DC plane family Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The most widely used passenger airplane series between the 1930’s and the 1970’s.

The Beginning of the DC Series

The greatest contributor to the expansion of domestic and international air travel was the family of planes known as the Douglas Commercials or DC series. Built by the Douglas Aircraft Company, the DC’s became the dominant brand of commercial passenger plane starting in the 1930’s, and later served the needs of the American military beginning in World War II. The first DC model, the DC-1, was built in 1933. Capable of carrying twelve passengers, the two-propeller plane could travel coast-to-coast in a little over eleven hours. The DC-1 took passenger comfort into account in comparison to its main rivals. To combat the noise from the propeller-driven plane, the company used carpeted floors, sound-absorbing fabric, and rubber supports for the seats. The only DC-1 built was purchased by TWA, which saw the plane as the one that would allow it to compete with the more established air carriers. Within a year of the DC-1 rolling off the assembly line, the Douglas company built the DC-2, also for use in passenger flight by TWA. Known as the Sky Chief, the DC-2 could carry fourteen passengers, and in terms of physical size it had 2 feet more space in the fuselage and nearly 6 feet more in the wingspan. While it had a limited range of 1,000 miles, the DC-2 proved to be a workhorse, with 134 produced between 1934 and 1937. The third of the line was appropriately known as the DC-3 and was first flown as a passenger plane in 1935. This was the best known and the most popular of the DC series and is frequently called the greatest cargo plane ever built. American Airlines was the first to use the craft, after seeing its competitors tie up the other aircraft manufacturers with large orders of other passenger plane models. The airline sought a plane that would allow passengers to rest during the lengthy flight from New York to Los Angeles. The DC-3 had fourteen seats that folded into sleeping berths for passengers. The plane could carry fourteen passengers on an extended coast-to-coast flight or use all of the seats to fit twenty-eight passengers per flight for a shorter trip. The DC-3’s larger capacity, its sleeping berths, and its nearly 1,500-mile range provided a boon for the passenger airline business and more importantly for the Douglas Aircraft Company. By the 1940’s, approximately 90 percent of all passenger planes flying in the United States were either DC-2’s or DC-3’s. Some 455 DC-3’s were built for commercial use, but the start of World War II saw a surge in the need for military transports that the DC-3 also filled. Over 10,000 DC-3’s were produced for the military to carry both men and matériel to the European and Asian war zones. Even after the war and the end of production in the 1940’s, the DC-3 continued to influence the passenger and freight airline markets and it continued to be flown in both capacities at the turn of the century.

From DC-4 to DC-8

The highly popular and profitable DC-3 was followed by a less successful version, the DC-4. Nearly twice the size of its predecessor, the DC-4 could carry up to forty-two passengers, but its size made maintenance and flight expensive, relegating the DC-4 to use almost exclusively as a military transport. In this role, the DC-4 was known as the C-54 Skymaster. The DC-4’s were used mainly to fly supply missions across the North Atlantic. The four-engine plane proved to be reliable in this task and was used as a cargo carrier for civilian purposes at the end of the war.

In 1939, the DC-5 made its first flight. However, only five DC-5 aircraft, with seven more as R-3D military transports, were ultimately built.

The next in the series, the DC-6, was best known as the first regular aircraft to make around-the-world flights. Flying for the first time in 1946, the DC-6 was used by American, United, and Pan American airlines. Featuring the first pressurized cabin in the DC series, the DC-6 was able to fly at 20,000 feet while keeping passengers comfortable within the fuselage. The new DC-6 was a considerable improvement over its predecessors, carrying 102 passengers and traveling at a speed of 308 miles per hour, a full 90 miles per hour faster than the DC-4. The DC-6 became the workhorse for the airlines in their extended international flights. In 1951, the DC-6B, with modifications of the original DC-6, became first official presidential airplane. Known as the Independence, it was first used by President Harry S. Truman to allow him to travel quickly across the country or around the world. The DC-6B was also adapted for use as a cargo carrier in the Korean War. Over seven hundred of them were built for military and civilian use, and by end of the century, scores continued to be used.

The DC-7 proved to be the last propeller-driven plane in the DC series. It represented the greatest increase in range among the models, with each plane able to fly 5,135 miles. By increasing the distance it could fly, the DC-7 became the first passenger plane to fly nonstop from New York to Los Angeles. Because the DC-7 did not have to stop for refueling, the flying time of the trip was reduced. This reduced flying time increased profits and lowered the ticket price for the flight, while the shorter flying time made a cross-country trip less burdensome for most people. The DC-7 was also known as the Seven Seas because its long range allowed for flights around the world. The DC-7 was introduced in 1953 and it could carry 110 passengers, a small improvement over the DC-6. There were 338 of the planes built and a few continued to operate a half-century later.

The DC-8, introduced in 1959, was the first jet-powered plane of the DC series. The four jet engines allowed the plane to reach speeds exceeding 600 miles per hour. The DC-8 became the first commercial jet to break the sound barrier. Along with its speed, the DC-8 had an expanded fuselage that doubled the passenger load to 260. While the plane had a slightly shorter range—4,500 miles—than its predecessor, its passenger capacity and freight-hauling abilities made it one of the largest commercial planes at that time. Over 550 of the planes were built, with more than 350 continuing to fly through the 1990’s. Three different models of the DC-8’s were built: the DC-8-61, the DC-8-62 and the DC-8-63.

The Modern DC’s

The DC-9 has the distinction of having the largest number of commercial airplanes produced of any of the DC series. Some 976 planes were built, of five different types, each one extending the fuselage and allowing for more passengers. The DC-9-10 was the smallest version, carrying only ninety passengers and used primarily for shorter range flights. The DC-9-20 also had a smaller fuselage, carrying fewer than one hundred passengers while utilizing larger engines to create greater thrust and carry larger payloads. The DC-9-30 added 15 feet to the fuselage and carried 115 passengers. The plane was specifically designed for rapid takeoff, allowing it to be used on smaller air fields. This made the DC-9-30 the most frequently used of all the aircraft. The DC-9-40 added another 6 feet to the fuselage and expanded passenger cargo to 125. The DC-9-50 was the largest plane in the family, with 8 more feet of fuselage beyond the DC-9 40, a passenger capacity of 139, and more space for cargo. Each of the DC-9’s was introduced in the 1960’s and many continued to fly both passengers and cargo at the turn of the century.

The DC-10 was the last of the series to be produced. While many of the features of the series would be found in its successor, the MD, the merger of Douglas Aircraft with McDonnell Aircraft led to the end of the name DC. The first model DC-10 flew in August, 1971. The DC-10-30 and the DC-10-40 were both extended-flight airplanes, with ranges of 5,900 and 5,800 miles, respectively. Three other types of DC-10’s were used, mainly for carrying freight. The DC-10 Convertible was able to carry passengers or freight, though it was mainly a cargo carrier. The DC-10-15 resembled the original DC-10 but had a longer range of approximately 6,000 miles. The last of the DC-10’s was the 30F. It was used exclusively as a freight carrier and became one of the standard planes for package delivery companies. The 30F was renamed the KC-10 cargo plane for the U.S. Air Force. When DC-10 production was halted in 1989, approximately 380 planes were flying commercially, while 60 more were being used as cargo carriers for the Air Force. Yet even with this commercial success, the DC-10 had a mixed safety record. A 1974 crash near Paris killed 346 people and was blamed on a cargo door blowing open in flight. Similar problems were discovered in other DC-10’s. In a six-month period in 1979, some five hundred people died in three DC-10 crashes. This was attributed to structural fatigue, with one crash caused by a pylon collapsing in flight. In July, 1989, in Sioux City, Iowa, the most spectacular crash occurred, when a DC-10’s hydraulic system failed. Over one hundred people died, although more than twice that many survived. These safety problems gave the DC-10 a bad reputation but it continues to fly in many airline fleets.

The DC series ended with the DC-10. In 1967, the Douglas Company, suffering from severe financial losses caused by problems in the production of DC-8’s and DC-9’s, merged with the McDonnell Corporation to form McDonnell Douglas. The next series of DC planes were renamed the MD series, and when McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997, the planes took on the 700 family name associated with that company.

The Legacy of the DC’s

The DC series of planes may have been the most important of all families of passenger carriers. With their start in the 1930’s, the DC series helped make air travel affordable for the individual and profitable for many airlines. The DC planes also established such innovations as nonstop flights across the United States, larger fuselages to carry ten times the passengers of the original DC models, and a dependability that sees many DC’s flying local routes to smaller airports and others longer routes across countries or continents. While the DC line ended with the DC-10 and the original company that developed the model was merged into oblivion, the plane series continues to strike the imaginations of both those who study passenger airlines and those who fly them.

Bibliography
  • Badrocke, Mike, and Bill Sunston. The Illustrated History of McDonnell Douglas Aircraft from Cloudster to Boeing. Oxford, England: Osprey, 1999. A colorful, well-illustrated book describing the history of the McDonnell and Douglas airplane companies, their merger, and how their planes revolutionized air travel.
  • Endres, Günter. McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1998. A primer on the DC-10, with illustrations and an in-depth discussion of its flying capabilities, its many features, and its uses in airlines across the world.
  • Francillon, Rene. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1990. Discusses the civilian and military aircraft developed by both companies prior to their merger and after their combination.
  • Graves, Clinton H. Jetliners. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1993. A wide-ranging book with illustrations of many of the major McDonnell and Douglas aircraft used for civilian and military purposes.
  • Norris, Guy, and Mark Wagner. Douglas Jetliners. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1999. Focuses on the Douglas passenger planes with special emphasis on the DC family and its development and capabilities.
  • Singfield, Tom. Classic Airliners. Leicester, England: Midland, 2000. An introduction to many of the original planes used during the early years of the airline industry, including the DC-3 and other Douglas planes.
  • Waddington, Terry. McDonnell Douglas DC-9. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1998. Focuses on one of the best known of the Douglas planes with pictures of the exterior and interior and an in-depth discussion of its capabilities.
  • _______. McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 2000. Examines the last of the DC models, providing details on its upgrades over its predecessors and its continued use.

Airplanes

Boeing

Cargo aircraft

Commercial flight

Jet engines

Manufacturers

McDonnell Douglas

MD plane family

Military flight

707 plane family

Trans World Airlines

Transatlantic flight

Transcontinental flight

Turboprops

World War II

A DC-3 in flight in 1959.

(Library of Congress)
Categories: History Content