63 years ago today, the Douglas DC-8 entered service

Exactly 63 years ago today, on September 18, 1959, the Douglas DC-8 entered service with Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. However, the Atlanta-based carrier claims it was the airline that introduced the DC-8 to the world.


After World War II, Douglas was the largest of all commercial aircraft manufacturers. This was even though Boeing had introduced the all-metal Model 247 airliner in 1933. Douglas’ success was due to a series of piston-engined aircraft ranging from the DC-2 to the DC-7.

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Everything changed in aviation in 1940 when de Havilland flew his jet-powered Comet. At first, Douglas continued to build piston-powered aircraft and was justified in his decision following the grounding of the Comet after two fatal crashes.

Delta then used the DC-8 for many of its long-haul routes. Photo: Getty Images

As it seemed increasingly likely that the next evolution in aircraft design would be the introduction of turboprops like the Vickers Viscount and Lockheed Electra, Douglas sought to use turboprops to power his DC-7.

Meanwhile, Sud Aviation de France presented the Caravelle while the Comète was on the ground. The plane so impressed the leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev that when he returned home, he ordered Tupolev to build the Tu-134. Boeing had also seen the writing on the wall and knew that once an airline placed a large jet order, others would have to follow to compete. The plane imagined by Boeing was the Boeing 707.

The DC-8 was supposed to be a tanker

In the early 1950s, Boeing and Douglas knew that the US Air Force was looking for a jet-powered tanker to replace its slow KC-97 Stratofreighters. Knowing this would be a large order, Douglas assumed that if he could come up with a jet tanker, the government would split the order equally between the two companies. With Boeing’s KC-135 just months away from flying, the government, much to Douglas’s dismay, awarded the entire contract to Boeing. Having already invested so much money and time in the tanker project, Douglas decided to go ahead and develop the plane as an airliner.

First they enlarged the fuselage to accommodate six seats abreast and added larger wings and tail surfaces. Knowing they were well behind Boeing and its 707s, Douglas launched a massive marketing campaign and got Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) to place an order for 25 DC-8s. As airlines around the world sought to purchase jet airliners, Douglas soon received orders from United Airlines, National Airlines, KLM, Eastern Air Lines, Japan Air Lines, and Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS). Later, Douglas got Delta, Swissair, TAI, Trans Canada and UAT to buy the DC-8. By early 1958, Douglas had sold 133 DC-8s against Boeing’s 150,707.

The first DC-8 rolled out of the company’s Long Beach factory on April 9, 1958, and first flew on May 30, 1958. In August 1959, the aircraft received its certificate of airworthiness from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).

Delta Flight 823 was the first commercial DC-8 flight

Although United and Delta launched their inaugural DC-8 flights on the same day, Delta Flight 823 from New York to Atlanta departed first at 9:20 a.m. and arrived in Atlanta at 11:00 a.m. Being a bit more ambitious, United’s first DC-8 flight was a transcontinental flight between San Francisco and New York. Due to the three-hour jet lag, the Delta flight was recorded as the first commercial DC-8 flight.

The Delta flight took place in a time zone. Image: GCmaps

Not only were the DC-8 flights a colossal success, they could carry twice as many passengers as the old piston planes and cut travel time by 40%.