Deliveries of the MD-11 began in 1990, after several years of work on the part of McDonnell-Douglas to reinvent their large Trijet. Although the MD-11 was launched in 1986, work had actually begun on improvements to its parent and predecessor, the DC-10 as far back as a decade prior to that. After the 1979 grounding of the DC-10, much of that work – on the potential DC-10-60 – was stopped. But in the early eighties, a Continental DC-10 was used for winglet testing and for modeling what might have been a Rolls-Royce powered DC-10. But the project was once again shelved in 1983.
A year later, work secretly commenced on a project called the MD-11X. In December, 1986, the MD-11 project was officially launched with 52 orders. The first flight was on January 10, 1990.
The first two builds went to FedEx in the spring of 1991 after certification and some refurbishment. That fall, FedEx got two more and the first non-FedEx customer, China Eastern, got its first MD-11F, seen here (msn: 48461).
A curious Combi version was also around at that time -with the cargo door aft of the wings. Just six were made, all for Alitalia in 1991 and 1992. Not long after, Martinair was the launch customer for a re-thought “combi” – the MD-11 Convertible Freighter, with a conventional cargo door.
Initially, the MD-11 did respectably in the marketplace, but a combination of falling short on range and the advent of large ETOPS-capable twins – specifically the Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 – eventually made the MD11 a white elephant as a passenger plane. As a result, just 200 MD-11s were made, compared to nearly 800 A330s and 900 777s to date.
The MD-11 also earned an unenviable reputation for being hard to land. Though many pilots rated for the type really like it, it has a very high landing speed and requires extremely precise control. There is still considerable debate about the MD-11’s handling characteristics. Both McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing also redesigned aspects of the cockpit and the flight control software at various times to make the design safer and easier to fly.
Although most MD-11 freighters today are conversions, the factory-built freighters were popular and more than 1/4 of all MD-11’s were built as full freighters. Besides FedEx and China Eastern (which later transferred cargo ops to China Cargo Airlines), major MD-11F customers included Lufthansa Cargo, Martinair, EVA, and Saudi Arabian Airlines.
Over the last ten years, nearly all remaining passenger MD-11s were converted into freighters, and today only KLM has them in scheduled passenger service, while World Airways uses them in charter operations and there are a handful of VIP configured examples. Conversions were done via a McDonnell-Douglas engineered program with the majority of touch labor being done by Aeronavali and, later, ST Aero.
#48461, then B-2170, is seen here on the ramp at Long Beach prior to delivery. Today it is registered as N950AR for SkyLease and sometimes operates for Centurion.
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