When it comes to grounded jetliners, the 787 is no DC-10

The last time the Federal Aviation Administration grounded an airplane, the situation was much, much worse.

Boeing 787
A Boeing 787 in flight Kent German/CNET

Two weeks ago after the Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation agencies grounded the Boeing 787, the new airliner remains out of service around the world.

It's a blow for Boeing, which since 2004 has banked much of the its resources on developing the new and cutting-edge airplane. With its composite materials, new engines, raked wings, and an increased reliance on electricity to power internal systems, the 787 Dreamliner promises big leaps in and fuel efficiency and cabin comfort. And when it made its first commercial flight in October, 2011, four years after first rolling out of the factory, the Dreamliner quickly drew rave reviews from passengers.

At first the teething problems weren't unusual (every new airplane has them), but last month a rapid series of fuel leaks, electrical problems, and overheating batteries culminated in an emergency landing of an ANA flight in Japan on Jan. 16. The FAA issued its grounding order only hours later citing a potential fire risk over the 787's new lithium-ion batteries. "Before further flight, operators of U.S.-registered, Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the FAA that the batteries are safe," the agency said in a statement.

Indeed, the FAA has absolute authority to ground aircraft flying in the United States, but it hasn't taken that action since 1979 when it grounded the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. And despite some comparisons you might have heard, the circumstances then were vastly different.

McDonnell Douglas DC-10
A Northwest Airlines DC-10 Wikipdia Commons

A jetliner battle royale
The DC-10 first took to the skies in 1970 in the middle of a ferocious battle between manufacturer McDonnell Douglas (which eventually merged with Boeing in 1997) and Lockheed. At the time, airlines were looking for a plane that was smaller then the 747 and was cheaper to operate, but could fly transcontinental routes and from the U.S. mainland to Europe and Hawaii.

Introduced within a year of each other, the DC-10 and Lockheed's L-1011 not only looked similar (except for the engine placement on the tail), but also they had about the about same range and seating capacity (between 250-350 seats depending on configuration). The DC-10 entered service first in 1971 and eventually outsold its rival (Lockheed would go on to leave the commercial sector completely), but that only was after two horrific crashes that nearly ruined its reputation.

American Airlines Flight 96
The first problem was directly related to the aircraft's design. To maximize space in the cargo hold, the DC-10 used a new type of cargo door that opened outward. That wasn't a problem by itself, but the complicated latching mechanism had a critical design flaw. Even if it wasn't latched properly, it could appear from outside and from instruments in the cockpit that it was.

Then on June 12, 1972, an American Airlines DC-10 had just departed Detroit for Buffalo, New York when the cargo door blew off. The resulting decompression (cargo holds are pressurized) buckled the cabin floor and severed or disrupted cables to the control surfaces on the tail. Because the flight was only partially full, the pilots were able to land safely and with no casualties, but without a usable rudder, the crew had to apply differential thrust to the wing-mounted engines in order to steer (another DC-10 crew would perform a similar emergency landing in 1989 when United Airlines flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa).

Turkish Airlines Flight 981
After the Detroit incident, investigators identified the problem with the latch, but not every DC-10 was fixed in time. Then on March 3, 1974 a Turkish Airlines DC-10 took off from Paris on a flight to London. Again, as it was climbing, its cargo door blew off and depressurized the hold. This time, however, the cabin floor collapsed under the weight of a full load of passengers severing the flight controls. The aircraft crashed in a French forest killing all 346 passengers and crew. The FAA and other aviation agencies issued a mandatory order to fix the latch and no further problems with the cargo door occurred.

American Airlines Flight 191
The DC-10 flew without any major problems for almost four years until May 25, 1979. On that day, another American DC-10 left Chicago for Los Angeles. But just as the plane was lifting off the runway, the left engine ripped up and off the wing while taking much of the wing's hydraulic lines and leading edge control surfaces with it. The crew was able to complete take-off, but the damaged wing caused the aircraft to stall and crash into a suburban neighborhood near O'Hare Airport. All 271 people on board, plus two on the ground, were killed. Outside of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks it remains the deadliest airplane crash on U.S. soil.

Though the ultimate cause of the Chicago crash was attributed to improper maintenance rather than the design of the aircraft -- crews had not followed the recommended procedure when replacing the engine -- the FAA grounded the DC-10 two weeks later on June 6 and suspended its airworthiness certificate. The grounding lasted just more than a month until July 13, after which the DC-10 returned to the air with more FAA-ordered fixes.

Why the 787 is different
With the grounding, the DC-10's image took a beating in the press and with passengers, but even after another high-profile crash in Antarctica (for causes not related to the design of the aircraft), it eventually recovered and McDonnell Douglas went on to sell almost 500 aircraft. Airlines like American, United, and Northwest flew it well into the 1990s and its successor, the MD-11, is still in service today with KLM. And that's why it's much too early to write the 787's obituary. Unlike the DC-10, the incidents thus far with the Dreamliner have not resulted in any hull losses or fatalities. So if the DC-10 could come back, the 787 should too.

True, the 787 could stay grounded until next year, but it is a much more complicated aircraft than the DC-10 ever was. Even before it carried passengers, a machinists strike, supplier shortages, and various production problems with the innovative materials delayed the first flight numerous times to Dec. 15, 2009. Then an onboard fire interrupted the testing and certification process for six weeks in late 2010.

Fixing the problems won't be easy. Yet, as CNET's Daniel Terdiman wrote last month , the 787's technological advances are too advantageous to abandon. Once the FAA lifts the grounding order, the aviation experts that Daniel interviewed believe that the passenger and airline praise will return. What's more, Boeing is not alone in stumbling through this new territory. The Airbus A350 , which is somewhat comparable to 787 in its use of new materials, has suffered from its own delays and has yet to fly.

 

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