Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ode to the MD-11, An Airplane That Proved the Importance of Innovation (or Lack Thereof)

This week marks the final commercial flight of the last of the Douglas widebody aircraft. When KLM flight 672 from Montreal touches down in Amsterdam at 635a on Sunday, the era of the trijet in airline service will officially end. I’ll miss the MD-11, but today I’m going to focus on the negative. The MD-11 was a symbol of failure for McDonnell Douglas, and there are lessons to be learned.

It’s no secret that I love Douglas airplanes. After all, the Douglas Aircraft Company built nearly every jet it produced here in Long Beach, not far from where I live. (Sure, I moved here after the last commercial jet came off the line, but that doesn’t matter.) It’s safe to say that the Douglas Aircraft Company was one of the more innovative companies building airplanes. The DC-3 was revolutionary in its versatility. Not only was it a great war transport during World War II, but it made for an excellent passenger transport as well. Airlines had long struggled to profit by flying passengers, but the DC-3 was the first airplane to carry a large enough load to make it possible.

From that point on, Douglas built some of the great piston-driven aircraft of all time. The DC-4, DC-6, and DC-7 were all important airplanes, but they were immediately rendered irrelevant when the jet age arrived. When that happened, Douglas dove right in. First was the DC-8 and then the venerable DC-9 for short haul operations. The company’s first entry into widebody flying was the mighty DC-10. That trijet was meant to provide a mid to long range option with less capacity than a 747. Fresh off its 1967 merger with McDonnell, the newly-minted McDonnell Douglas officially launched the DC-10 in 1968. It was all downhill from there.

Despite building airplanes for 30 years beyond the merger, McDonnell Douglas never created and produced a new commercial design. The DC-8 was stretched a few times until it faded into history. The DC-9 was the most successful jet the company produced. It was stretched from the original DC-9-10 into the -30, the -40, and the -50 before it was renamed as the MD-80 after another stretch. (Yes, that’s really just a DC-9-80.) It eventually was shrunk into the MD-87, stretched again into the MD-90, and finally shrunk one more time into the MD-95, an airplane you know as the Boeing 717. It was renamed after Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas. Both the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 families easily surpassed the DC-9 family. The last 717 rolled off the line in Long Beach in 2006, and with that, the end of the Douglas commercial aircraft lineage had arrived.

As for the DC-10, it had a few different variants and, despite some high profile crashes, was a moderately successful airplane. It proved to be quite the reliable workhorse later in life with the last one not being retired until earlier this year by Biman Bangladesh. But when the time came for McDonnell Douglas to innovate, the company failed completely.

Sure, McDonnell Douglas had its chances. In the early 1970s, the company began floating the idea of a DC-10 Twin with, obviously, only 2 engines. Boeing’s 767 wouldn’t fly for another decade. And though Airbus was about to fly the A300 for the first time, it would be years before anyone would take that manufacturer seriously. McDonnell Douglas punted, and the idea never went anywhere.

Instead, the company lumbered along by tweaking its existing products. By 1986, the writing was on the wall for the DC-10. Airbus officially named its updated version of the A300 the A330. It had been developing that for a decade. Meanwhile, Boeing’s 767 was picking up steam and the company was working on ways to expand its size and reach while still retaining only two engines. A couple years later, those efforts would become the 777. What did McDonnell Douglas do? Just before the end of the year, it opted to just stretch the DC-10 into the MD-11.

The MD-11 was a bit more than just a stretch. Sure it had room for more people, but it also had a redesigned wing, new engines, and a two-person cockpit with modern avionics. But it still had 3 engines, and in a world where efficiency matters, that was a huge problem.

The only hope for the MD-11 to really succeed was by providing great range. The A330 and 767 could fly many routes but they lacked the reach that twin engine aircraft can provide today. The 747 was still the king of the skies on long haul, but it had 4 engines and a ton of seats. The MD-11 could have found a niche. It didn’t. The airplane didn’t meet its range promises. Singapore Airlines canceled its orders. Others were not pleased.

But even if the MD-11 had lived up to its promises, it would have been rendered obsolete fairly quickly with the advent of the 777. McDonnell Douglas just never bothered to see the importance of innovation.

Every so often, there was a glimmer of hope. In the early 1990s, McDonnell Douglas put out the idea of an MD-12. Basically, it was an A380 before the A380 existed. That went nowhere, and the company went back to proposing further tweaks to the aging MD-11.

"Md-12-2" by Anynobody - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://ift.tt/1vT0pok

“Md-12-2″ by Anynobody – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://ift.tt/1vT0pok

There was also an attempt to leapfrog the competition in the narrowbody market by playing with a new engine technology. The unducted fan or ultra high bypass looked like the confused offspring of a jet and a prop. But it was quiet and extremely fuel efficient. Oil prices started declining, however, so McDonnell Douglas abandoned that plan and instead outfitted the MD-90 with the same engines that Airbus already had on its A320.

Ken Fielding/http://ift.tt/1xdi8VW [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://ift.tt/HKkdTz) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://ift.tt/HKkdTz)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ken Fielding/http://ift.tt/1xdi8VW [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://ift.tt/HKkdTz) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://ift.tt/HKkdTz)], via Wikimedia Commons

With so many missed opportunities to do something — anything — different, McDonnell Douglas became an also-ran in serious financial trouble. After flirting with Airbus, the end came in 1996 when it agreed to be bought by Boeing. You can still see the company’s influence in Boeing today, however. When Boeing decided to forgo building an all-new narrowbody and instead just beef up the 737 into the 737MAX? That has the hallmark of a short-sighted McDonnell Douglas-style decision. It may save money and time now, but it doesn’t bode well for the future.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed flying the MD-11. I was lucky enough to fly it once from LA to Portland on Delta as part of Delta’s failed Transpacific hub operation up there. Then I did it again as a roundtrip from New York to Helsinki on Finnair. The airplane has served KLM well for a long time, and it still has a future in the cargo world for awhile. But when I see the MD-11, all I can think about is what should have been if McDonnell Douglas had continued on the path of innovation that the Douglas Aircraft Company began so many years ago.

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