The Story Of The Douglas DC-8

The DC-8 wasn’t only the first Douglas jet aircraft. It was also the first jet taken on by two major carriers – United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Here’s a look at the journey of one of the pioneering United States-based jet planes.

Delta Air Lines DC-8
Delta Air Lines was one of the two airlines to debut the DC-8. Photo: Getty Images

Competition heating up

Pan American’s Boeing 707-120 delivery in August 1958 caused a stir in the industry. It was the first jet to arrive at an airline in the US. Then, later that fall, the legacy carrier launched the first-ever daily transatlantic jet flights between New York and Paris.

Executives at airlines across the country were keeping a close eye on the transforming industry. They knew they had to jump on the bandwagon. Delta Founder C.E. Woolman understood the impact that the jet engine would have on the market. So, he rallied his team to draw up solutions to the new problems that were arising.

Equally, United was keen not to fall behind in the jet race. The operator played an important role in the development process of the DC-8 in its preliminary stages. Former company president William A. ‘Pat’ Patterson wanted a six-abreast seating layout, which was taken into consideration by Douglas.

According to Airline Ratings, Douglas gave the green light to the design of the DC-8 on June 7th, 1955. Overall, development costs were estimated to ring in at a staggering $450 million ($4.4 billion today).

Subsequently, the DC-8 performed its first flight on May 30th, 1958, kicking off action for the narrowbody. Both Delta and United launched DC-8 flights with the aircraft on September 18th, 1959, United’s jet performed a transcontinental trip between San Francisco and New York Idlewild while Delta’s flight left Atlanta for New York. Delta’s flight is recorded as the first flight due to the local time zone.

DC-8 United
United was the launch customer of the DC-8. Photo: United Airlines

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Benefits to be had

There were considerable advantages with the DC-8 compared with its predecessors. It would cut the flying time between major airports by up to 40%. It also could transport nearly double the number of passengers and cargo than the larger piston planes of the time.

DC-8 Interior
Passengers on board the DC-8 were treated to a classy experience following the plane’s introduction. Photo: The Delta Flight Museum

The quadjet could reach speeds of over 600 mph (966 km/h). This factor enabled it to become the first commercial aircraft to break the sound barrier, doing so during a dive in a test flight. Boeing, which McDonnell Douglas merged with, shares that the standard Series 10 had increased fuel capacity for intercontinental flights. Meanwhile, Series 30 and 40 were the first to deploy the 17,500-lbs-thrust (7,938-kg-thrust) turbojet engines.

The Series 50 came with more efficient turbofan engines, providing 18,000 lbs (8,165 kg) thrust and a longer range. This variant was also offered in a passenger-freight model and a windowless all-cargo edition.

The original Series 10 could reach a range of up to 3,760 NM (6,960 km). The range possibilities were significantly increased by the time of the Series 50, with the aircraft being able to reach up to 5,855 NM (10,843 km).

Avion quadriréacteur super DC-8
There were seven main variants of the DC-8. Photo: Getty Images.

A series of expansions

Further expansions were made with the DC-8. The continuous evolution of the type is recognized in the market.

“The DC-8 Series 60 extended the length of the fuselage. Nearly 37 feet (11 meters) longer than the original model, in an all-economy passenger configuration, the DC-8-61 could carry 259 people. Its convertible-freighter configuration had a cargo volume of 12,535 cubic feet (3,820 cubic meters). The DC-8-62, for extra-long routes, had a fuselage stretched 6 feet 8 inches (2 meters) longer than the original model and 3-foot (91-centimeter) wingtip extensions,” Boeing shares on its website.

“All design improvements of the DC-8-61 and -62 were incorporated in the DC-8-63. The -63 could fly more than 4,500 miles (7,242 kilometers) nonstop, carrying 259 passengers because of its extended fuselage; aerodynamic improvements to nacelles, pylons and flaps; and increased wingspan and fuel capacity.”

Delta was ecstatic with its Model 61, which was 37 feet longer than the standard DC-8. Importantly, it came with 50% more capacity than the standard variant, and the operating costs were less than 10% greater. In total, Delta could serve 195 passengers in its two-class layout.

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The plane’s manufacturer re-engined the Super 60 Series to introduce the Series 70. Here, Pratt & Whitney engines were replaced with CFM56s to increase range and lower noise.

Notably, the -61, 63, 71, and 73 models measured 57.1 meters long. This factor makes them the longest single-aisle commercial planes ever made, ahead of the 757-300.

Douglas DC-8 airliner, 1961.
Even Pan Am got in on the DC-8 action despite launching jet operations with the Boeing 707. Photo: Getty Images

The aircraft today

Currently, only a handful of airlines operate the DC-8, and they are used in the non-passenger field. Three aircraft are with Trans Air Cargo Service while another is with CFS Air Cargo.

Meanwhile, according to ch-aviation, SkyBus Cargo Charters holds two units within its fleet. One of these planes had to return to Miami, Florida, while on the way to Georgetown, Guyana, due to flap issues in March. The aircraft is over five decades old!

The quadjet was fitted with several different engines over the years, including P&W JT3C, JT3D, and JT4A, CFM56-2, and RCo.12. Photo: Getty Images

Nonetheless, the lifespan of the DC-8 when it comes to passenger service is respectable. For instance, Delta retired its last two units in May 1989, nearly three decades after the family entered service. There were even passenger flights across the industry into the 2010s.

The DC-8 even holds prominence on an official level. NASA holds registration N817NA, a highly-modified unit, which it uses as a flying laboratory. The agency shares that the plane is used for three primary tasks. These missions are satellite sensor verification, sensor development, and “basic research studies of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere.”

NASA’s DC-8 first entered service with Alitalia in 1969. Photo: NASA

So, even though the DC-8’s prime has long passed, it’s great that it still has a role in modern society. 556 units were produced between 1958 and 1972. Altogether, despite no new units being build for nearly 50 years, the aircraft is still flying.

What are your thoughts about the story of the Douglas DC-8? Did you ever fly on the aircraft over the years? Let us know what you think of the plane and its operations in the comment section.