The Late Great DC8

By Sam Longo AME A&P

The “Douglas Commercial” DC8 and Boeing’s 707 were staunch competitors in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s as the worlds top airlines scrambled to bring intercontinental jet transportation to the rapidly expanding flying public.

Despite being a little late out of the gate compared to the 707 the first DC-8-10 took flight on May 30th 1958. After one of the most expensive proving and testing programs in aviation history, it entered commercial service with Delta and United Airlines in September 1959. Part of that testing involved extensive underwater pressurization cycling, due to lessons learned from the fatal crashes of 2 DeHavilland Comet Jetliners in 1953 and 1954 caused by metal fatigue failure. Douglas was taking no chances with their first jet-powered airliner, it’s long standing excellent reputation for reliability was at stake, so it had to be right from day one.

They need not have worried, their design proved to be built to a very high standard. Perhaps a little known fact that clearly proves this point was an event that took place on August 21st 1961. While collecting wing data during a test flight, a customer’s aircraft was put into a controlled dive from 41,000 feet and subsequently became the first commercial aircraft to break the sound barrier recording a speed of Mach 1.012. That very aircraft, a DC8-43 was later delivered to CP Air as CF-CPG and carried revenue passengers for many years until its eventual retirement from service.

When I started my employment at Air Canada in 1978, many of its DC8’s were still in service. By then they were mostly the 62 and 63 Series of aircraft with the late model Pratt and Whitney JT3D’s. We also had occasion to service a few of the much earlier 40 Series aircraft that had been sold years earlier to Air Jamaica, still flying with their original Rolls Royce Conway engines.

As my tenure at Air Canada soldiered on the DC8’s began to migrate out of passenger service and into the companies rapidly expanding Cargo enterprise. As the 1980’s emerged, passengers were now expecting the wide-bodied comfort of Lockheed’s L1011 or Boeing’s 747 for their long haul flights.

Another nail in the coffin of the DC8 and many other aircraft of its era was excessive noise. The early 1970’s spawned mounting issues demanding airport noise reductions culminating in the FAA’s imposition of its airport noise regulations in 1985 (FAR Pt 36-7 and 36-8). Despite various after market “hush kits” the old Pratt JT3D’s were just too loud.  For carriers like Air Canada this was an unfortunate reality. Despite its newer 60 series airframes having lots of life remaining and still generating excellent revenue hauling passengers and freight, its noisy engines were dragging it down.

Fortunately in 1975 General Electric saw the writing on the wall and launched the Franco-American CFM-56 engine conversion program. Delta Technical Operations and Air Canada as well as other airlines became licensed to do the retrofits, breathing new life into the superb original airframe design. Other modifications included the gutting of the antiquated Freon air conditioning systems and replacing them with more modern air cycle machines, as well as modernization of many cockpit systems. These revitalized   DC8’s became the new Super 70’s Series. Utilizing the, state-of-the-art, high bypass turbofan CFM-56’s the aircraft immediately became 70% quieter and 20% more fuel-efficient, easily extending its life into the new millennium.

When I left Air Canada in 1988 its fleet of DC8-Super 70’s were flying round the clock delivering millions of tons of cargo to points all over the globe. Many people even lobbied for them to return to passenger service, however by then the modern twin engine Boeing 767 was already arriving to take its place. In all 110 DC8’s were converted to Super 70’s status worldwide when the retrofit program finally ended late in 1988.

Success of any aircraft design can be measured in many ways. However, longevity and miles flown may well be the ultimate testament. In total, 556 DC8’s rolled off the assembly line in Long Beach, California between 1958 and 1972. Of those, over 200 were still in service in 2002. By 2009, 97 DC8’s were still flying worldwide, still making money and plying their trade, more than 51 years since the aircrafts first inaugural flight.

The Douglas DC8 has earned its place in aviation history. For millions of passengers all over the world it was their first encounter with the futuristic realities of safe, efficient, comfortable jet transportation. I am proud to have been a small part of that experience. It was an honor spinning wrenches for that short period of history, helping to maintain Air Canada’s DC8’s, an aircraft that will forever remain an icon of the commercial aviation community.     


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