Loss, Stall, Crash - American Airlines Flight 191: 273 Dead.

Designed for Disaster: The DC-10 Airliner, Part 4

No Hydraulics, No Flight Controls - United Airlines Flight 232: 110 Dead.

The series begins Monday, November 23rd.

John Loughmiller is an Electrical Engineer, Commercial Pilot, Flight Instructor and a Lead Safety Team Representative for the FAA.

He can be reached at [email protected].

All photographs courtesy wikimedia commons and are public domain media.

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