The extraordinary accident history of the MD-11 and MD-10

MD-11 wreckage.jpg

It’s impossible to ignore the history of landing-related accidents to the MD-11 and MD-10 series of aircraft. Plus at least one DC-10 loss that may be relevant. Some of these bear remarkable resemblances to today’s accident at Narita. Others may be pertinent for knock-on reasons. I find it hard to think of a comparable pattern of serious, related accidents to a single type – particularly one not even built in large numbers. Much discussion of landing the MD-11 here.

Martinair DC-10 at Faro, Portugal 21 December 1992

FedEx MD-11 at Anchorage 4 November 1994

FedEx MD-11 at Anchorage 16 May 1996

Alitalia MD-11 at Chicago 19 August 1994

FedEx MD-11 New York Newark 31 July 1997

China Airlines MD-11 Hong Kong 23 August 1999 and here

FedEx MD-11 Subic Bay 17 October 1999

Eva Air Taipei 22 November 2001

FedEx MD-10 Memphis 18 December 2003

FedEx MD-11 Memphis 19 September 2004

UPS MD-11 Louisville 7 June 2005

FedEx MD-10 Memphis 28 July 2006

My colleague David Learmount is wondering what the recent series of accidents to US-registered aircraft means.

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38 Responses to The extraordinary accident history of the MD-11 and MD-10

  1. Fergal Goodman March 23, 2009 at 10:05 pm #

    There was also the excursion from the runway at Dublin of a Delta MD-11 when it landed in high winds on 3 Febuary 2002.

  2. Kieran Daly March 24, 2009 at 7:46 am #

    Thanks Fergal, very interesting one. As the report says, any number of pilots would have ended up the same way given that nasty and unexpected 23kt crosswind gust.

    On a lighter note, absolutely hilarious that the one thing the poor old pax get told is not to use their mobile phones! You know, in case they mess up the ether.

  3. Esteban March 24, 2009 at 8:06 pm #

    So…the EXTRAORDINARY problems are the PILOTS!!! Not the airplane!

  4. Kieran Daly March 24, 2009 at 8:46 pm #

    Well I don’t think that’s the case, since pilots clearly have substantially greater difficulty with this aircraft than with others.

  5. Ivan Charvat March 25, 2009 at 3:17 pm #

    Aircraft with an engine or engines mounted far from the centre of gravity, and with a large offset between an engine’s thrust line and the aircraft’s centre of drag are always going to behave poorly, for a number of reasons. I also seem to remember that the MD-11 sports a tailplane of reduced area compared to the DC-10, even though it is also fitted with more powerful engines…

  6. Reynald Frey March 25, 2009 at 6:10 pm #

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  7. Marc Sampaix March 28, 2009 at 7:05 am #

    Although i am not an advanced specialist i have a little idea and my personal view of this particular accident.

    I have a question to the experienced readers of this topic with a view to further reflexion on the specific subjects it involves.

    Given the aircraft aerodynamic arrangement:

    Long-harm moment possibly induced by the engines positions, average yaw authority and rapid changing environemental condition:

    Q: Would it be reasonable NOT to rule out the possibility of an assymetric stall while the yaw control surface was alreay in an opposite lock position?

    This would explain the speed at which the aircraft rolls over, the appearent incapacity of the crew to respond to the rolling moment (to reverse yaw control) or/and non-responsiveness of the control surfaces to their response to the event.

    Thank you.

  8. Robert Byrne March 29, 2009 at 3:07 am #

    Quote “On a lighter note, absolutely hilarious that the one thing the poor old pax get told is not to use their mobile phones! You know, in case they mess up the ether”

    I have had numerous cases of unexplained interference with the localizer/glideslope signals while on approach in the CRJ- there are enough other things that can do it why add to the possibilities? Beyond that, they definitely do make an irritating noise in our headsets when they try to grab a tower, so just keep the d@^n things off please.

  9. CJL March 29, 2009 at 8:28 am #

    I agree to certain extent with the comments by Esteban. When I look at the reports you listed, many would indicate pilot error or misjudgement. You could draw a simple conclusion from the numbers (but would also argue that 12 heavy landings (but sadly too many fatalities) in 17 years isn’t a disasterous record to have), but the numbers aren’t back up by any analysis by you. How about doing a direct comparison with other marques (747, A300, 767…)? That would be really interesting and remove the one aspect of your article that leaves me feeling disappointed, and that is “sensationalism”. I don’t think it has enough context to come across as convincing. If the MD-11 was as bad as you suggest, why would professinal pilots want to fly it? On the linked article, there are postings from a few people who have “heard” it is prone to elevator control issues in certain conditions, but surely a quote from a “real” pilot would aid the story?

  10. marcio6067 March 30, 2009 at 7:18 pm #

    Hi Esteban, I quote you:
    ” So…the EXTRAORDINARY problems are the PILOTS!!! Not the airplane!”
    The problem is the AIRPLANE, it is the continuation of the saga of DC-10, which first “accident” was the bankrupt of Douglas Aircraft Company.

  11. Kieran Daly March 30, 2009 at 10:16 pm #


    very fair question. I can’t easily do the heavy landing rate, but slide 20 in this presentation I’d suggest tells its own story regarding the overall accident rate versus other types. Fatal and total. Here’s the link:

    What do pilots say. Well since the accident there have been really an awful lot of pilots commenting on the MD-11′s challenging landing characteristics. A couple insisting that anyone should be able to handle it – but in my view even that tells you how the aircraft is perceived. Really good designs don’t need to be defended.

    I think your charge of sensationalism is a bit unfair. The whole point of this post was that, unlike any other aircraft (well, almost any) the safety record absolutely leaps out at you. And perhaps we can agree that the statistics do in fact back up my off the cuff opinion.

  12. Mauricio Vargas March 31, 2009 at 10:14 am #

    I checked out the USAF version of S.N.A. the KC-10. Correct me if I am wrong but apparently there has only been one incident and it was a ground maintenance accident. The USAF has operated this a/c since 1980 and they still have 59 of the 60 produced flying all around the world supporting military operations.

    What troubles me is seeing all the incidents involving FedEx birds. They alone make up for more than half the incidents recorded and many if not most of the pilots are prior USAF who have flown in identical and possibly even more hazardous situations.

  13. Peter the old tp March 31, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    The NTSB report on the Newark crash says it all. Even the wreckage path looks the same. The longstab problems are fully documented in that report..the pitch change with spoilers deployment (after nosewheel contact and getting airborne) and the PIO or these days HMI issues. The Newark guys who died thought they were fully in control late on approach as well. Very sad that the type still operates.

  14. CJL March 31, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    I’d definitely agree that the MD11 numbers per million departure stick out. Having these kind of facts rounds out the story. It would be good to get a breakdown of slide 21 to see how many incidents were landing related. I’m sure it’s all in the far left column, so a bit tricky to pull out. Pity, as there could be a lot of value in knowing how many “in flight” loss of control’s are within the last minute of being airborn (just a general comment – not asking you to get that!).

    Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings by using the word “sensationalism”. My angle is that many people use events (many of them tragic) to capture an audience. Ideas are often injected to give the story an edge. My brain seems to be strongly biased against stories that don’t present a balanced picture, or represent just one side. Had I read some of your other stuff first (after I posted I did take a look at other stuff you had written), I’d have probably been less reactive!

    Now though, I feel rather relieved that I don’t use BAC 1-11′s any more (I used to on charter hops around Europe and in the UK), and it will probably take a lot of persuading to make me board a DC-8 or an F-28.

    Even the early 747 series doesn’t look too positive!

  15. Kieran Daly March 31, 2009 at 2:39 pm #

    I wouldn’t worry about flying in older types. The accident rate of the current types will no doubt look poor 30 years from now. The time to worry is when we invent a new type that doesn’t then establish a better record than earlier ones.

  16. captain sabo sambo March 31, 2009 at 3:01 pm #

    I have not flown the MD-11,but the DC-10-30 for four years as a co-pilot in Nigeria Airways,Every aircraft has limitations on cross wind,reason being to avoid exceeding the manufacturers designed tested limits for the aircraft,which are most critical on take off and landings.Once the wind are beyond limits,if you dont have an alternative runway at the airport to land,the safest thing to do is to divert to an alternate airfield. It is verry possible that theFedEx MD11 cargo crash could have been flown using the Auto-Land system,which the earlier DC10 has.Under normal wind conditions,the aircraft will actually land itself in Zero-Zero visibility using the ILS,but surely under limiting wind conditions,that could be a desaster even when the pilot is manually flying in such critical wind conditions.There should be no bold pilots,we were always tought in flying School if you are not comfortable with an approach to land GO-AROUND.

  17. Sam kano April 1, 2009 at 1:29 am #

    It is premature to judge where is the problem.Windshear or pilot error we don’t know yet and yes pilots make mistakes.
    MD-11′s have acrosswind limit of 35 knots which is quite good,
    But from my 7 years experiance flying MD-11 till this day and 6 years flying L-1011′s,not to mention B-737, B747, MD-90′S,,,
    I know that MD’s aircrafts flies like any other airplane and yes needs a little understnding of it’s fast approach and landing speeds,
    The sad thing is the lost of lives and the people who suffer from it.

  18. Christian F. Melendez April 1, 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    It would be interesting to see what is the maximun crosswind component at approach speed and how strong a gust must be to make the airplane non-responsive. I think that the massive center engine present a critical element that once is hit by a gust at slow speed creates an uncontrollable condition. It will create the leverage needed to turn the whole airplane like in a side stall.

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