The MD-11 was probably a bad idea. McAir came up with the aircraft because it was a bigger, meaner, DC-10. So much DC-10 that there originally was not going to be an MD-11, but a DC-10 stretch. There were two attempts at this aircraft: a DC-10-10 stretched by 40 feet, and a DC-10-30 stretched by 30 feet. Concurrently, McDonnell Douglas (McAir) was concerned about the range of the 747-SP and began work on an ultra-long-range DC-10 Global.
This research lead to an aircraft series called the DC-10 Super 60. The DC-10 Super 60 was going to be a series. A simple stretch, an ultra-long-range variant, and an aircraft optimized for both range and capacity. Unfortunately for McDonnell Douglas, the American Airlines 191 crash happened – summarily executing the DC-10 program. It did not help that there was economic malaise going on at the time, either.
Being the kings of iteration that they were, in 1981 they decided to revive the large trijet research. Leasing a DC-10-10 from Continental, they studied various winglet configurations in conjunction with NASA. For reasons of marketing, this project would be designated the MD-100. This was an interesting project as it actually offered more engine options than the final MD-11, in the form of the Rolls Royce RB.211. By November 1983, it was clear there was no interest in the MD-100. The board shuttered it.
By this point, airlines were starting to question the viability and future of McDonnell Douglas as a commercial aircraft manufacturer. No new DC-10 orders were placed in 1984. The line was only active because of the U.S. Air Force order for sixty KC-10s.
The board, however, was still convinced that there was need for a new DC-10 variant. This time, it was to be called the MD-11. The MD-11 was to come in two versions, both powered by either General Electric CF-6s or Pratt & Whtiney PW4000s. There was to be the MD-11X-10 (identical in length to the DC-10-30 but with a much higher Max Gross Weight and range of 6,500nm) and the MD-11X-20 (a 331-seat stretch with a range of only 6,000nm).
When the board granted authority to offer in July of 1985, the MD-11 was morphing into a different DC-10 configuration once more. This time it was a baseline 320-seat aircraft with a stretch of 18’7″ over the DC-10-30, with a range of 6,800nm. There was also to be a shorter MD-11ER, with a range of 7,500nm. Other proposed variants were both dedicated and combi freighters. McDonnell Douglas also dreamed of stretches.
The MD-11 was officially launched on December 30, 1986, with 52 firm orders and 40 options. Ten airlines and two lessors made up the customer base. Three customers had already backed out by the first aircraft’s assembly in 1988.
The first MD-11s were intended as freighters for FedEx, but were held onto as test articles until 1991.
Finnair’s first MD-11 was delivered on December 7, 1990 (after a host of delays). The aircraft were originally intended for JAT Yugoslav Airways, but they were not taken up due to the raging civil war in that, now defunct, country. Delta would be the first American operator of the MD-11; also in 1990.
After entering into revenue service, it became clear that the MD-11 was not performing as it said on the box. Nowhere close, at least in airline terms. Singapore Airlines, frustrated with the payload and range shortfalls declared that they could not use the aircraft on their long-haul routes. They cancelled their twenty frame order. American Airlines was, in the words of Robert Crandall, “very unhappy.” They cited both aerodynamic problems and issues with Pratt & Whitney for the 4% higher-than-expected fuel burn. Delta was also a little cross – they were experiencing dispatch reliability issues with their first batch of aircraft.
McDonnell Douglas scrambled to devise a performance improvement program with Pratt & Whitney to try and make the aircraft live up to its promises. Collaborating with NASA’s Langley Research Center, this program lasted until 1995. It worked. Unfortunately the MD-11 was already seen as an under-performer and was getting destroyed by its twin-engine competitors. Sales never recovered.
McDonnell Douglas and Boeing merged in 1997, and Boeing announced that only freighter production would continue. They changed their tune in 1998 and announced that production would cease after current orders were fulfilled.
The last passenger MD-11 was delivered to Sabena in 1998. The last freighter went to Lufthansa Cargo on January 25, 2001.
The MD-11 was one of the first commercial aircraft to use computer-assisted pitch stability augmentation. It even had a fuel-ballast tank in the horizontal stabilizer. Much of this was necessary because the aircraft’s tailplane was smaller than the DC-10’s to improve fuel efficiency. This would actually come back to haunt the design, as it made the aircraft not only challenging to land, but also inhibited its crosswind performance.
Furthermore, the aircraft was designed with a center of gravity much farther aft than most airliners. The FAA also urged Boeing to update the flight control software, as the aircraft was potentially prone to violent, unintentional pitch movements and oscillation.
The MD-11 also suffered thirteen incidents, eight hull loses, and a loss of 240 lives.
The majority of passenger MD-11s were gone by 2004. Some airlines abandoned them much faster. Korean Air made it known that they wanted to convert their MD-11s to freighters as early as the closing days of 1994. American Airlines agreed to sell their nineteen MD-11s to FedEx in 1995. In American’s case, not before leasing two of their frames to failed start-up USAfrica Airways.
Finnair’s MD-11s soldiered on in passenger service until February 22, 2010. As of today, only KLM operates a dwindling number of MD-11s. They will retire from commercial service on October 25. There will, however, be enthusiast flights to celebrate the MD-11 on November 11th. KLM is also offering prizes in an MD-11 trivia contest.
KLM, thankfully, is aware of the enthusiast love for the MD-11.
So why do we love the MD-11? It underperformed, lands like a fighter jet, and has some alarming safety issues that the NTSB still wants corrected. It seems like that would disqualify it from everyone’s list of favorites.
Oddly, that’s exactly why it’s loved. It represents an era when flying was a challenge – when skies, and liveries, were diverse. If you love the DC-10, you probably also love the MD-11. Because of, and despite, its flaws.
We’re going to miss the MD-11.
I will be on the last commercial MD-11 flight for KLM tomorrow, so be sure to stay tuned!