MD plane family Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The next generation of passenger aircraft built upon the features of the successful DC series and was intended to replace that series.

With the 1967 merger of the McDonnell and the Douglas Aircraft companies, the popular DC series of passenger planes, originally built by Douglas, became part of the new company. Two of the most popular and widely flown airplane designs, the DC-9 and the DC-10, served as the starting point for the new generation of planes developed by McDonnell Douglas. The MD series maintained many of the features of their predecessors while adding ones for the new generation of planes. The MD class of passenger planes replaced the DCs starting in the 1980’s. However, problems in development slowed their construction, while a merger of McDonnell Douglas with Boeing Corporation threatened to end the line before it could become a major contributor to the U.S. passenger air fleet.

From DC to MD

The DC-9’s popularity and dominance in the airline industry could be attributed to the willingness of McDonnell Douglas to change the plane’s design in response to the requirements of airlines. During the 1970’s, McDonnell Douglas developed new planes that expanded on the size and capabilities of the DC-9 series. Some of those modifications were used to develop the MD-80 series. This airplane, the first in the MD class, was a lengthened version of the DC-9, allowing for more passengers and a better-equipped flight deck. It added to the already produced DC-9-50 and was also known as the DC-9 Super 80. It was given this name based on the expectation that the first planes would begin commercial airline flight starting in 1980. Exactly on schedule, the plane had its first commercial flight in September, 1980, and was soon flying in more than a dozen airlines worldwide.

The MD-80 Series

As with the DC-9’s, McDonnell Douglas produced several versions of the plane, adding length and seats, improving fuel economy and range, and putting into place new electronic equipment for the flight deck. While the planes were being built and during their early years of flight, the DC name was attached, but as their popularity grew, in 1983 the company changed the name to the MD to represent the company’s sixteen-year-old merged name. The DC-9 Super 80 became the MD-81. The next plane, the MD-82, was first flown commercially in January, 1981. Six years passed before the next addition, the MD-83, was used by airlines beginning in February, 1987. All three of the planes closely resembled each other in size, fuel capacity, and range.

The MD-82 was the first modification of the MD-81. It had improved maximum takeoff weight, allowing for more passengers and cargo. The thrust engines were also improved, allowing for easier takeoff. The MD-83 was intended for longer flights with larger fuel capacity on the plane, even greater takeoff weight, and improved thrust over the MD-82 model.

The next modification, the MD-87, eventually served as the main replacement plane for the DC-9. Smaller than the MD-82, the MD-87 included an advanced flight deck that allowed for a larger crew and easier-to-read instruments. The new turbofan engines also improved fuel efficiency. The interior of the plane was changed as to the arrangement of the seats and various classes of passenger. It was able to seat as many as 130 people in a single economy class. Because of that size, it was seen as the true successor to the DC-9. The MD-87 had its first commercial use in November, 1987.

The last of the MD-80 series was the MD-88. It was a combination of the MD-83 and the MD-87. It had the MD-83’s engines and airframe while using the same type of electronic readouts in the flight deck and the same interior for the passengers. The plane began commercial flights in 1988. At the same time, a freight version of the MD-80 was introduced by the company but there were few takers.

The MD-80 broke further ground in its production as McDonnell Douglas licensed a Chinese firm, the Shanghai Aviation International Corporation, to build planes in that country. The arrangement lessened production backlogs and allowed the companies to build nearly 1,200 of the planes. The last of the planes, an MD-83, was delivered in December, 1999, and was dubbed the “Spirit of Long Beach” after the plant where many of the MD models were produced in the United States. The relative success of the MD-80 for American and foreign airlines spawned its successor, the MD-90.

The MD-90 Series

The MD-90 series had a similar history as its predecessor, the MD-80. Also built by McDonnell Douglas, the MD-90 began as a modified version of the DC-9 and was known as the DC-9 Super 90. Originally the MD-90 was built as one of the most fuel-efficient planes in the world, but by the mid-1980’s the energy crisis of the mid-1970’s had passed and that feature became less important. For this reason, the MD-90 became an updated version of the MD-80, with the fuselage, the exterior of the plane, and the flight deck resembling its predecessor. Most of the improvements added to the plane involved an electronic flight instrument system and a pair of new engines. The control system allowed for easier management of the plane by the pilots and for conserving fuel. The new engines lessened the level of noise and also conserved energy. Another change was a slightly longer fuselage—approximately 4.5 feet longer. With the added space, the MD-90 could carry 163 first- and economy-class passengers, 10 more than the MD-81. The MD-90 first carried those passengers in February, 1993, and was purchased by several American and foreign airlines.

Two more versions of the plane were built. The MD-90-30 began flying in April, 1995. It had larger fuel tanks and a stretched fuselage for more passengers. The MD-90-30ER began flying in April, 1997, and had room for 170 economy-class passengers, larger fuel tanks, and greater maximum takeoff weight. Two additional MD-90 versions, the 10 and the 50, were not produced before McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing. For this reason the MD-90 became a casualty of the merger because it was the main competitor of the Boeing 737 and the company halted its production. Because of this decision, only 117 planes found their way to the airlines between 1995 and 2000.

The MD-95 was the last of this series and went into action only after McDonnell Douglas was purchased by the Boeing corporation. The MD-95 was another replacement for the DC-9 and included many of the features of one part of that series, the DC-9-30. The major improvement over the DC-9 was the flight deck, in which six LCD screens were installed to make it easier for the pilots to read flight information. The interior of the plane was also enlarged, with bigger seats and expanded room for carry-on luggage. The MD-95 began operation in September, 1998, and at that time became known as the Boeing 717-200. Its success spawned the smaller 717-100 and the larger 717-300.

The MD-11

The aging of the DC-10 fleet and the slowdown in production of the plane after a series of fatal crashes caused McDonnell Douglas to search for a plane design to replace it. Several such designs were developed, dramatically changing the exterior and interior of the DC-10 model. These planes, with names such as the MD-100, were ultimately rejected as too costly or not feasible for mass production. It was the MD-11 which became the accepted replacement of the DC-10, a plane built using the major features of its predecessor rather than creating an entirely new plane.

The MD-11 was specifically based on the DC-10-60. Some 18 feet longer than the DC-10, the interior of the plane was reconfigured to expand seating to a possible capacity of 405 economy-class passengers or 323 economy- and first-class passengers. In the MD-11, the pilot and copilot were both given the six-screen LCD layout for monitoring the plane. Winglets were added as one of the major new features to exterior of the plane. Winglets are small, upraised additions to the edge of each of the plane’s wings. Pointing skyward, the winglets provided better aerodynamics and increased the plane’s range and fuel efficiency. The redesigned tail of the plane also improved fuel efficiency. With added technology in the flight deck, the plane required only two crew members to fly it.

The MD-11 design proved versatile, and four different types of the plane were built. The MD-11P was the main passenger model. The MD-11F was the major freight carrier, favored by many package delivery companies. The MD-11 combi was, as the name suggests, a combination passenger and freight carrier. Finally, the MD-11CF was the convertible model, able to serve as a passenger jet or as a freight carrier depending upon the immediate need.

Despite all of these improvements, the MD-11 proved to be a troublesome aircraft in its production. The development of the MD-11 came at the same time as increased competition in the airline industry created by government deregulation. Then came the oil crunch of the early 1990’s, followed by a wave of mergers and bankruptcies as weaker airlines began to collapse. This led to a decline in orders, as airlines no longer had the business that required an up-to-date fleet of planes. Initially, the MD-11 was dependent upon European air carriers, with Finnair being the first company to fly one commercially. In addition, company problems hurt the plane. The MD-11 was consistently behind in meeting its delivery deadlines, leading to many canceled orders from passenger airlines. However, the plane became more widely used by overnight freight companies. After fifteen years of development and ten years of production, fewer than two hundred of the planes were flying. Yet the MD-11 survived the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger, unlike some of the other planes in the MD series.

Never as popular as its predecessor, the DC series, the MD series of passenger aircraft represented the new generation that was to take over for the DC-9 and the DC-10. However, the McDonnell Douglas Corporation found that economic factors and production difficulties prevented the MD’s from taking hold. Only the MD-80, with its multiple versions for different-range flights and different types of airfields, was able to make a considerable penetration of the airline market. The MD-90 barely got off the ground before production was halted by the Boeing takeover of the company, while the MD-95 became part of the 700 series for Boeing. The MD-11 also failed as a commercial airliner, unable to take the place of the more popular DC-10. Overall, the MD series added little to the DC legend and McDonnell Douglas’s reputation as a great innovator in the field.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Pealing, Norman, and Mike Savage. Jumbo Jetliners. Oxford, England: Osprey, 1999. Discusses the newest generation of enlarged jetliners, including the MD model built during the 1980’s and 1990’s.
  • Pearcy, Arthur. McDonnell Douglas MD-80 and MD-90. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1999. An in-depth look at the last generation of McDonnell Douglas passenger airliners with illustrations and analyses of their capabilities.
  • Shaw, Robbie. McDonnell Douglas Jetliners. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1998. A wide-ranging look at the many passenger planes produced by the separate companies up to the last MD model.

Airline industry, U.S.



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