Autobiography/Aviation History: Douglas DC-8 – The Trip of a Lifetime

DC 8 swiss air in air

(first posted 12/22/2014.  This happened 60 years ago today, so here it is again)

I awoke before dawn on August 27, 1960, bursting with nervous anticipation. This was to be the most exciting and longest day of my childhood, if not my whole life. Given how wound up I was, I’m surprised I slept at all, and that my parents didn’t gag and tie me up in a suitcase. This day started in Innsbruck, Austria, and ended in New York City, some 24 hours later. It was a one-way trip, and several modes of transportation were involved, the most important and memorable one being this Swissair DC-8. Prior to that day, I had never even seen a jet transport plane, and now my family and I would be flying in one, to a new life in America.

DC 8 dc832-ida

Swissair had just taken delivery of their first two DC-8-32s, one in April (HB-IDA above) and another in June (HB-IDB). The years 1959 and 1960 were the grand take-off of the jet age; every major international airline was receiving their first true intercontinental jets, either the Boeing 707 or the Douglas DC-8. The two makers were fighting for supremacy of the skies, a battle that took several decades to play out. It didn’t really matter to me which one we were going to take, but it has left me with a soft spot for the DC-8 ever since.

Boeing 367-80 b

Leaving aside the sad story of the DeHavilland Comet, the ill-fated (and considerably smaller) first commercial passenger jet, the jet transport era was ushered in by Boeing’s bold gamble to build a four-engine prototype, the 367-80, that would serve both to secure an order from the Air Force for tankers (KC-135 Stratotanker) and transports (C-35 Stratolifter), as well being the basis for a new commercial jetliner (Boeing 707). The 367-80 was announced in 1952, and first flew in 1954.

Thanks to the -80, Boeing had a head start on developing the 707, although a number of changes were required. The most significant one was  widening the fuselage, since the -80 was designed for only five-abreast seating, as was the initial proposal for the DC-8. But with jet engines growing quickly more powerful, Douglas settled on a 147″ fuselage for six-abreast seating. Boeing followed suit, and American Airlines President C.R Smith insisted that the 707’s fuselage be one inch wider than the DC-8’s.The re-tooling for the wider 707 cabin cost Boeing a huge amount of money.

Boeing 707 Iceland1958

The 707 went into commercial service on October 26, 1958 by Pan Am. This shot, taken in Reykjavík, Iceland, in late 1958, shows one of these early 707-120s being refueled, as the first generation 707s and DC-8s were not not true intercontinental jets. The slim Pratt and Whitney pure-turbojet JT3C-6 engines are also a distinguishing feature of many of the earliest series of both of these transports. The JT3 even required water injection to develop enough take-off power.

This article is about the DC-8, so we’ll leave the 707 for another time, but I will say that it is the somewhat more handsome airplane of the two, owing in part to Boeing’s decision to use many small windows, which makes the 707 look bigger in comparison, as well as sleeker.

dc7 -ibl-2009

If we had flown a few months earlier, it would have been on this DC-7C, the final plane in Douglas’s long line of piston-engined propeller transports that started with the seminal DC2 in 1934. Douglas was the dominant producer in the post-war years, and was not in a rush to jump into the jet age, as it assumed the transition would be over a longer period of time, with turbo-props in between. The Boeing -80 changed all that, especially when the tanker jet contract went completely to Boeing, Douglas having assumed that it would be split with them. So Douglas scrambled to design a competitive jet.

DC 8 prototype

The DC-8 was announced in July of 1955, in four version, all of them with the same 150′ fuselage length. Seating capacity varied from 124 in a mixed-classes configuration to 176 in all-coach. The first DC-8 rolled out of the new Long Beach, CA factory in April of 1958. Douglas dedicated the first ten planes to certification, in order to speed up the lengthy process. The first commercial flight was by Delta on Sept.8, 1959, or almost one year behind the 707.

The first order for both the 707 and DC-8 was by Pan Am, which boldly ordered 25 DC-8s and 20 707s in 1955, so as to encourage both makers, and allow it to hedge its bets. As it turned out, Pan AM soon sold its DC-8s and became an all-Boeing airline. But initial sales for the DC-8 were good, and by early 1958, Douglas had 133 orders to Boeing’s 150.

But Boeing was more flexible in creating different fuselage length versions of the 707, while Douglas stuck to just one. Boeing offered to build a short a 10′ shorter 707-138 for Quantas. And an 8′ shorter 707-020 with lighter weight designed for medium haul flights became the very popular 720. An 80″ stretch was employed in the definitive intercontinental 707-320 series, making a total of four fuselage lengths. This alone allowed Boeing to move ahead in sales, especially after DC-8 sales started to drop off after 1962.

1960 Trip To Train 1 1200

Back to August 27, 1960. We had to catch a train to Zurich, and I can’t remember if we walked to the train station or took a taxi. Probably the latter, since we had suitcases, but given my father (on right), I wouldn’t bet on it. Here we are at the train platform, along with some of the friends and relatives that came to see us off. This was a very emotional day for everyone. Back then, there were no assumptions about ever coming back for visits; it had the air of finality to it. My grandmother was too upset to come to the station, and my mother (second from left) was not looking forward to it at all. My father had been recruited to the University of Iowa Hospital’s EEG Lab, and he had been to the US as a POW and loved it, but she was very resistant to leaving her hometown and family.

My older sister (holding my 16 month old younger brother) as well as my older brother (front row right) were old enough to realize that the social transition was likely to be difficult. Only my father and I (front center) were truly gung-ho about this move. America, yes!

Innsbruck 1959

It was hard to even imagine what America would be like, but I knew that the cars were going to be very different. Here’s what the streets of Innsbruck looked like in 1959: VWs were “standard sized” cars, and Fiat 600s were a “compact”.


We didn’t have a car , nor did anyone in my large extended family. We walked, or took the street cars and trains. If we wanted to go somewhere by car for a special occasion, like this confirmation outing for my sister and cousin, we hired this 1949 or 1950 Olds taxi, and we ALL piled in, somehow. I’m thinking...can we just get going already?

Innsbruck 1957 _Herzog_Friedrich_1957

There were a few American cars to be seen from time to time, driven by tourists. This Studebaker coupe, flanked by two Fiat Topolinos, undoubtedly falls into that category, especially since it is in the Alt Stadt (old city).


I had an encounter with a ’59 Cadillac on the street (re-enacted here thanks to PS), just a few months before we left, that created the expectation that America would be wall-to-wall with these winged wonders, or comparable. That encounter whetted my appetite; no wonder I was eager to go.

1960 Trip To US train 2

And so we did. This shot was taken by my father from the train as it pulled away from the station and our relatives and friends. Would I ever see them again? Not until 1969, by which time my enthusiastically-waving aunt in front and one of my uncles would both have died, quite young.

1960 Trip To US DC8 1200

I’m not sure how long the trip to Zurich was; maybe three or four hours. We took a taxi to the airport, where there was not one, but two DC-8s on the ramp. That turns out to have been their whole fleet at the time. This picture was taken by my father from the airport’s viewing deck.

I had never seen a jet transport before; the biggest plane that had ever landed at the Innsbruck Airport back then was a DC-4, and my brother and I rode our bikes out to see it, at my father’s urging. Seeing that DC-8 out there, and knowing we were going to fly it to America was almost too much for my seven-year old synapses.


We were several hours early, and while we waited, the other DC-8 took off, in what seemed a radically steep ascent (photo not from that day). Smoke billowed out of the engines, which was typical of these old pure-jet designs. Pure turbo-jet engines derive all of their thrust from the rapidly expanding burned gases, which made them inefficient at low altitudes and short flight durations.


Already by 1959, a new generation of bypass turbofan engines such as the Rolls Royce Conway and the definitive P&W JT3D were coming on line, where a substantial part of the thrust was derived from a ducted fan that usually sat at the front of the engine. This DC8-53 has JTD3s, as can be seen by the larger engine intake, and the gap for the fan output to exit alongside the actual jet engine, whose turbine drives the fan. Turbofans were quieter, more powerful as well as more efficient, and, some airlines converted their “straight pipe” turbojets to turbofans, depending on their usage. On long flights, the difference in efficiency was not that as substantial as it was on shorter hauls.


I’m not 100% sure, but I’m inclined to think that Swissair used a 2+3 seating on those early DC-8s in coach. Swissair always had a rep for superb service and comfort, and they only used nine seats across even on their 747s, instead of the normal ten. But I could be wrong.

I do know that my father and brother and I sat on three seats on one side of the aisle, and my mother and sister and baby brother on the other side, in their laps. In any case, the unusually large windows in the DC-8 were a boon, as long as the original 40″ seat pitch was maintained. Most domestic flights soon changed that to 34″ or so, which meant that the windows didn’t line up anymore, and every fifth seat had no window at all. In retrospect, that was a mistake, and a substantial advantage of the 707, unless you got a window where it belonged. The views were stellar, and I remember the three of us fighting for turns at the window. And the leg room with 40″ seat pitch is something I can only dream about nowadays on regular coach.

Shannon Airport 1961

Even though Swissair’s DC8-32 was technically an intercontinental jet, with the more powerful JT4A engines and a range of 5300 miles, our flight stopped in Shannon, Ireland to refuel. This was quite common then, especially on westbound flights, which usually had strong headwinds. Gander, Newfoundland was another popular refueling stopover.

I found a few pictures of that day, and I know there was also one of us on the airstair of our DC-8 in Shannon, but I couldn’t find it. This one one is from the web, taken there in 1961, with folks getting back into their Constellation. I vividly remember seeing a Conny or two in Shannon when we were there, as well as a DC-7. Old meets new.

DC 8 swiss air NYC

We arrived at Idlewilde Airport (now JFK) late that evening, after dark. The tropical warmth and especially the humidity of an August evening was a shock, having never experienced that before. It added to the surreal quality of arriving at this giant airport, with jets and planes from all over the globe. After some delays going through Immigration, we were met by some distant relatives of my mother’s who had long lived in New York.

Scan copyright 2005 by

The first car I saw as we exited the terminal was a big 1960 Pontiac. There was a psychedelic quality to the whole experience, a result of the sensory overload; the smell of kerosene from the jets, the heat and humidity, the giant airport and giant cars everywhere. I’m not in Innsbruck anymore.

I wrote about our arrival to NYC and the three days we spent there with our relatives here. It was a quick and deep immersion into all things American. And I started assuming all of America was going to be one endless New York City.

1960 Trip To US Convair 1200

We took a United DC-6 to Chicago, and then transferred to a Convair (340, presumably), a twin engined prop plane designed to replace the venerable DC-3 on shorter hauls. This picture of my sister, baby brother and mother deplaning in Cedar Rapids was taken by the folks who picked us up, my dad’s boss to-be. They drove both of their cars to pick us up; he in his 1956 DeSoto, she in her 1949-ish Plymouth station wagon. Naturally, I had to ride in the old wagon.

Thus ended the trip of a lifetime for me. Iowa was hardly like New York, but at least there were cars. The new 1961 models were just coming out, and I quickly become inducted into the cult of GM.

DC 8 61 united

Douglas did eventually stretch the DC-8, by almost 37 feet, for the Series 61 and 63, but that wasn’t until 1967, by which time Boeing was finalizing their jumbo 747. Seating was up to 259 in a high-density configuration, and these airliners had a long life, not only with United, who used them extensively, as well as with freight haulers. Some are still at work today.

DC 8 AirCanada_12c

My next DC-8 flight was on one of these Super -61s, in the summer of 1968. I was fifteen, and managed to talk my parents into letting me fly back to Iowa by myself to visit friends from grade school, having moved to Baltimore in 1965. I took an early morning flight from Baltimore to Chicago on one of these DC-8-61s, and there were no more than twenty passengers that day. It was bizarre, sitting in such a long plane, and only a few heads to be seen anywhere. Such were the days before de-regulation.

That trip was memorable too, as you might imagine. I had just written my friends I was coming on about a certain day. I hitched a ride from the Cedar Rapids airport to Iowa City, with a congressman coming home for the recess, no less, whom I had seen on both of my flights. And when I got into town, I just walked to my old friend’s house, knocked on the door, and said…here I am!

trailways silver eagle5959_apr1967

After a couple of weeks hanging out and getting into a bit of trouble, I took a Trailways bus down along the Mississippi to St. Louis, to visit another friend who’d moved there from Baltimore. I learned to enjoy my freedom at an early age.

Boeing 707 131

And then I flew home on a TWA 707.

Boing 707-123B-N7513A-FC-lounge-SAN-11864-7011192

I was flying student stand-by, which meant I boarded last. As soon as I got in, I saw that the front first-class lounge was empty, so I just plopped myself there. The young (and hot) stewardesses didn’t care less; in fact, they all sat there chewing gum and reading paperbacks once they were done serving the excellent lunch. And I stared at their long legs. I tried to get them to give me a beer, but that’s where they drew the line. Oh well.

JFK lineup-8-12-68-21-860x468

The next trip on a jet was back to Europe for an extended summer vacation in 1969. But it was a charter, and the plane was stuffed to the gunnels . By now I was spoiled, and have mostly blocked out the memories of that crowded, hot flight, including sitting on the runway at JFK for over two hours because of an air traffic controller’s work slow-down. The golden days of jet travel were already over, for me anyway.

DC-8-71 _Silagi-1

In the early eighties, many of the remaining DC-8-61s and -63s were re-powered with hi-bypass CFM56-2 engines, which made them significantly more efficient. In 1989, we were headed to Baltimore again, this time from San Jose, and somewhat surprisingly, United flew us to Chicago on one of these, in the final year or two before they were sold off, many to UPS. Its interior was a bit ratty, and it felt old, but it was a great flight down memory lane.

DC-8 71 UPS

The last revenue flight of a DC8 in the US was on May 12, 2009, by a UPS freighter. UPS had had planned to keep flying them until 2015, but to the recession at the time, the fleet was cut back, and the old DC-8s were the first to go. As of 2013, there were still 14 of them flying in the more obscure corners of the world, although all are freighters. The DC-8’s passenger-hauling days are over, and even its freight hauling days might be over soon. It will be missed.


Related reading/image sources:

Autobiography Part 2: High Speed Assimilation

Jon Proctor’s vintage airport pictures through the years:  New York   LAX   Chicago   San Diego

Vintage Innsbruck photos: