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1990: MD-11 Memories

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KLM will operate three final farewell passenger flights of the MD-11 on Nov 11, an event that marks the end of the Dutch carrier’s 80-year association with Douglas Aircraft and its successor, McDonnell Douglas. Starting with the introduction of the DC-2 in 1934, KLM has operated every member of the Douglas Commercial (DC) family including the DC-3, DC-4, the little-known DC-5, DC-6, DC-7, DC-8, DC-9 and DC-10. KLM flew the last scheduled MD-11 flights in late October. Although the final enthusiast farewell flights are effectively sold out, KLM is still offering a seats to a few lucky winners in this contest.

The retirement of the final passenger-carrying MD-11 also marks the end of the trijet widebody commercial airline era. By the time the passengers disembark from the last flight in Amsterdam, it will have been just over 43 years and three months since the first DC-10 entered service with American Airlines in Aug 1971. Yet the MD-11, which was supposed to extend the legacy of the trijet concept into the 2020s and beyond, barely outlasted the final DC-10 in passenger use. The last DC-10 passenger flight took place in February this year.

Despite its many technical advances, most notably on the flight deck, the MD-11 was handicapped from birth by its derivative dependence on the obsolete DC-10.  Created on the eve of the era of the fuel-efficient big twin, the MD-11 emerged as a committed three-engined product too early to be redesigned around the new generation of big turbofans. Notoriously starved of serious investment by its ‘MD’ leadership, all attempts by the Douglas product development group to develop either twin-engined or larger stretched versions of the MD-11 sadly came to nothing.

I first ‘met’ the MD-11 when I was invited by McDonnell Douglas to join the final leg of a round-the-world function and reliability (F&R) test flight in October 1990 prior to certification. I joined the test crew and the aircraft, still carrying the words ‘EXPERIMENTAL’ on its fuselage, at London’s Gatwick airport and flew directly to the north of Norway for a polar transition test of the standby navigation system. The sun set below the horizon as we headed north of the arctic circle and, with complete darkness outside the MD-11, the crew set up for a worst-case scenario certification test. A few nautical miles short of the true (geographic) north pole the aircraft’s twin flight management computers were taken off-line. For the aircraft’s navigational brain this was the acid test. One minute we are heading due north at around Mach 0.82 and, in less than a second, we would fly high over the pole and head immediately due south. But would the MD-11 know where it was going and what would happen to the flight deck displays?

The world flight MD-11 on the ramp at Seoul, Korea in October 1990. All photos credit: AirNikon Collection, Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, AZ via airliners.net.

The atmosphere was tense on the crowded flight deck where I joined the test engineers and FAA inspectors to see what would happen. No one spoke and there was no sound other than the slipstream passing the flight deck windows as we flew over the pole. Suddenly the flat panel multi-function displays, then a very new technology, blinked, appeared to tumble, and came back to life with a reassuring magenta line indicating the correct route to follow. The display systems had passed the test and acted like inertial navigation systems, retaining the original flight plan as designed and briefly taking over until the normal systems were restored.

With the atmosphere distinctly more relaxed coffee was served and, all points being south, we headed in a direct path for Yuma, McDonnell Douglas’ flight test site some 3,450 nm away in southern Arizona. The original plan had been to fly direct to Hawaii, but a hurricane was bearing down on the islands, and the crew elected to head for home instead. While I was disappointed not to be heading to the mid-Pacific, the rest of the MD-11 crew was only too happy to be flying back to Arizona. By this stage the MD-11 had already flown from Dallas to Seoul, before flying onwards to London and thence to the north pole. At Seoul there had been a mix up with Korean officials resulting in half the engineering and support crew having to remain with the aircraft overnight. A large piece of paper inscribed “MOTEL MD-11” was attached to a monument bulkhead in the main economy cabin and attested to the uncomfortable night.

Part of the crew were forced to stay on the aircraft overnight at Seoul airport

I spent the next few hours watching the in-flight movie (which presumably someone with dark humor had selected –- it was the original version of ‘Flight of the Phoenix’), and talking to the flight test team. As dawn broke (my second sunrise of the day) one of the team showed me how to look for the shadowgraph of the supersonic shockwave on the wing and the barely visible distortion of the air caused by the thin line of the shock. Aerodynamic monitoring was a huge deal for the test team. By then McDonnell Douglas already knew the MD-11 was below specification and were hurriedly designing a set of aerodynamic tweaks to claw back lost performance. The engines were the principle culprits with the Pratt & Whitney PW4460 around 5% over its fuel burn target and General Electric’s CF6-80C2 some 3% off target. But engine changes take time, and until improvements could be made MDC was forced to focus on the airframe to try and make good on its performance guarantees.

On the flight deck I sat in a jump seat behind MD-11 chief engineering test pilot John Miller and reveled in expansive views of the Rocky Mountains through the enormous side windows. Another highlight included my first sighting of a B-2A bomber, flying below us as we transited the Nevada-California border. Finally arriving in Yuma, I was greeted by my first taste of the heat of the American southwest as well as the annoying presence of tiny biting insects which the MDC crew cheerfully and endearingly called ‘no-see-ums’. Drinking refreshingly cold water in the debriefing room, I watched as the flight crew tallied up the legs and calculated the flight had covered 22,290 miles in 43 hours and 13 minutes of flying time.  Leaving the airfield as the second sunset of my day glinted off the polished flanks of the MD-11 I felt I had landed in another world.

The MD-11 sits on the ramp at MDC’s Yuma, Arizona flight test site.

The next day we ferried the MD-11, which was painted in the colors of its eventual operator -- Delta Air Lines -– to California. However the fun wasn’t quite over. Rather than flying directly to Long Beach, we headed out to a restricted area over the Pacific where several stalls and approach to stalls were conducted. Each time we entered a stall the detached flow battered the wide crown of the fuselage and, to my surprise, created a deafening sound as if large grass rollers were being trundled over the metal skin by a team of demented park keepers. Testing completed, and lunch still in my stomach, we flew back to shore and landed at Long Beach, my first point of entry into California.

Our aircraft for that flight, the fifth and final to join the flight test effort, had a bit of history itself. Originally due to be delivered to Air Europe as G-MDII, it was instead transferred to Delta when the British airline dropped its order. Air Europe would also have been launch customer for the Rolls-Royce Trent 600, a version of the engine that was never offered in the end. After only four years with Delta, the aircraft served with VASP of Brazil until 2001 when it was converted into a freighter for Gemini Air Cargo. Stored for a short time during the 2008 recession, it later joined World Airways. Earlier this year it was withdrawn from service and, as far as I know, today languishes in Marana, Arizona, awaiting its fate only 200 miles from where it completed that round-the-world flight 24 years ago.

For a detailed description of what it was like to fly the big trijet, and to review the aircraft’s technical features, read David Hughes’ excellent pilot report from October 1990.

► Read the report in the October 22, 1990 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology:

          Extensive MD-11 Automation Assists Pilots, Cuts Workload (Part 1)

          Extensive MD-11 Automation Assists Pilots, Cuts Workload (Part 2)

► Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

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