The final commercial passenger flight of the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 took place on 26th October when KLM flew PH-KCE from Montreal to Amsterdam Schiphol.
On 11th November the airline will formally retire the type by performing three special flights for enthusiasts to get a last chance to experience the aircraft before its retirement. KLMs aircraft are all destined to be parted out and scrapped, with a number of the fleet already falling to this fate.
History of the MD-11
The MD-11 came about as McDonnell Douglas sought to develop a replacement for its iconic DC-10 wide-body airliner.
First flown in 1970, the DC-10 had a chequered start with a number of high-profile crashes. However, it would go on to become a major player in the long-haul and high-density short-haul routes of many of the world’s major airlines. Key operators included American Airlines, Japan Airlines, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines.
As early as 1976 a replacement had been discussed. The DC-10 flew in three different variants (the -10, -30 and -40), but the MD-11 would become a completely revised aircraft aimed at recapturing the long-haul market with its low operating costs and attractive range.
Seeing the opportunity, Alitalia, British Caledonian, Dragonair, FedEx Express, Finnair, Korean Air, SAS, Swissair, Thai Airways International, and VARIG all made early commitments for the aircraft and it was formally launched in December 1986.
The first flight of the MD-11 took place on 10th January 1990 at Long Beach, CA, after a number of delays. Following a period of testing and certification, the first aircraft was delivered to launch customer Finnair on 7th December 1990. The first commercial flight of the MD-11 took place on 20th December from Helsinki to Tenerife South.
American Airlines and Delta Air Lines were early customers for the MD-11 in the United States. Delta was the first in the country to operate the type.
The MD-11, like the DC-10, is a three-engined, wide-body aircraft. Engines are located one under each wing, with a third mounted at the base of the tail. It offered a modern glass cockpit, eliminating the Flight Engineer position from the DC-10. Passenger capacity was typically 270 in a mixed-class layout, or over 300 in all-Economy seating. One identifying difference from the DC-10 is the addition of winglets on each wingtip.
Fairly early in its operational career it became apparent that the MD-11 was not living up to the promised performance statistics – particularly in terms of its range. At full payloads, the aircraft was only managing a range of around 6,500 miles, instead of the promised 7,000. This caused a number of airlines to complain or cancel orders, including Singapore Airlines.
Although modifications were completed by 1995 to restore the range of the aircraft, it had already suffered irreparable negative publicity and a lack of confidence from airlines who were starting to look at new offerings from Airbus and Boeing.
Despite Boeing purchasing McDonnell Douglas in 1997, it was decided to keep the MD-11 in production but only as freighter as by this time it had no interest from airlines for the passenger variant (it wanted to focus on its 767 and 777 models anyway).
The MD-11 was proving to be quite a success as a freighter aircraft. FedEx Express had started the ball rolling by ordering a number of aircraft as a natural continuation of its sizeable DC-10 fleet. Now, a programme of modifying passenger versions into freighters was taking place.
American Airlines, who were unhappy with their aircraft, eventually sold all of them to FedEx for conversion into freighters. It was a similar story for a number of other airlines, including Alitalia, Finnair and Delta who all retired their MD-11s relatively early and saw them turned into cargo-carrying aircraft. UPS Airlines would also become a significant operator of the MD-11.
The final aircraft of the 200 MD-11s to be built were destined for Lufthansa Cargo as dedicated freighter variants. The last MD-11 was delivered in February 2001.
The following airline operated the MD-11
- Aer Lingus (leased)
- Aeroflot Cargo
- Air Namibia
- American Airlines
- AV Cargo Airlines
- Avianca (leased)
- Centurion Air Cargo
- China Airlines
- China Cargo Airlines
- China Eastern Airline
- Cielos Airlines
- City Bird
- Delta Air Lines
- El Al (leased)
- Ethiopian Airlines Cargo
- Etihad Airways (leased)
- EVA Air
- FedEx Express
- Garuda Indonesia
- Gemini Air Cargo
- Ghana Airways
- Japan Airlines
- Korean Air
- LTU International
- Lufthansa Cargo
- Malaysia Airlines
- Mid East Jet
- Monarch Airlines
- Nordic Global Airlines
- Philippine Airlines
- Shanghai Airlines Cargo
- Star Airlines
- Swissair / Swiss International Airlines
- Tradewinds / SkyLease Cargo
- Thai Airways International
- Trans Aer
- Transmile Air Services
- UPS Airlines
- USAfrica Airways (leased)
- Western Global Airlines
- World Airways
Of those operators, only those highlighted in bold are still operating the aircraft today.
KLM were the last to fly passengers on the MD-11. However, World Airways flew passengers on their aircraft until the airline went out of business in early 2014.
At the end of this article you can download a free list of all active MD-11s, including those stored but still in one piece.
Where to see MD-11s today
As already mentioned, the only airlines still flying MD-11s are cargo operators now that KLM have retired their passenger examples.
The principal operators today are FedEx Express and UPS Airlines.
FedEx’s main base, and the main hub of MD-11 operations, is Memphis Airport in Tennessee. Other bases which its MD-11s stage through include Paris Charle de Gaulle, Toronto Pearson, Guangzhou, and Osaka Kansai.
UPS’s principal hub is Louisville International Airport in Kentucky. It also has significant bases such as Cologne/Bonn, Hong Kong and Shanghai Pudong.
Lufthansa Cargo flies its MD-11s from its Frankfurt Main hub, with most passing through over a 2-3 day period.
Martinair’s cargo operation keeps Amsterdam Schiphol alive as a MD-11 base, whilst Nordic Global Airlines has also meant Helsinki retains regular flights after Finnair retired its aircraft.
Other airports you’ll see regular MD-11s at include Addis Ababa, Anchorage Ted Stevens, Bogota, Liege, Ostend and Miami International.
Despite only 200 airframes being built, the MD-11 has suffered a disproportionate number of accidents in its short life.
Pilots often commented on the unusual landing characteristics of the MD-11, particularly during crosswind conditions, and a number of examples have been involved in landing accidents resulting in hull losses and, in some cases, loss of life. The following accidents have occurred:
- 31st July 1997, FedEx N611FE crashed on landing at New York Newark airport
- 2nd September 1998, Swissair HB-IWF crashed into sea near Halifax, Nova Scotia, following in-flight fire.
- 15th April 1999, Korean Air Cargo HL7373 crashed after takeoff from Shanghai Hongqiao airport.
- 22nd August 1999, Mandarin Airlines B-150 crashed on landing at Hong Kong Chep Lap Kok during a typhoon.
- 17th October 1999, FedEx N581FE crashed on landing at Subic Bay airport in the Philippines.
- 23rd March 2009, FedEx N526FE crashed on landing at Tokyo Narita during windy conditions.
- 28th November 2009, Avient Z-BAV crashed on takeoff from Shanghai Pudong airport.
- 27th July 2010, Lufthansa Cargo D-ALCQ crashed on landing at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The MD-11 is now in its twilight years, but as yet there has been no serious moves to preserve any examples in a museum or aircraft collection. Some would say it is too early to propose this, given the type is still fairly active with many cargo airlines and has a number of years’ active service left in it; it is also only 24 years old and hardly a strong candidate for a historical item. Maybe you disagree (leave a comment below).
However, given the type’s passing from commercial passenger services and the strong feeling amongst the aviation enthusiast community for this aircraft (often in combination with its DC-10 and Douglas heritage), a number of people have been asking for one of KLM’s examples to be preserved. A Facebook group was formed to campaign for the move, and it was hoped an example would be sent to the Aviodrome museum at Lelystad, near Amsterdam (which also holds former KLM Boeing 747, Fokker 100, F27, DC-2, DC-3 and Lockheed Constellation). However, costs and the potential income from spare parts have prohibited this from becoming a reality.
For me, the MD-11 was one of those underdog airliners, like the Trident and BAe ATP, which set out to make a difference and had all the right credentials to make it big. In the case of the MD-11 it was set to take what the DC-10 did well and do it better, which should have appealed to the many customers who had flown the predecessor. But early problems in performance and the increasing number of twin-engine long-haul airliners emerging at the same time meant it was no longer as attractive when it became essential for airlines to save money wherever possible.
I personally only flew the MD-11 twice: once with American Airlines from New York JFK to Heathrow in 1995, and once with KLM from San Francisco to Amsterdam in 2007. I found it to be a great aircraft, which felt modern but still harked back to the classic days when planes looked like planes. For me, it will be sadly missed but I’m glad it will live on for a few years yet as a cargo workhorse.
To accompany this article I’ve produced a list of the MD-11s that are still flying. To get hold of a free download copy, all you have to do is sign up to receive updates from this blog by e-mail (you’ll get all the latest news and articles!). Plus, every time I update the active MD-11 list I’ll send you an update for free!