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5/30/1958: First Flight of the Douglas DC-8

DALLAS — Today, in 1958, the legendary DC-8 performed its maiden flight from Long Beach Airport (LBG). In this post, we'll analyze this aircraft in greater detail from its inception to its first flight.

The Douglas Aircraft Company of Santa Monica, California, was the propliner era’s most successful manufacturer of civil air transports. It produced more than 16,000 units of the DC-3, the stalwart of the 1930s and 1940s, and followed it up with the very successful DC-4, DC-6, and DC-7 four-engine airliners.

In 1948, Douglas started producing a successful jet fighter, the F3D Skyknight, of which it would make 265 for the US military before replacing it, in 1951, with the supersonic F4D Skyray.

This model saw sales figures that were even higher (422 units) and was the first carrier-based aircraft to hold the world’s absolute speed record, achieving 753 mph (1211.74 kph).

Mock-up of the Douglas DC-8. Photo: Boeing Historical Archives

Douglas’ Ambition: A Jet-powered Airliner

Douglas then established an office at its California plant to pursue a new ambition: a jet-powered airliner—something that had already been built in Britain, where the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) had started flying from London to Johannesburg, with five stops en route, in 1952. Over the next year, BOAC had expanded jet service to Tokyo, Singapore, and Ceylon.

Douglas’s great rival Boeing had begun custom building a prototype commercial jet, the Model 367-80 (registration ND70700) in 1952. When the ‘Dash-80’ took to the air over Washington State on July 15, 1954, America had made a major leap toward the jet age.

The company was not to be outdone. Chief Project Engineer Ivor Shogrun led designers through hundreds of jetliner configurations, including a delta wing. By mid-1953, they had settled on a swept-wing design with four podded underwing engines.

By September 1954, Douglas had devoted more than US$3m and 250,000 man-hours to the DC-8 project. It hoped to sell some of the intended planes to the US Air Force as tankers or transports.

The final decision to go ahead with a pure-jet airliner remained with Donald Douglas Sr. himself, who gave his OK on June 7, 1955. The budget of US$450m made this the most expensive privately financed corporate venture to date.

An early DC-8-10 in Douglas colors, 1959. The DC-8 was certified in August 1959. Photo courtesy: Jon Proctor collection

DC-8 Orders Begin

Although Boeing had beaten Douglas to the punch with the Air Force, Douglas got its revenge in October 1955 by grabbing the lion’s share of a Pan Am order: 25 DC- 8Bs with a six-abreast Economy layout, as opposed to 20 five-abreast Boeing 707s.

On October 25, 1955, with officials from 20 of the world’s top airlines on hand in Santa Monica, Donald Douglas Sr., and United Airlines (UA) President Pat Patterson jointly announced an order for 30 DC-8As at a cost of US$175m; deliveries would start in May 1959. It was the largest single order yet placed for commercial airliners.

In June 1956, Douglas announced that the DC-8 would be built at its Long Beach plant, where 4,285 C-47s (and more than 3,000 B-17s under license from Boeing) had been assembled during World War II.

Finally, on March 26, 1958, four Pratt & Whitney JT3 engines were attached to Ship One, and the maiden aircraft rolled out of the hangar into broad daylight before an invited audience that included representatives of all 17 customer airlines.

Douglas DC-8-11 N8008D takes off from Long Beach Airport, at 10:10 am, May 30, 1958. The heavy exhaust smoke is a result of water injection. Photo: Boeing Historical Archives

The DC-8 Takes to the Skies

May 30, 1958, was the big day. Ship One (N8008D) took to the air for the first time from LBG at 10:10 a.m. local time.

The crowds of spectators, estimated at as many as 50,000 people, surrounded the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration needed at least five miles of visibility for this first test flight. Typical Southern California coast low clouds and fog caused a 10-minute delay.

Arnold G. ‘Heimie’ Heimerdinger was at the controls, William ‘Bill’ Magruder in the right seat, and Paul Patten at the Flight Engineer’s panel. Flight Test Engineer Bob Rizer was also onboard, monitoring the flight-data recorders in the main cabin.

Heimerdinger took the airliner north to Edwards Air Force Base in the High Desert of Southern California, where the full flight test program would be completed. The total duration of the first flight was 2 hours and seven minutes.

An escape chute, installed in the lower fuselage, was ready should the crew have to rapidly parachute out. But the two-hour, seven-minute flight went up to 21,000 feet, at 350 knots, and back without a hitch, thus signaling the start of a successful legacy for the aircraft.

The DC-8 entered service with Delta Air Lines on September 18, 1959. Photo: CCBY- 2.0 via Wikimedia

Initial Service, End of Production

On September 18, 1959, the DC-8 entered service with Delta Air Lines (DL) and UA, making DL the first to operate the DC-8 in scheduled passenger service. The DC-8 was produced until 1972, with a total of 556 aircraft built.

The success of the DC-8 and DC-9, as well as the sheer quantity of models and component shortages, caused havoc on the production lines, resulting in the merger with McDonnell. Photo: Historical Archives/Boeing

Discover more about the DC-8 in our Jan 2016 Issue!

Published in our January 2016 issue is a more in-depth story of a fantastic article by Geoffrey Thomas about the legendary DC-8 that takes a panoramic view of this superb airliner.

Article source: Francillon, Rene J. (1979). McDonnell Douglas Aircraft since 1920. Putnam & Company Ltd.; Thomas, Geoffrey, Airways Magazine, June (2005).

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