Douglas Aircraft Company, founded in 1921 and making itself a household name during World War 2 (1939-1945), was slow to move on the jet airliner passenger market - electing instead to further develop more powerful and efficient prop-driven platforms in the post-war world. This commitment led to consecutive successes within the Douglas "DC" line of aircraft that spanned from the pre-war DC-2 to the post-war DC-7 that went on to cover decades upon decades of flying. The British beat everyone to the finish line by becoming the first to fly a viable commercial jet airliner by way of their de Havilland "Comet" (detailed elsewhere on this site).
The Comet was a technological success for its time but its career was marred by high profile crashes and accidents which, in turn, kept American companies from wholly-embracing jet-powered flight in the civilian market sphere. Boeing then leaped ahead of Douglas to secure a new United States Air Force (USAF) requirement for a jet-powered aerial tanker aircraft, much to the surprise of Douglas who expected multiple contracts and months to develop their proposal for the project as had been the case during the World War 2 period. The Boeing product became the storied KC-135 (detailed elsewhere on this site).
This spurred Douglas to increase its development efforts in the field of large, jet-powered airplanes - something Boeing had much experience with due to their jet-powered bombers developed for the USAF in years prior. This led to the framework of the "DC-8" being laid down by the company with its intent unveiled in mid-1955. Four distinct versions of the same aircraft were planned to cover various routes. With the Pan American purchase of multiple Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 jet aircraft, the future of air travel forever shifted from prop-driven types to jet-powered types and industry competitors were forced to follow the Pan American lead as a result.
Douglas rolled out its first DC-8 on April 9th, 1958 and flew this specimen for the first time on May 30th of that year. Certification followed in August of 1959 while the product was revised throughout its testing phase. In August of 1961, a controlled dive of a testbed DC-8 managed to break the sound barrier, becoming the first jet-powered airliner in history to do so. Delta Airlines became the launch customer of the DC-8 when the series entered service with the company on September 18th, 1959. From there, the career of the DC-8 grew to span decades of time in the air.
Production of DC-8s ran from 1958 until 1972 to which 556 examples were completed. The high point of the program was reached in 1968 when a total of 102 examples were delivered. However, after this peak, just 85 aircraft arrived in 1969 and this crashed to 33 in 1970. In 1972, just four aircraft were completed as there proved more popular products on the market. The Douglas Aircraft Company brand label existed until 1967 and was evolved to become "McDonnell Douglas" in 1967 following a merger between the two former powerhouses.
Variants of the DC-8 family were plentiful. The Series 10 was fitted with 4 x Pratt & Whitney JT3C-6 turbojet engines of 13,500lb thrust and featuring water injection and ultimately incorporated leading-edge slots and all-new wingtip designs. The Series 20 carried PW JT4A-3 turbojets of 15,800lb thrust each (also with the water injection feature) and this allowed for slightly improved performance (MTOW was increased). Both the Series 10 and Series 20 models were intended for local, domestic flights.
The Series 30 was developed with intercontinental travel in mind. As such, more internal volume was given up for fuel stores within a lengthened fuselage. Engines were 4 x PW JT4-9 series units outputting 16,800lb of thrust each which, again, helped to increase MTOW. The Series 40 was the Series 30 aircraft but with more efficient, cleaner-burning Rolls-Royce "Conway" Model 509 turbofan engines.
Series 50 jets included the DC-8 "Jet Trader" and the EC-24A. The former was a freighter model while the latter was utilized by the United States Navy in the Electronic Warfare (EW) training role. Series 50 aircraft were given short fuselages and were driven by JT3D engines.
The Super 60 Series included the DC-8 Series 61, Series 62, and Series 63 aircraft. Series 61 aircraft were developed for medium-haul markets while the Series 62 platform was a longer-ranged performer featuring a stretched fuselage. The Series 63 was another stretched model with more efficiency built into its structure (modifications taken from the Series 62). These were powered by JT3D-7 engines of 19,000lb thrust.
The Super 70 Series involved the DC-8-71, -72, and -73 variants and built from the DC-8-61, -62, and -63 models, respectively. They were refitted with CFM56-2 series turbofan engines for greater power and performance. Production amounted to about 110 aircraft in the early 1980s.
Historically, operators of the DC-8 series ranged from Austria and Belgium to Venezuela and Zambia - no part of the world, it seems, remained untouched by the presence of the DC-8 family of aircraft. The series did not achieve a flawless record for some 83 airframe losses were reported covering 2,256 lives lost in the process. Due to noise restrictions at many global airports and the sheer cost of maintaining a decades-old aircraft, the DC-8 is a rare sight in the skies today and remains in extremely limited service today (2018).