Bo Derek and Henry Fonda were among those considered for the job of extolling the DC10 on television. Then the Douglas Aircraft Co. found former astronaut Pete Conrad in the executive suite and discovered that he endorses the airplane.

The fact that Douglas and its parent McDonnell Douglas Corp. felt it necessary to initiate a high-visibility advertising campaign that had as its source the nation's worst aviation disaster indicates the depths of the problems here.

"We recognized in the early summer we had to do something about the lingering image of the DC10," said James T. Burton, director of commercial marketing for Douglas. "We had enough isolated evidence, cocktail party talk and such, that there was a problem."

He regards the campaign as a success: "The last I'd heard, we had 14,000 responses of people asking for information. Airlines all over the world have asked for it."

The accident that killed 273 people in Chicago May 25, 1980, was just the beginning of hard times for Douglas. In the months since that accident, Douglas has had to endure:

The enormous congressional and media attention that followed the accident itself and that, in effect, questioned both the airplane and the motives of its builders.

"I think the publicity that followed that accident was the world's most extensive brainwashing in history," said John C. Brizendine, president of Douglas.

(Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, in the most exhaustive look it has ever taken at anything, concluded essentially the cause of the crash was more a problem of American Airlines maintenance procedures than of Douglas design.)

A five-month delay in the certification by the FAA of Douglas' newest airplane, the DC9-Super 80. The delay was caused mostly because the Super 80 had two accidents during flight tests, and their causes had to be understood before the FAA could approve the plane.

The indictment of Brizendine and three other McDonnell Douglas executives last November on fraud and conspiracy charges. They were accused of making $1.6 million in secret "commission" payments on the sale of DC10s to Pakistan.

Indecision on the question of whether McDonnell Douglas is going to commit the $1 billion to $2 billion necessary to launch a new plane, currently dubbed the DCXX, as a competitor for Boeing's new 757. The DC10 problems have undeniably resulted in the loss of some orders for that airplane, Brizendine said, and the full effect of the accident on Douglas may not be known for 10 years.

"I think it was a traumatic time for our people," Brizendine said. "After enough incessant beating, you begin to think somebody's picking on you. Not necessarily true, but after things have gone on for a while. . . ." His voice trailed off.

There are still 54 unbuilt DC10s on order and Douglas people believe that they will sell many more in the years to come. The undelivered DC9s, including the Super 80s, total 140. The total commerical backlog is worth about $3.2 billion and guarantees the near-term future for Douglas. But the pace of orders has slowed, (as it has throughout the industry in recent months as the airlines tightened their belts in the recession).

The real question for Douglas is whether it will try to stay in the race for the future and build the DCXX. It is a question that must be answered soon because Boeing is busily selling a real airplane, and real delivery positions on a real production line are available. Douglas is still selling what the industry calls "a paper plane."

"Douglas would be delighted to start the DCXX if they could just line up thre or four rich airlines to place the order," said Robin Wilson, senior vice president of operations for Trans World Airlines. "The problem is there aren't three or four rich airlines; there are only one or two."

Wilson said the airlines that have seen the DCXX are impressed "by the performance that it promises." The slowdown in the airline business has given Douglas a little time, Wilson and Briezendine agreed, but Douglas must decide soon.

The decision will come from corporate headquarters in St. Louis, not from Long Beach, and that is part of the Douglas story. McDonnell Douglas is in the midst of corporate reorganization after the death in August of founder James S. (Mr. Mac) McDonnell. His nephew Sanford (Sandy) McDonnell was elected chairman of the board Friday.

Since the McDonnell Douglas merger in 1967, many Douglas people have come to feel they carry second-class citizenship when compared with the jet fighter builders in Missouri. Officials visiting Sandy McDonnell in St. Louis last year found it telling when he said, without inflection, "I try to get out to Long Beach quarterly."

Predictably, Brizendine defends the merger. "Two plus two made five," he said. "We put two very good capabilities together and came out with a sum greater than the parts."

Regardless of the corporate problems, the DCXX would be a risky decision for anybody, partly because of Boeing's lead in manufacturing and landing orders. Can Douglas survive as a commercial manufacturer? Brizendine was asked.

"Yep," he said.

Will it without the DCXX?

"I don't want to run that gauntlet. It's pretty hard to re-enter a market that you've left in most product lines."

At another point in the interview, Brizendine said, "Our business is just like the artillery. To be good you have to keep two in the air and one in the gun."

The DC9 and the DC10 are in the air.