The end of Mc Donnell Douglas

The MD-11 was the last widebody commercial aircraft designed by the Mc Donnell Douglas company before the company was taken over by Seattle based Boeing in 1997. The company was created following a merger with the Donald Douglas company which designed all the DC aircraft from the DC-2 to the DC-10 and the Mc Donnell company. Mc Donnell Douglas used to have two plants, one located in Saint Louis MO building military aircraft, and the other one located in Long Beach CA building commercial aircraft. A very large aircraft, the MD-12, comparable in size to the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380, was also under study but it never left the drawing board.

It was in the middle of the 1980's when the DC-10-30 was widely in service with the major airlines around the world, that California based Mc Donnell Douglas decided to pursue studies for an advanced variant of the aircraft. One idea that was previously unveiled was the so called DC-10-60, a stretched variant of the 30, but it never left the drawing board because the sales of the DC-10 had drastically gone down following the tragic disasters of the late 1970's. Mc Donnell Douglas continued, despite the poor sales of its DC-10, working with the airlines for an all new aircraft which would enter service in the early 1990's, the MD-11. Work on the MD-11 began in the second half of the 1980's, at that time Mc Donnell Douglas had abandoned the DC designation for its commercial aircraft and replaced it instead with MD. Improvements in the MD-11 over the DC-10 were updated avionics, CRT (Cathodic Ray Tube, a 1980's technology) displays in the cockpit, no more flight engineer station and winglets installed on the wingtips. But the 2-5-2 seating layout in the main cabin was kept by most airlines, unlike City Bird which had a 3-4-3 seating layout in the main cabin.
Airlines that showed interest to the MD-11 at the early stage of the development included Finnair, Alitalia and Swissair. American, Delta, KLM, China Eastern, Japan Airlines, Varig, Thai and other smaller carriers would follow later. Surprisingly, SAS, a long time loyal customer to Douglas, never flew the MD-11. British Caledonian was going to introduce it but it merged with British Airways and so the order was canceled. Air Zaire also showed an interest in the aircraft. I remember City Bird very well, they started long haul operations out of Brussels to several points in the United States with a couple of MD-11's in 1997, but the company went bankrupt in the early 2000's.

The first flight of the MD-11 took place early in 1990 out of the Long Beach plant and the type entered service with launch customer Finnair already in 1990. Other airlines quickly introduced the MD-11 on their long haul system, most of them being previously DC-10 operators. I remember at that time American wasn't very satisfied with its MD-11 because the performances of the aircraft were worse that what was expected, as many as 50 aircraft were ordered but only 19 ended up being delivered. DFW-NRT was the first long haul route on which American introduced the MD-11 in 1991, and the type was introduced on other intercontinental long haul routes. I flew once on an MD-11, with American from ORD to DFW, it was a short haul flight but the aircraft used to be assigned on that segment only for repositioning purposes at major bases. American now does the same with the Boeing 777 aircraft.

The MD-11 suffered one major disaster in its history. A Swissair MD-11 bound for Geneva (GVA) as flight SR 111 crashed shortly after take off out of JFK in 1998. There were no survivors. The disaster was due to a faulty wiring system in the cockpit, making it impossible for the pilots to read flight instruments on the CRT displays in the cockpit. Smoke came out in the cockpit, and the aircraft plunged in the Atlantic Ocean not long after leaving New York. It was not just the only MD-11 major disaster, it was also Swissair's only major disaster in its 70 year history.

American retired its last MD-11 early in 2002, other major carriers also retired the MD-11 in favor of the Boeing 777 or Airbus A340. KLM and Finnair are the only two major airlines still flying the MD-11 today (early 2010's), the type is now seen mostly flying as a freighter. Fed Ex is the most important operator of the MD-11 in freighter version, most if not all of AA MD-11's went to Fed Ex. The MD-11 is no longer in production, 200 of them were built, the last one came out of the Long Beach plant in the early 2000's and was delivered to Lufthansa Cargo. Lufthansa never flew the MD-11 in passenger version, neither did Saudia.

Despite the poor sales of the MD-11 and the sad end of Mc Donnell Douglas, the type will continue to fly as a freighter for many years to come. The Long Beach CA plant is now completely shut down, the last aircraft to roll out of the assembly line was the Boeing 717 (initially the MD-95) in the middle of the 2000's, five years after the last MD-11 and MD-80 were built.
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