When Delta And United Introduced The Douglas DC-8 On The Same Day

It’s always a massive honor for an airline to introduce a new plane, especially a revolutionary one for a manufacturer. The DC-8 was Douglas’ first jet aircraft, and on this date 62 years ago, it was introduced not by one, but two major United States-based carriers – United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Docked DC-8s
United and Delta both introduced their first jetliner, the Douglas DC-8, on September 18th, 1959. Photo: Getty Images

A new requirement

United proudly highlights that in 1955, it became the first carrier in the US to order jetliners amid an order for 30 DC-8s. In fact, the operator played a vital part in the development of the plane. The company told Douglas exactly what it was looking for with its first jetliner. For instance, president William A. ‘Pat’ Patterson was a fan of the six-abreast seating layout, a point that was taken into consideration by the manufacturer when designing the cross-section.

Pan American was making history with Boeing amid the Boeing 707 program. The plane went on to become the first commercial jet to be delivered in the US when it arrived at the veteran’s facilities on August 15th, 1958. The plane was then introduced around two months later on October 26th. So, Delta and United were understandably keen to join in on the action.

Boeing 707 Pan Am
The Boeing 707 helped to catalyze the jet age in the United States, causing a domino effect in the industry. Photo: Getty Images

Being the launch customer of the DC-8 program, United’s first unit, registration N8004U, was the eighth one ever produced, and it was delivered on June 3rd, 1959. That summer, five additional units joined the fold to help with training. Even though the airline was the first to receive the type, it introduced it on the same day as Delta, which received its first unit on July 22nd, 1959.

Hitting the skies for the first time

The DC-8 conducted its first flight on May 30th, 1958. It would then receive certification in August 1959, for it to be ready for passenger service. Thus, both United and Delta geared up for operations the following month.

After the first flight with Delta, the plane began flying twice a day with the Atlanta-based carrier to New York. It was this city where the inaugural flight departed on September 18th.

“Ship 801 flew the world’s first DC-8 passenger service. Delta Flight 823 departed New York International Airport (Idlewild) for Atlanta at 9:20 am, on September 18, 1959. Inaugural crew: Captain Floyd Addison, First Officer Jack McMahan, Second Officer Hank Freese and Flight Attendants Jeanette Easley, Beverly Comerford, Elizabeth Whitman and Carolyn Jones,” the Delta flight Museum Shares.

“The Delta jet touched down at Atlanta at 11 a.m. carrying 119 passengers, including TV star Morey Amsterdam, marking the beginning of jet service for the Atlanta airport. An Atlanta Constitution newspaper reporter noted, ‘The only casualty on Friday’s historic flight was Delta President C.E. Woolman, who cut his hand on the champagne bottle with which Mrs. Woolman christened the 130-ton jetliner.’”

Idlewild was also involved in United’s inaugural DC-8 flight. The plane flew coast-to-coast between San Francisco and New York. Interestingly, even though both flights occurred on the same day, Delta’s flight is recorded as the first passenger service with the DC-8 due to its time zone.

Delta Air Lines DC-8
Delta primarily flew its DC-8 aircraft on long-haul domestic routes and on flights to the Caribbean. Photo: Getty Images

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Bringing advantages to airlines

The pair of airlines were able to reduce flight durations between key destinations by up to 40% with the DC-8. Additionally, with a capacity of 177 passengers on the original commercial productions, almost double the number of customers and goods could be packed into the jet aircraft compared to the popular piston engine aircraft that were on the scene.

The Douglas DC-8-11 was backed by four Pratt & Whitney JT3C-6s. It also had a range of 2,380 NM (4,410 km) and a speed of 590 mph (950 km/hr).

The DC-8 family expanded heavily throughout the decades. The Series 10 was mainly deployed on domestic services, while the Series 20 and its Pratt & Whitney JT4A-3 turbojets provided a weight increase to 276,000 lbs (125,190 kg).

The later Series 30 and 40 were the first to utilize the 17,500-lbs-thrust (7,938-kg-thrust) turbojet engines. Moreover, the Series 50 arrived with more effective turbofans, allowing 18,000 lbs (8,165 kg) thrust and a notably greater range.

Boeing, which McDonnell Douglas merged with in the 1990s, highlights further expansions with the later introductions. For instance, the Series 60 came with an extended fuselage of just under 37 ft (11 m) longer than the initial model and could transport 259 people. The Super 60 Series was also re-engined to bring the Series 70, which saw the Pratt & Whitney engines make way for CFM56s, which led to quieter operations and greater range.

Delta and United were huge fans of the wider DC-8 range. Delta operated the model 11, 12, 33, 51, 61, and 71, while United flew the 10, 20, 30, 50, 60, and 70 variants.

Still some activity

Altogether, 556 DC-8s were produced between 1958 and 1972. Later innovations such as large widebodies in the form of the Boeing 747 and Douglas’ own, the DC-10, took the limelight in the decades that followed the plane’s rise. Delta retired its last of the type, which were DC-8-71s, on May 1st, 1989, and United’s final revenue flight with the type was on October 31st, 1991.

United 747
Both United and Delta flew the 747. Photo: Getty Images.

Today, the DC-8 is an incredibly rare plane to spot in the air. However, it is still in limited action. For instance, a unit has been conducting cargo operations as of late. Additionally, a plane has been collaborating with NASA on crucial missions. The unit is over five decades old but provides an important role for the space agency.

The DC-8 Airborne Science Laboratory handles three core duties – satellite sensor verification, sensor development, and basic research studies of Earth’s surface and atmosphere. Overall, despite first entering service over six decades ago, it’s great to see that the type still holds a key role in aeronautics.

Leaving a mark

The aviation industry has transformed considerably since the DC-8’s first entry into service, with Douglas aircraft no longer held by the likes of United and Delta. Nonetheless, the model has undoubtedly left a legacy that is felt today.

What are your thoughts about the Douglas DC-8? What do you make of the plane’s history over the years? Let us know what you think of the aircraft and its operations in the comment section.