Douglas DC-10 – joining one of the last passenger flights

This story starts in Waverley Station in Edinburgh at six o’clock on a winter evening. I wait to meet my wife after she finishes work, and to kill time am being naughty and leafing through the magazines in WH Smith with little intention of buying them. It’s a busy day and Ms. Mabon is running late, so I’ve exhausted the car mags and have moved on to the adjacent publications – which happen to be about aeroplanes. I pick one of them up and open it at a double spread on Biman Bangladesh Airlines who, the feature tells me, are about to retire what is the last Douglas DC-10 airliner in regular passenger service. I look at pictures of the beaming pilots and cabin crew, at the lurid seat covers, and at the majestic but ageing jet itself. In a red box-out on the far right I see the phrases ‘farewell flight’ and ‘Birmingham’, but I can glean no more because my phone immediately buzzes into life. Ms Mabon is on her way from work. The magazine gets thrown back on the shelf, I go to meet my wife, and forget about what I’ve just read. We have a lovely tea together, a fun evening in the flat, and crucially for this story a delicious cup of decaf coffee before bed.

By 2.30am my body has finished processing the unexpected late-night coffee, with predictable results. After doing the necessary I make my way back to bed, try to reclaim a few scraps of duvet that my wife has seized in my absence, and run through the events of the day in my head again whilst I gradually return to sleep. I remember leaving work and arriving early at the station. My subconscience races on ahead to the magazine stand, sending me scrambling around the floor for a pen and something to write on. Using my phone as a torch, I manage to wrest the cap off a pen with my remaining free hand, and scrawl a single word across the back of a bank statement: BIMAN.

Three engines good...

Three engines good…

Long-time readers of these pages may know that whilst my main interest is cars, I do have something of a soft spot for aeroplanes too. This is helped in no small part by the numerous long-haul trips to see a loved one and associated family, and by my strategy of overcoming a fear of flying through really understanding how planes work. I don’t feel I know enough to call myself a full-blown plane geek, but I do take a keen interest in what kind of machine I am flying in and – in comparison to the general populace – am probably quite high up the scale. Whilst I’ve traveled in all manner of different planes, one thing I have never been able to do is take a trip in a jet with three engines. Since having an I-Spy Aircraft book at the age of nine, I’ve loved the bizarre appearance of these so-called ‘trijets’, where the motors under each wing are supplemented by an additional power unit mounted on top of the fuselage at the base of the tail fin.

Unfortunately, though, triple-engined airliners are a dying breed. Three motors looked like the way to go for a short while in the sixties and seventies, but circumstance and advances in technology meant four- and latterly two-engined designs won out. The upshot of this is that only a few surviving remnants of the trijet legacy are still in operation on international routes – which brings us back to Biman Bangladesh and the article I perused in the station. The DC-10, of which Biman happen to be the last passenger operator, happens to be powered by three engines. Once it is retired, only KLM will be left operating trijets (albeit a different kind) at a high level in Europe, and even then only on a very small number of routes and with a plan to phase them out completely by the end of 2014.

In short, the chances of me being able to sensibly weave travel on a three-engined plane into my life schedule had been looking very low. It thus does not take me long to take to the internet after waking up, finding the sheet of paper in the middle of the floor and deciphering the hieroglyphics scored onto it. What could Biman have planned? One short Googling session later, I learn that some entrepreneurial souls in the company are planning to milk the retirement of the DC-10 for all it is worth. Rather than unceremoniously sending the jet to the breaker’s yard at the end of a scheduled flight, the Bangladeshi jet is to make a ‘farewell’ flight for enthusiasts from Dhaka to Birmingham, and then spend the next three days taking folk on short tours of British airspace as part of a ‘last chance to fly the DC-10’ campaign. Setting aside any pretensions I have about not really being a plane geek, I book myself onto one of the short flights and arrange cheap day return travel from Edinburgh to Birmingham.

Three weeks to the hour later, the doors of the airport shuttle bus hiss open and thirty of us are deposited onto the tarmac not ten metres from the famous jet. Its white paintwork is gleaming in the midday sun, two subtle red and green stripes giving the old plane an air of regal majesty as it sits on the apron. Dozens of other passengers are already poring over the DC-10 by the time our cohort arrives, peering into engines, inspecting undercarriages and posing for photographs with the jet in the background. The fluorescent-tabarded marshals anxiously buzz round, shepherding everyone into a long queue that snakes across the apron and up the steps to the Biman plane. Boarding an old-style big jet by walking across the tarmac and up a rickety set of portable stairs? Add the sunshine to the mix, and the feeling is one of being an extra in a glamorous airport scene in a late seventies American movie.

Battle scars

Battle scars

The veneer of glamour quickly disappears as we near the top of the steps. The queue moves slowly for the simple reason that each and every person wants to take about twenty photos of the DC-10’s exterior before heading inside. This gives ample time to scrutinise up close the outer skin of S2-ACR, ironically named New Era. From a distance measuring tens of centimetres rather than tens of metres, the old bird looks more akin to an ageing North Sea ferry than the last relic of a golden age of flying. The red and green stripes have been crudely redone, the sharpness (or lack thereof) of the lines suggesting they were painted by someone who had recently consumed multiple espressos. The shiny white fuselage is in fact made up of many different sections riveted together at different points in history, some of them newer than others and with additional panels bolted on in places where there had been bumps and dings. Instructions to the ground crew are roughly sprayed on in stencil, and even the plane’s name under the cockpit window is fading round the edges. Yet with this being a ‘farewell flight’, all these imperfections and repairs serve only to highlight that this is a plane that has been flying non-stop for over twenty years.

The close-range appearance of New Era from the outside is matched by the vibe running through the interior. One might, if being very charitable, describe the interior of Biman’s last DC-10 as retro. An estate agent would perhaps say it ‘retains period features’. Those of a less kind disposition have a whole range of adjectives at their disposal, among them tired, shabby, downtrodden and threadbare. No matter what words you use, though, there’s no getting away from the fact this is a jet that is at the end of a long and tough life. A distinct musty smell hangs in the air, the plastic fittings and fixtures are yellowed and ingrained with dirt. When I look up, I can see trim peeling away from the wall and brown stains creeping out of the gaps between the fittings and fixtures. Rather ominously, a small red spider shoots out from somewhere inside the seat I will be sitting in and races off up the wall. Mildly concerning, given that I’ve never had injections for any bugs or illnesses one might pick up in Bangladesh. I am later told second-hand that cockroaches can sometimes be a problem on these old DC-10s.

Well-thumbed volume dial

Well-thumbed volume dial

The engines whine up to speed, and we start moving. At least I think we are moving, for my window is (a) splattered with a liberal amount of the green paint used for the stripe running either side of it; and (b) utterly filthy. The inability to see outside turns my attention to inside, in particular to the other folk on the flight. “What’s that?” comes a voice from the middle of the plane every time something touches down whilst we taxi to the runway. He inevitably receives a chorus of answers from those seated near to him, everyone wanting to add an extra morsel of information about the plane they’ve just seen. The chap behind me flew out to Dhaka from Belgium to be on the final long-haul flight, and has stayed in the UK for an extra day to do a short flight and round off his experience. He is not alone in coming from abroad, for I can hear both German and French being spoken somewhere to the rear of the cabin, and an Australian accent recounting the high-jinks on the twelve-hour flight from Bangladesh. I might have come out of curiosity and to tick ‘flying on a trijet’ off the bucket list, but the last commercial DC-10 flight is serious business for many of these folk.

This is a good point to pause and reflect on the significance of the DC-10 to aviation history, and to explain a bit about it for the unaware. The DC-10 was developed and produced by the Douglas company of southern California, who were responsible for the famed ‘Dakota’ transport plane used in World War II and then the early DC-8 and DC-9 jet airliners. The DC-10 represented Douglas’ first foray into the widebody market, developed with the aim of filling a gap in the market for a plane slightly smaller than Boeing’s highly successful 747 jumbo jet. Such was the urgency with which Douglas wished to get the DC-10 onto the market that the final design and development process was rushed – with disastrous consequences. Design flaws contributed to several high-profile accidents and significant loss of life, and to the planes being grounded for a short while. The problems were rectified, but the damage to the plane’s reputation was never fully recovered. The DC-10 did sell in large quantities and continues to make a name for itself as a reliable cargo freighter – but the long and chequered history of the passenger-carrying variant will end with the retiral of Biman’s last DC-10.

 

Atmosphere on board - note the projector and big screen.

Atmosphere on board – note the projector and big screen.

With nigh-on forty years of service being brought to a close by this one Bangladeshi plane and this plane alone, one can understand why so many are keen to be on these final flights – and to make the most of the experience while they are in the air. Indeed, as soon as the cabin attendant turns off the seatbelt sign, chaos descends. Within ten seconds practically the entire plane is out of their seats and in the aisles. The inside of the DC-10 becomes like the scene of a recently committed crime. Scores and scores of people are methodically making their way round the cabin, stopping at even the most innocuous details and photographing them from every conceivable angle. I half expect somebody to dust the handle on the toilet door for fingerprints, or to emerge from the galley with a teaspoon in a sealed evidence bag. Armrests, overhead bins, coffee machines, safety cards, nothing is deemed too trivial to warrant documentation. This is supposed to be a scenic flight, but no more than five or six people are sitting down and watching the outside scenery.

What is clear as we sail over the North Wales countryside is that the DC-10 is a much more analogue beast than its modern counterparts. Speed and climb appear to be controlled by having the engines either idling or at full blast, which instills mild panic in a DC-10 rookie like myself when the motors momentarily go very quiet not long after take-off. Nobody else bats an eyelid, suggesting I still have some way to go in completely getting over the whole fear of flying thing. The flaps wind and crank in and out as we carve a circuit in the sky, the engines buzzing on and off, on and off to keep the speed and altitude in check. As another guy sitting nearby remarks, it sounds at least like the pilots are having a lot of fun.

It also transpires another reason for the low speed and careful control is that a small white plane is filming us from outside, presumably to document New Era‘s final flights. There is a reporter on board with a video camera and professional recording equipment, taking passengers’ thoughts on the flight. Two blokes stride about wearing fleeces that carry the branding of a big airliner magazine, with a third gentleman in tow hauling what looks like a very serious camera case. I spy a notepad someone has left on their seat, with notes taken during the long flight and quotes from cabin crew and pilots. There are people with cameras suction-cupped to the windows, people with tripods set up in the aisles, and people with camera lenses the size of a healthy adult cat. I had never realised just what big business filming flying is.

Over North Wales

Over North Wales

After a good hour of twisting, whining and grinding in the clouds over Snowdonia, it’s time to return to Birmingham. I try out one of the seats right in the middle of the plane, no cleaner or more intact than my original throne but with a better view of the big screen onto which the in-flight film would have been beamed if this was a regular service. That’s right, there are no personal screens on the backs of the seats in this Douglas, just a projector hanging from the roof and a four foot-square screen bolted to each bulkhead. It certainly puts the emphasis back on the definite article in the phrase ‘I hope the in-flight movie is good’. With no entertainment system, a sagging, faded interior, and a tiny risk of attacks from the jet’s resident tropical insects, the thirty hardy souls who came all the way from Bangladesh on this thing must have been really determined to be on the last DC-10 long-haul at all costs. I respect and envy them in equal measure – respect for having the enthusiasm and motivation to travel halfway round the world with the primary purpose of enjoying the journey back, and envy for getting to try the curries listed as meals in the flight magazine, which sound absolutely delicious.

The ’10 swings left and right, left and right as it approaches the runway, nose pointing high in the air. We do not so much land as drop onto the deck from fifty feet, propogating a chorus of ‘Jesus Christs’ throughout the cabin. No more than two seconds after the wheels hit the ground, an elderly gentleman nearby takes out a black notebook with his name embossed on the cover in gold lettering, opens it at the bookmarked page, and adds a new entry to the list of flight numbers, destinations and aircraft types he has been meticulously keeping. He checks his watch twice to make sure the time of landing is absolutely correct, looks at the freshly-written entry for several seconds with a quietly satisfied stare, then closes the notebook and returns it to a side pocket in his bag. Meanwhile, the wheels settle and the thrust reversers kick in at full strength, causing the seats, overhead locker doors and roof panels to rattle violently as the plane shudders to a halt.

As we taxi back to the stand, I can see some of the airport fire crews out of their vehicles, standing on the banking with cameras held aloft. I try to put the question of whether or not this hinders their ability to watch out for incidents on the runway behind out of my mind. Back on the ramp, two stern, strapping police officers shelter inside a bus. When the stairs are hauled into place and the door opens, they step out of the bus, put their hats on and stride purposefully towards the recently-landed jet. The lead officer bursts in through the door and charges towards the cockpit – but rather than pulling out his little black book, he whips a phone out of his pocket and starts snapping away at the DC-10’s vintage cockpit.

Dials galore

Dials galore

It is just as well the policemen are otherwise engaged, because back in the cabin passengers are filling their boots with ‘souvenirs’ in the form of safety cards. From what I can glean from conversations I overhear, safety cards from rare planes and exotic airlines are prized trophies among some aviation enthusiasts – although in keeping with the relaxed atmosphere of today’s flight, nobody seems to mind the cards being taken. Two Francophones have a discussion about the door on one of the overhead locker bins, which looks like a spare part salvaged from another plane – but which one?

Last job before I leave is to take the policeman’s lead and have a quick look in the cockpit. Everywhere – walls, ceiling, even parts of the floor – is covered with murky grey panels, onto which are bolted hundreds if not thousands of identikit black dials and white plastic switches yellowed with decades of thumbing. With so much to do and so much to monitor manually, old-school airliners used to employ a third crew member – a Flight Engineer – to keep an eye on the dials and make sure everything was running smoothly. Automation and digital displays have done away with the need for a Flight Engineer on virtually all ‘modern’ planes, but in-keeping with the DC-10’s rustic nature Biman still need the third pair of eyes in the cockpit. The Flight Engineer sits behind the two pilots, staring at a wall of switches, dials and sliders mounted on the right-hand wall of the fuselage and occasionally working with sheets of paper spread out on a small table in front of him. I could spend a whole day in here alone reading the manuals, pressing the buttons and twiddling the knobs, but one side-effect of three bodies in close proximity with last-generation ventilation is that the cockpit absolutely stinks. The desire for fresh air soon overtakes the desire for knowledge, and I exit a Douglas DC-10 for the first and last time via the stairs at considerable speed. Later, I am saddened to learn that whilst the pilots will likely be trained up to fly the brand-new jets replacing the ’10s, Biman will be sending their Flight Engineers into early retirement.

Sun setting on the DC-10

Sun setting on the DC-10

A quick walk round and a few photos brings my day to a close. The plane and crew will do two more days of scenic flying out of Birmingham, then S2-ACR will return to Dhaka where anything of value will be picked off it and the rest cut up for scrap. One one hand it is sad that this, among the very last of nearly four hundred DC-10s built, won’t enjoy a second life in a museum or carrying freight. Yet on the other hand, the scrapping of the aircraft does add a certain finality to the ‘last’ flights. Plus, for me at least, one of the most fascinating things about today has been seeing (and actively taking part in) a culture of enthusiasm I wouldn’t normally mix with.

I’ve never been a fan of the whole ‘bucket list’ idea. I lead a perfectly contented and fulfilling life as it is, one that is unlikely to be enhanced by swimming with dolphins or bungee jumping into ravines. Occasionally, however, I realise there is something I haven’t done and would like to do before the possibility disappears completely (very often involving large pieces of complex machinery). And with the relics of the golden age of aviation being turned into beer cans at a great rate of knots, I’m glad I was able to seize this opportunity when I could.

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