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The predecessor to the MD-11 was the DC-10, which was McDonnell Douglas's first wide-body commercial airliner. The DC-10 was built to a specification from American Airlines for an aircraft that was smaller than the Boeing 747, but capable of flying similar long-range routes. It first flew on August 29, 1970 and entered commercial service in 1971, nearly a year before the Lockheed Tristar (which was built to the same specification). The DC-10 proved to be a very successful and profitable aircraft, providing reliable service throughout the world.

As the next logical step, McDonnell Douglas started to search for a DC-10 derivative as early as 1976. After numerous versions of the existing DC-10 were considered, McDonnell Douglas decided to move forward with a model designated the DC-10 Super 60. The Super 60 was to be an intercontinental aircraft incorporating many aerodynamic improvements to the wings, and a fuselage lengthened to allow up to 350 passengers.

Although the safety record of the DC-10 was comparable to that of other heavy passenger jet aircraft, it suffered a trying time during the 1970s due to a string of highly publicized crashes. Particularly controversial was the 1979 American Airlines DC-10 crash, caused by the separation of the left engine shortly after takeoff from Chicago. The FAA grounded the entire DC-10 fleet soon after the investigation of this crash began, citing that the engine and pylon assembly "may not be of proper design, material, specification, construction and performance for safe operation". McDonnell Douglas angrily attacked the FAA for making what it called an "extreme and unwarranted" decision. It was later discovered that the engine/pylon failure that caused the crash was attributed to improper maintenance practices at American Airlines. Unfortunately, the actions of the FAA caused irreparable damage to McDonnell Douglas. A tarnished reputation, combined with a downturn in the airline industry, prompted McDonnell Douglas to stop all work on the Super 60.

In 1981, McDonnell Douglas leased a DC-10-10 from Continental Airlines to conduct research on modifications designed to increase aircraft performance. Based on the results of these tests, McDonnell Douglas was again planning new DC-10 versions that would incorporate winglets and more efficient engines. The new model was designated the MD-100, and for a brief time this program forged ahead. Unfortunately, the situation for the manufacturer, and the airline industry in general, did not look bright. No new DC-10 orders were received, and many among the observers and customers doubted that the manufacturer would be around for much longer. Thus, the Board of Directors decided in November 1983 to cease once more all work on the projected new trijet.

The following year, though, things changed. Good times were back and airlines were placing repeat orders for the MD-80 series jets that had helped the manufacturer through the past difficult years. No new orders for the DC-10 had been received, but the production line was nonetheless kept active thanks to a previous order for 60 KC-10A tankers from the USAF. McDonnell Douglas was still convinced that a new derivative for the DC-10 was needed, as shown by the second-hand market of its Series 30 as well as for the heavier DC-10-30ER version. Thus, in 1984 and for the first time, a new derivative aircraft for the DC-10 was designated MD-11.

From the very beginning, the MD-11X was conceived in two different versions. The MD-11X-10, based on a DC-10-30 airframe, offered a range of 6,500 nmi with passengers. That first version would have had a MTOW of 580,000 pounds and would have used CF6-C2 or PW4000 engines. The MD-11X-20 was to have a longer fuselage, accommodating up to 331 passengers in a mixed class layout, and a range of 6,000 nm. As more orders for the DC-10 were received, McDonnell Douglas used the time gained before the end of DC-10 production to consult with potential customers and to refine the proposed new trijet.

In July 1985, the Board of Directors finally authorized the Long Beach plant to offer the MD-11 to potential customers. At the time, the aircraft was still proposed in two versions, both with the same fuselage length. One version would have a range of 4,780 nmi with a gross weight of 500,000 lb and transport up to 337 passengers, The second would carry 331 passengers over 6,900 nm. A year later, as several airlines had committed for the MD-11, the situation was looking optimistic. Final design modifications put the fuselage length at just over 200 ft; an 18 ft 6 in stretch over the DC-10-30.

Finally, the MD-11 was launched on December 30, 1986 with commitments for 52 firm orders and 40 options in three different versions (passenger, combi and freighter) from ten airlines and two leasing companies. Assembly of the first MD-11 began on March 9, 1988, and the mating of the fuselage with wings occurred in October that year. The first flight was originally planned to occur in March 1989, but numerous problems with manufacturing, supplier delays, and labor actions resulted in delays. A ceremonial roll out of the prototype occurred in September of that same year.

The following months were used to prepare the prototype for its maiden flight, that finally happened on January 10, 1990. The first two aircraft manufactured were intended for FedEx, and thus were already fitted with the forward side cargo door. They remained with the manufacturer as test aircraft until 1991 before being completely converted to freighter and delivered to their customer. FAA certification was achieved by November 8, 1990. The first MD-11 delivered to a customer went to Finnair on December 7, 1990. This particular aircraft accomplished the first revenue service by an MD-11 on December 20, 1990, when the aircraft carried passengers from Helsinki to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The first MD-11 service in the U.S. was inaugurated by Delta Air Lines, also in 1990.

It was during this period that deficiencies in the MD-11's performance began to surface. It failed to meet its targets for range and fuel burn. American Airlines in particular was unimpressed, as was Singapore Airlines, who canceled its order for 20 aircraft. The P&W-powered MD-11 should have been capable of a 7,000 nautical mile range with 61,000 pounds of payload. The aircraft could only achieve its full range with 48,500 lbs of payload, or a reduced range of 6,493 nm with a full payload.

In 1990, McDonnell Douglas with Pratt & Whitney and General Electric began a modification program known as the Performance Improvement Program (PIP) to improve the aircraft’s weight, fuel capacity, engine performance, and aerodynamics. McDonnell Douglas worked with NASA's Langley Research Center to study aerodynamic improvements. The PIP lasted until 1995 and successfully recovered the range and fuel burn deficiencies. However, the damage caused by the failure of the initial deliveries of the MD-11 to meet the performance goals was unrecoverable. It was then that McDonnell Douglas entered into negotiations with Boeing on a merger plan.

McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997, and the new company announced that MD-11 production would continue as a freighter. However, in 1998 Boeing announced it would end MD-11 production after filling current orders. The last MD-11 was delivered to Lufthansa Cargo on February 22, 2001. The delivery of this aircraft ended a production run of 200 aircraft, and also ended a chapter in aviation history. The Douglas label disappeared after Boeing acquired the company in 1997.

With no other cargo aircraft being offered in the same weight and performance category, the MD-11 became highly sought after by cargo airlines. Because of this, resale prices of MD-11s remained high. Passenger airlines seized this opportunity to sell their MD-11s to cargo airlines, and purchase aircraft in the Boeing 777 category (which, at the time, was not offered in a cargo version). The majority of the MD-11 fleet has now been converted to cargo configuration. With a new mission comes a new lease on life, and the MD-11 will continue in active service throughout the world for many years to come.

And then there were the McDonnell Douglas models that never made it off the drawing board before the Boeing merger occurred. The first is a stretched version of the MD-11, with increased range and capacity. The MD-XX would have been a whopping 31 feet longer than the MD-11, with a 213 ft wingspan. The maximum takeoff weight would have been 802,000 lbs; over 171,000 lbs more than the MD-11. The second is a 4-engine widebody, strikingly similar in appearance to the Airbus A-380. The MD-12 would have been 208 feet long, with a 213 ft wingspan. The maximum takeoff weight would have been 949,000 lbs; 318,500 lbs more than the MD-11.

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