While originally designed to be an air-tanker for the United States Military, the Douglas DC-8 saw a life of mainly civilian duty as a jet airliner. Born out of competition with the Boeing 707, the DC-8 was late to the airline market but still out-performed the Boeing 707 in one regard. The DC-8 withstood the test of time.
As with most aircraft, the DC-8 was created in hopes of obtaining a contract with the U.S. Military. Along with six other aircraft companies, Douglas took part in a contract bid from the military to create the next generation of air-tankers. Boeing had been working on making a pure jet airliner since 1949. One advantage Boeing had over Douglas was the fact that Boeing already had a close relationship with the United States Air Force. With the B-47 Stratojet and the B-52 Stratofortress already widely popular with the U.S.A.F. and other military branches, Douglas had a lot of catching up to do. Creating a pure jet airliner was not always a top priority for Douglas though. While Douglas did believe that turbojets were going to be the engine of the future, the company felt that it would be a gradual transition from turboprops to turbojets.
However, Douglas did not expect the shocker that Boeing was able to pull off. Only four months after the release of the contract requirements, the U.S.A.F. ordered the first 29 aircraft from Boeing. Donald Douglas himself went to Washington D.C. to protest the decision, claiming that it had been made before the competing companies even had time to fully complete their bids. Sadly, his protests fell on deaf ears. Since work had already begun on the DC-8, Douglas made the decision that it would be better to continue on with the aircraft’s creation rather than halt production.
The design of the DC-8 saw many changes after Douglas consulted with major airlines to see what the current demand was. These consultations resulted in the DC-8 getting a wider fuselage to allow six-abreast seating. This led to the aircraft also receiving larger wings and a longer fuselage. The DC-8 was officially announced in July 1955 and offered in four versions, each based on the same fuselage but varying in engines and fuel capacity. Knowing that they were trailing behind the Boeing 707, Douglas had the maiden flight of the DC-8 in December of 1957 and then pushed the aircraft into service in 1959.
The DC-8’s major competition was the Boeing 707, but both aircraft were in a troubling spot. Major airlines were afraid to commit themselves to the large financial and technical challenge of the jet aircraft, yet none could afford not to buy jets if their competitors did. This placed the DC-8 and 707 in a stalemate until October of 1955. In an unprecedented move, Pan American placed orders for both aircraft. Other airlines rushed to place buy orders but by the start of 1958, Douglas had only sold 133 DC-8’s compared to Boeing’s 150 707’s. Douglas tried to close the gap between the DC-8 and 707 but their refusal to change the DC-8 fuselage in various models only proved to be a marketing loss. After a great start, the early 1960’s proved to only be a loss for the DC-8.
Just when things were starting to look bleak for the DC-8, Douglas breathed new life into the aircraft by releasing the Super Sixties in April of 1965. With a longer fuselage, the three models that made up the Super Sixties were able to seat 269 passengers and were known to be the largest airliners on the market until Boeing released the 747 in 1970. However, the late 1960’s proved to be harsh on Douglas due to the fact that the industry now had to figure out how to control noise reduction on these new jetliners. With a change in jet-engines, the DC-8 evolved from the Super Sixties to the Super Seventies. Equipped with the Franco-American CFM56 engine, the Super Seventies models of the DC-8 were a huge success. They proved to be 70% quieter than the Super Sixties and at the time, the world’s quietest four-engine airliner.
Throughout the years the DC-8 was seen as little more than a copy of the 707, which vastly outsold it on the market. The DC-8 proved its value in the longer term. By 2002 almost all of the 707’s were no longer in commercial use, with only 80 still in service, mainly for the U.S.A.F. Over half of the DC-8’s were still in use and most of the surviving aircraft are still in use today as freighters.