Back in August of 1971, on the occasion of the maiden flight of its new DC10, the McDonnell Douglas Corp. proudly coined the name "the good airport neighbor" for its hulking tri-engined aircraft.
The title was meant to celebrate the new plane's power, the ease with which it could fly into almost any airport, and its relative silence on takeoff and landing compared with smaller jets.
But in the wake of last week's air disaster in Chicago, the inaugural eight years ago has taken on a certain grim irony.
The American Airlines DC10 that plowed into the ground last Friday killing at least 273 persons belonged to the same airline and was flying the same route as the first DC10 jumbo jet, from Chicago to Los Angeles. But this time it barely cleared the airport before disaster struck.
McDonnell Douglas has sold 274 DC10s to everyone from U.S. giants like Delta and United to the likes of Air Zaire and Thai Airways International. Along with this buildup has come sharp criticism aimed at both McDonnell Douglas and its airplane.
That criticism culminated yesterday in the grounding by the Federal Aviation Administration of all U.S. DC10s.
"The Chicago case seems to indicate again that the DC10 design is less good than the other major wide-body jets," said Bruce Page, the author of "Destination Disaster," an exhaustive study by a group of British journalists of the last DC10 air disaster, in 1974.
Unlike the Chicago crash, which began before the DC10 was off the runway, the 1974 Turkish Airlines accident occurred at 12,000 feet over France when a cargo hatch cover blew off. A total of 346 died in that crash.
Two persons died and scores were injured last year when a DC10 skidded off the runway at Los Angeles International Airport on its way to Hawaii. That accident was caused, however, when two of the plane's tires collapsed on takeoff. There was no evidence of any structural defect in the plane.
Page and a team of reporters from The London Sunday Times spent two years investigating the cause of the Turkish airliner crash. In a telephone interview from London yesterday, Page said he believes the 1974 accident and the Chicago DC10 crash are related.
Both accidents occurred, he said, because of inadequate engineering in the DC10. The Sunday Times reporting team claimed that the plane was hastily designed in order to beat out its wide-body competitor, the Lockheed £1011. McDonnell Douglas has denied the allegation.
"We think the mode of this accident is a total control system failure," Page said of the Chicago crash. "A plane doesn't crash because a bolt falls out of it or a hatch cover comes off. It was clear in this case that the whole capacity to control the airplane was lost because the hydraulic system was destroyed when the engine came off the wing.
"It appears in this case again that the lack of sophistication in the DC10 and the lack of backup systems in the engineering system is less than adequate for this plane."
According to Page, the DC10 has only three hydraulic systems, while the £1011 and the Boeing 747 both have four such systems. Federal aviation experts are studying the possibility that one factor in the DC10 crash was that the plane may have lost some of its controls when the engine sheared off and damaged the hydraulic system.
In 1974 both McDonnell Douglas and the FAA were heavily criticized after the crash of the Turkish airliner over France because of another apparent structural failure.
In that case the plane's builder and the federal agency both learned in 1972 that the locking apparatus on the DC10's rear cargo hatch door might not close all the way and could come off later in flight.
Critics charged that the FAA was negligent by not forcing and immediate design revision for the plane when another American Airlines jumbo jet lost its hatch cover over Ontario, Canada, in 1972.
In both cases the floor of the cargo area in the DC10 buckled under the sharp change in air pressure when the hatch covers flew off causing the hydraulic lines controlling the planes' tail assemblies to break. In the 1972 incident, however, the pilot managed to bring his partially crippled DC10 down without a crash.
Page said the DC10 cargo door, which has since been redesigned, was "crudely" designed at first because of the pressure to bring the plane on line before the £1011.
"The DC10," he said, "was designed and built considerably faster than either the 1011 or the 747, and it has less sophisticated and less elaborate systems than either of those planes."
Federal investigators concluded in 1974 that while McDonnell Douglas was aware of the structural problem with the cargo hatch cover it did not correct it while it was building the DC1/ that eventually crashed over France. No formal warning was given to other airlines by the FAA, the investigators said, because of a "gentlemen's agreement" between the aircraft builder and the regulatory agency.