A four-engined jetliner produced by Douglas, and, later, McDonnell Douglas, from 1958 through 1972.

The Douglas DC-8 is a narrowbody quadjet airliner produced by from 1958 until 1967, and then by until 1972. It was Douglas’s (and McDonnell Douglas’s) first jetliner, and served as their answer to the .

What became the DC-8 had its genesis in mid-1952; had been sounding out the market with designs for transports, and, although Douglas were sure that the future of airliners belonged to aircraft rather than jets, they nevertheless put together their own design for a jetliner, or possibly a jet . This action was vindicated when Boeing’s 367-80 (predecessor to the 707) took to the air in June 1954. Although this killed off Douglas’s chances of landing an Air Force tanker contract (which went to the Boeing KC-135, essentially a production version of the 367-80), they redoubled their efforts with the airliner version, and publicly announced the DC-8 in July 1955. At first, Douglas seemed to have been proven right about turboprops being the next big thing, but, that October, Pan Am ordered 55 jetliners (25 DC-8s and 20 707s), and things snowballed from there.

The DC-8 was handicapped in two ways: not only was it a full year behind the 707, but Douglas, unlike Boeing, offered only one size of aircraft. Boeing gave you the option of a short fuselage for maximum range, a long one for maximum payload, or a medium for somewhere in the middle; with Douglas, you could pick what kind of engine you wanted, and how large your fuel tanks would be, but you had to make do with a 150½-foot fuselage, and were out of luck if you wanted something longer or shorter.

Although Douglas worked aggressively to catch up with Boeing, the DC-8 first flew on 30 May 1958, five months after the 707, and was still very much an unfinished product; a large number of changes had to be made to the aircraft’s (mainly in the s) to fix issues that only revealed themselves in . The DC-8 would not enter service until September 1959, when Delta and United flew their first passengers on the new jetliner.

At this time, there were two major DC-8 versions available:

  • The DC-8-10 (originally “DC-8A”) was a “domestic” model, basically a production run of the prototype except for the aforementioned aerodynamic tweaks, and powered by anemic Pratt & Whitney JT3C engines, requiring the use of water injection to get the thing off the ground. 30 were built, including the prototype; all would later be converted to DC-8-20 or DC-8-50 standard, except for two that crashed first.
  • The DC-8-20 (originally “DC-8B”) was basically a superpowered DC-8-10, with the JT3Cs replaced by more powerful JT4As, which allowed the water injection to be deleted and the maximum weight to be cranked up. 33 were built new, and 16 DC-8-10s were also converted to DC-8-20 standard.

In 1960, along came…

  • ...the DC-8-30, an “intercontinental” model, basically a DC-8-20 with bigger fuel tanks, stronger landing gear, and a higher maximum weight, of which 57 were built (five of which would later be reengined into DC-8-50s)...
  • ...and the DC-8-40, which was similar to the DC-8-30, but had a) a further-improved wing, and b) Rolls-Royce Conway engines, the first DC-8 to be so equipped. Even though the DC-8-40 was quieter, cleaner, more fuel-efficient, higher-capacity, longer-ranged, and faster than what came before, the Conways, being a non-US product, hurt its sales, which amounted to just 32 aircraft (and three of these 32 were later converted into DC-8-50s). The DC-8-40 does have another claim to fame, however, as one, during an August 1961 test flight, exceeded Mach 1 for sixteen seconds in a dive, becoming the first jetliner ever to reach speeds.

1961 brought:

  • the DC-8-50, which was like the DC-8-40, but with a US-built engine (the Pratt & Whitney JT3D). It was also the first DC-8 to offer a freighter version, the “Jet Trader”, a convertible aircraft that could carry passengers and freight in varying proportions, depending on where you put the moveable bulkhead separating the two. 80 conventional DC-8-50s were built, along with 62 Jet Traders (one of the conventional DC-8-50s was later converted to Jet Trader configuration); in addition, twelve DC-8-10s were converted to DC-8-50 standard, as were five DC-8-30s and three DC-8-40s.

Despite the rapid-fire introduction of new models, there was trouble in Douglasland; the baseline DC-8 was fine for intercontinental routes, but the airlines wanted a shorter-range jetliner for those fat, juicy domestic flights. Demand for the DC-8 drained away, with airlines mainly switching to the 707 or the (a smaller 707, renamed so that United, a DC-8 launch customer, wouldn’t seem as though they were buying 707s), although a few instead went for the smaller but faster .

In 1965, with the DC-8 all but dead, Douglas finally relented and offered stretched versions of the DC-8; the first DC-8-60 (or “Super 60”, because super-length fuselage) flew in March 1966, and entered service in February of the next year. There were three minor versions of the DC-8-60:

  • The DC-8-61 was a straightforward stretch of the latest DC-8-50 version (the DC-8-55), giving up range for capacity. It, along with the DC-8-63 (see below), was the longest DC-8 ever produced (to a total of 88).
  • The DC-8-62 was stretched less than the DC-8-61, but, in return, featured a whole battery of aerodynamic improvements that decreased drag, increased range, and netted it 67 orders.
  • The DC-8-63 had the length of the DC-8-61, the aerodynamics of the DC-8-62, a range midway between the two, and more sales (107) than either.

DC-8 production shut down in 1972, but there was one final twist to come. As the 1970s progressed, people started to complain, increasingly loudly, about the noise produced by the DC-8’s engines - especially compared to the (relatively) quiet high- turbofans that had recently accompanied the first widebody jetliners (such as the , McDonnell Douglas’s own , the , and the ) into service. Although the high-bypass engines used on those aircraft were big jumbo-jet engines, too big for a narrowbody like the DC-8, smaller examples were in the pipeline, one of which, the General Electric/SNECMA (CFM International) CFM56, was eventually chosen for reengining the DC-8-60 into…

  • ...the DC-8-70, or “Super 70”, which entered service in 1982, produced less than half as much noise as the DC-8-60 (at the time, in fact, it was the quietest quadjet in the world), and had a longer range thanks to the fuel-sipping CFM56. There were three minor versions, corresponding to those of the DC-8-60; the DC-8-72 and DC-8-73 were simply DC-8-62s and DC-8-63s with their JT3Ds swapped out for CFM56s, while the DC-8-71 also needed its wings switched out in order for the new engines to fit. A total of 110 DC-8-60s were converted into DC-8-70s over the course of six years.

In one fell swoop, the DC-8 had gained a major advantage over the 707, which had no counterpart to the DC-8-70, and which rapidly fell prey to stricter and stricter noise restrictions before the turn of the millennium; in contrast, nearly half of the 556 DC-8s built were still in service as 1999 rolled over into 2000. However, as a quadjet, even a high-bypass quadjet, still has lower - and, having twice the engines, has higher costs - than a high-bypass twinjet, and as said maintenance costs rose still further for these aging airframes, even the DC-8 was slowly pulled from service in the following years, to the point where there remains but a single DC-8 (a freighter) in scheduled commercial service anywhere in the world, with a handful more being used as private or charter aircraft.

For all you could ever want to know about the DC-8, see Wikipedia.

history | excerpt history