The accident plane, ZK-NZP coming in to land at Heathrow Airport, 08 April 1976. Photo courtesy of Werner Fischdick ©1976.
Production of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, a long-range airliner, began in 1968 in Long Beach, California. and the first aircraft were delivered to American Airlines and United Airlines in 1971. A spacious, wide-body aircraft, the DC-10 came equipped with an inertial navigation system (INS), and advanced engines that made it much quieter than its rivals, the Boeing B747 and Airbus A300.
The airliner’s introduction to service was not without problems. In 1972, American Airlines Flight 96 suffered an explosive decompression when a cargo door failed. The accident investigation revealed that the design of the locking mechanism was to blame. Despite the design flaw being clearly identified as the cause of the accident, no compulsory repair order was issued by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). That compulsory repair order came two years later – after the loss of another 365 lives – when the cargo door lock of Turkish Airlines Flight 981 failed and the door detached mid-flight.
1979, the year of the Erebus disaster, was the DC-10s annus horribilis. American Airlines Flight 191 literally lost an engine after it separated from the wing pylon a couple of seconds before take-off in Chicago. The separated engine caused substantial damage to the wing, severely compromising the aircraft’s ability to remain airborne. All on board died when the aircraft exploded on impact one minute after take-off.
After the accident, examinations of other DC-10 aircraft detected cracks in the wing pylons. The FAA grounded the fleet worldwide. It was later determined than improper maintenance techniques by American Airlines and Continental Airlines resulted in metal fatigue which led to the engine separation.
Despite its checkered introduction, over the long term, the DC-10 has proved to be an extremely reliable aircraft, with a fantastic safety record.