Delta Air Lines’ Short-Lived DC-10 Fleet: The Details

As Delta Air Lines continued its rise as one of the United States’ major carriers, it trialed various aircraft in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1970s, it took on the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Let’s take a look at the operator’s relationship with the trijet.

Delta DC-10
Delta’s DC-10 project may not be as prominent as other ventures, but it played a positive part in the airline’s rise. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

A gap in the market

US operators were looking for a widebody plane to handle transcontinental operations. Yet, several of these were seeking something smaller than the Boeing 747. The  DC-10 wasn’t as large as the 360-seat 747 but was still bigger than the 180-seat narrowbody jets of the time. Altogether, it could hold 250 passengers. Delta configured its interior with 46 first class seats and 204 coach seats.

Three General Electric CF6-6D engines powered the jet. This technology helped it reach a speed of 564 mph and a range of 3,130 miles (5037 km)

Delta was primarily planning to take on the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. It placed an order for the type back in 1968. However, the airline became concerned when engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce faced bankruptcy between 1970 and 1971. There were concerns about the engine program falling behind schedule.

Subsequently, the company planned for the worst, in case there were cancellations or delays with the delivery of the aircraft. Therefore it turned to the DC-10 jets for peace of mind if there were any issues with the progress of the other plane.

Douglas DC-10 Interior
Undoubtedly, there was plenty of space onboard the Douglas DC-10 aircraft.  Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Contingency plan

According to the Delta Flight Museum, former Delta chairman and CEO Charles Dolson summarized the move for the DC-10 with the following:

“Order of a minimum fleet of DC-10s…will assure Delta’s maintenance of a competitive posture over its domestic routes during the 1972-1973 time period. Delta will continue to study possible long-range solutions to the Lockheed-Rolls Royce problems.”

So, on March 18th, 1971, the carrier ordered five of the jets. The units arrived at the Atlanta-based carrier towards the end of 1972 and the beginning of 1973.

However, they were sold to United Airlines and leased back from October 1972 to May 1975. Nonetheless, they arrived with registration numbers N601DA, N602DA, N603DA, N604DA, and N605DA.

Douglas DC-10 Tail
Delta Air Lines’ Douglas DC-10 jets stood out with their distinct tail. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Service started with the DC-10 on December 15th, 1972. This was on a flight to LaGuardia Airport in New York from Atlanta Airport in Georgia.

Following the successful launch, Delta expanded its DC-10 to the following routes:

  • Chicago-Florida (Orlando, Atlanta, Tampa, and Miami)
  • East-West Coasts (Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles)
  • Northeast-Gulf States (New York, New Orleans, and Houston)
Delta DC-10 jet
The aircraft flew across every section of the contiguous United States while it was in operation with Delta Air Lines. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Ever-changing market

Despite its initial worries, Delta soon took on its L-011 aircraft. The plane joined the airline’s fleet at the end of 1973. This move meant that it was the first carrier to operate three of the first generation widebody jets at the same time. Altogether, the company was flying the 747, DC-10, and L-1011 simultaneously.

These original DC-10s didn’t last so long in Delta’s holdings. Service with these planes ended on May 1st, 1975, and the leased jets were returned to United.

Even though the initial relationship between Delta and the DC-10 was cut short, the story didn’t end there. As a result of a merger with Western Airlines in April 1987, it acquired twelve units of the type.

This isn’t the first time that the company has had two stints with an aircraft type due to a merger. For instance, it held the Boeing 747 twice, in the last half a century. It flew the Queen of the Skies in the same year it was introduced but soon preferred other options. However, it ended up with the jumbo again following a merger with Northwest Airlines in 2008.

Western was previously flying the DC-10 since 1973. The Californian outfit primarily operated it on domestic services across the country. Routes to Hawaii and Alaska benefited from the widebody. However, the carrier also flew the jet to London between 1980 and 1982.

Delta’s second stint with the type was even shorter than the first. On December 1st, 1988, the airline performed its final revenue operation with the plane. It was an emotional affair as it was also the last flight conducted by Captain Bob North, a pilot who retired after 34 years in service. The occasion was marked with a two-fire hose water salute.

Douglas DC-10
Altogether, Western Airlines flew 14 DC-10 aircraft, which were split between 13 Series 10s and a single Series 30. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Through the years

When it comes to passenger operations, the Douglas DC-10 was produced in three basic models. The Series 10 was useful for domestic routes to up to 3,500 miles (5632 km). Meanwhile, Series 30 and 40 were deployed for extended range and intercontinental services.

The type was in development in Long Beach, California since January 1968. The first flight was with American Airlines on August 5th, 1971. Subsequently, after 386 commercial deliveries, production stopped in 1990.

The final scheduled passenger flight conducted by a commercial airline with the DC-10 was in 2014. Biman Bangladesh Airlines holds the honor of performing this service on February 20th of that year. This was an operation from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Birmingham, UK.

Altogether, the plane did not have the same impact for Delta as its predecessors and counterparts did. However, it gave the airline the insurance it needed during an uncertain time within the industry.

The 17 units that it held may not have been within the firm’s holdings for long, but Delta no doubt recognizes their role within its journey. The jet is no longer in the sky for commercial passenger operations. Nonetheless, it can still be spotted on cargo and air force operations across the globe.

What are your thoughts about Delta Air Lines’ Douglas DC-10 aircraft? Do you have any fond memories flying on the type over the years? Let us know what you think of the plane in the comment section.

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