Swansong of the DC-10

By: Máximo Gainza

When two engines are too few and four are too many, the logical solution must be three.  Or so both McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed concluded in the late-1960s when conceiving large airliners to compete with Boeing’s mighty 747.

Alas, it was a decision that arguably sealed the fate of Boeing’s rivals in the commercial aircraft market.  European newcomer Airbus soon emerged and by the end of the 1970s, Airbus and Boeing both realised that large aircraft could be powered by only two engines.  McDonnell Douglas never reached this stage.

The DC-10 was the third trijet design to enter service, following the Boeing 727 and Hawker Siddeley Trident, which were both introduced in 1964.  The DC-10 followed suit in 1971, when launch customers American Airlines and United Airlines took delivery of their first.


Credit: James Mellon

However, in spite of showing early promise having entered service nine months ahead of Lockheed’s counterpart, the L-1011 TriStar, the DC-10 went on to suffer some horrific accidents in the 1970s and 1980s.  These earned it bad press, a fleetwide grounding (in 1979) and the unofficial nickname “Death Cruiser 10″.

Notwithstanding these setbacks, the DC-10 proved resilient and still achieved a production run of nearly 20 years, during which 446 units were produced (including 60 KC-10 Tankers for the US Air Force) – far more than the 250 TriStars, but far fewer than the first generation of 747s, which numbered more than 600.

The 445th or penultimate DC-10 built was for Biman Bangladesh Airlines.  Upon delivery on 30 December 1988, the aircraft was registered S2-ACR and named “New Era” – in spite of far newer technology such as the 747-400 and MD-11 arriving on scene.  The significance of this aircraft is twofold: it was the only DC-10 Biman acquired new rather than used and, from late-2013, it became the world’s very last DC-10 in passenger service.  Quite by accident, this made “Alpha Charlie Romeo” a celebrity among aviation enthusiasts.

Monday 24February 2014 dawned with a red sky in Birmingham.  The only warning this red sky signalled was that of the DC-10′s imminent demise as a passenger airliner.  The grey skies and drizzle come departure time set the scene.  As did the aircraft’s overall tired – even forlorn – appearance.

Throughout the one-hour farewell flight from Birmingham back to Birmingham, plenty of positive comments flew around the DC-10’s florid, somewhat dated cabin.  Many, like me, first flew on the trijet decades ago.  For others, this would be both their first and last DC-10 flight.

Negative comments were reserved for the “boring, overcrowded and uncomfortable” twin-engined aircraft that have inundated the industry.  Indeed, the DC-10 was portrayed as the only “real aircraft out there”, but then again, it won’t be the first or the last human invention that people suddenly grow sentimental about as it nears extinction.

Upon landing back at Birmingham, passengers patiently queued for perhaps their last glimpse of a three-man cockpit.  The dials and gauges were as impressive now as they were when I first entered a DC-10 cockpit over 25 years ago.  Back then it was the technology; today it is the antiquity.

And so concluded some 25 years, over 85,000h and more than 22,000 flights for Alpha Charlie Romeo.  The sun did emerge for the midday flight, although in a more metaphorical sense, the sun is setting rapidly on all surviving trijets the world over.  The only “New Era” awaiting Alpha Charlie Romeo is the afterlife.

Initially, several sources announced that this had been secured by a museum – Seattle, Newquay or Bruntingthorpe, depending on who you asked.

It later transpired that Biman’s Board of Directors had vetoed the decision to preserve Alpha Charlie Romeo, favouring scrap back at Dhaka instead: an inglorious end to a glorious aircraft.

Whatever her ultimate fate, the noble Alpha Charlie Romeo should be secure for years to come in the memories of those who came – many from far afield – all the way to Birmingham in the midst of a grey and soggy English winter specifically to fly on her.  No metal claw can destroy that.


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