C-17: the end of an era

Dec. 1,2015: The last C-17 flew off the Boeing production line in Long Beach (CA) last week, ending aircraft

The final C-17 before taking off from the Long Beach (CA) production plant Boeing acquired in the McDonnell Douglas merger of 1997. MDC designed the C-17. Los Angeles Times photo.

production at the former McDonnell Douglas plant that began delivering Douglas DC-8s at the start of the jet age.

It’s the end of an era that lasted six decades.

Prior to producing the DC-8 at Long Beach, Douglas Aircraft Co. built its long line of piston airliners at the Santa Monica (CA) Airport.

The DC-8 was followed by the DC-9, DC-10, the DC-9 Super 80 series, the MD-11, the MD-90 and the final commercial airliner at Long Beach, the MD-95/Boeing 717. The C-17 was the only military aircraft built here.

Here’s a photo array dedicated to this storied history.

Pan Am was the launch customer of the DC-8, ordering 25 at the same time it ordered (and launched) 20 Boeing 707s. The order prompted an international rush to place jet orders. Pan Am later switched to the 707 exclusively. The DC-8s did serve Panagra, the joint venture between Pan Am and the Grace Co. Photo via Google images.

Douglas stretched the DC-8-50 into the DC-8-61/62 and 63 Series, creating the first jumbo jet of the era. The DC-8-61/63 could seat 250 passengers in all-coach. The DC-8-62 with 189 passengers became the first special-purpose long-range airplane. The Sixty Series later became the platform for the CFM56 engine application, and was renamed the DC-8-71/72/73. Photo via Google images.

Douglas DC-9. After the British Aircraft Corp. BAC-111, the DC-9 was the first small jet of the 1960s. Several models were created: the original DC-9-10, the -20 (shown), 30/40 and 50. The DC-9 eclipsed the BAC-111 and itself was eclipsed by the Boeing 737. Photo via Google images.

McDonnell Douglas found it difficult to sell the DC-9 Super 80, so it struck a deal with American Airlines for a walk-away deal for 20 airplanes. If after five years American didn’t like the airplanes, the carrier could return the airplanes, no questions asked. American wound up operating 300 Super 80s. Once the McDonnell Corp. acquired the failing Douglas to become McDonnell Douglas, the plane was renamed MD-80 for marketing purposes, but the Supplement Type Certificate read DC-9-80. Photo via Google images.

The MD-90 was MDC’s attempt to update the MD-80, but it wasn’t a sales success. Despite using the then-modern IAE V2500 engines, American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall famously characterized the MD-90 as “old technology” when he placed an exclusive supplier deal with Boeing for 737-800s and other Boeing aircraft. Photo via Google images.

ValuJet was the launch customer of McDonnell Douglas’ final commercial airliner, the MD-95. Before ValuJet could take delivery, it acquired AirTran and took the AirTran name; and Boeing merged with MDC and renamed the MD-95 the Boeing 717. Only 156 717s were built. Photo via Google images.

The DC-10 was the MDC entry into the true jumbo-jet field. Seating 250 passengers in multi-class configuration and 345 in single-class, the DC-10 was smaller than the Boeing 747. But MDC split the market with Lockheed’s nearly identical L-1011, and neither company made money. A series of deadly crashes with the DC-10 gave the airplane a black eye that prematurely suppressed sales. Photo via Google images.

MDC updated and stretched the DC-10 into the MD-11. American Airlines designed its trans-Pacific route ambitions around the airplane, but performance fell well short of guarantees. American scaled back its intended orders, going with the Boeing 777-200ER and 767-300ER for many international routes but abandoning some of its Pacific route goals for the lack of a suitable airplane. After Boeing and MDC merged in 1997, Boeing stopped production at 200 airplanes. Photo via Google Images

The MDC C-17 program was assumed by Boeing. The C-17 became the last jet to be produced at Long Beach. Boeing tried to breath life into the program by offering a commercial BC-17 freighter, but there were no takers. Photo via Google images.



36 Comments on “C-17: the end of an era

  1. “Once the McDonnell Corp. acquired the failing Douglas to become McDonnell Douglas, the plane was renamed MD-80 for marketing purposes, but the Supplement Type Certificate read DC-9-80.”

    What? McDonnell took over Douglas in 1967. The MD-80 was entirely a 1970s development, and late 1970s at that, but in the meantime there had already been the DC-9-50 (entered service 1975). So the renaming of the DC-9-80 to be the MD-80 was hardly a direct consequence of the takeover of Douglas by McDonnell. The timing doesn’t work, not remotely.

    • There is nothing wrong with the Leeham statement, except for a possible misunderstanding of the word “renamed”.

      MD officially named the aircraft (from an FAA perspective) the DC-9-80. But for marketing purposes it was commercially renamed MD-80 while retaining in the background the designation under which it had been registered. In other words from a legal standpoint the aircraft was a DC-9-80 while being introduced from a commercial standpoint as the MD-80. Hence the word “renamed” that was used. Whether the variant was designed under Douglas or MD the original “DC” designation was retained all along because it referred to the original platform on which all the more modern versions were based, including the Boeing 717 and Comac ARJ21.

    • Did’t forget. Note the caption said of the “1960s.” The Caravelle was designed in the 1950s. Little known fact: Douglas had a license to market the Caravelle in the US and came close to a deal with TWA. Didn’t work out and Douglas went forward with the DC-9.

      • Scott, French version is rather different… having learn all they need from Sud Aviation, the go with their own design … Don’t know where the truth is… :d

        The C-17 will be missing sooner than latter I guess.

        So long

        • The French version of the story did not carry much weight in those days. Considering the fact that Airbus has since been built around Sud-Aviation it would certainly have more traction today. But Douglas has long been dead and was actually put to rest for good today when the C-17 announcement was made.

          • ” In 1960, Douglas signed a two-year contract with Sud Aviation for technical cooperation. Douglas would market and support the Sud Aviation Caravelle and produce a licensed version if airlines ordered large numbers.”

            Sounds very much like how the Chinese operate today, and while Douglas could capably build its own planes, it didnt have any experience with twin rear engines.

  2. “The last C-17 flew off the Boeing production line in Long Beach (CA) last week, ending aircraft production at the former McDonnell Douglas plant that began delivering Douglas DC-8s at the start of the jet age.”

    For me this is sad news for two reasons. One is that I was hoping the C-17 would stay in production for ever, just like the C-130 Hercules. The other is that it represents the closing of an era that had opened with the DC-8, an aircraft that came after the 707, but which had forced Boeing to make the latter considerably wider than the Dash 80 on which it was originally intended to be derived. So instead of being a five-abreast the 707 was redesigned to be a six-abreast like the DC-8 and ended up being one inch wider than the latter. But the 707 suffered from the same flaw as the 737 today: short legs. That prevented it from being stretched much longer like the DC-8 was later on. Which lead Boeing to take its revenge with the amazing 747.

    • The DC-8 original configuration was also 5 across but they changed it before production started. The real reason for not developing a stretched re- engined 707, even though a test version with the CFM engine was built, was the Boeing 757 program would cover that market.
      Douglas of course had nothing to offer in the larger twin market and could easily stretch its DC-8.
      The great tragedy for the US airframers was that Lockheed decided to get back in the airliner business, and it choose to compete against Douglas, to the detriment of both.
      Paradoxically the DC-8 has lasted longer in commercial service than the 707 , primarily because of the extended fuselage and re-engining, but also because Douglas was conservative with a 3 spar wing. Boeing favoured the more flexible( and lighter) 2 spar wing but it had a shorter fatigue life.

  3. Sad to see the C-17 production end. Fantastic airplane and one of the best cargo birds around. Too bad we don’t have a replacement in the pipeline, as of yet.

    And no, the A400M is not an adequate replacement, before anyone chimes in. Although, if there isn’t a new “C-17” on the books soon, the A400M might have to do, although at significantly lower capability.

    • The C-17 is less capability than than the C-5, so its not a big deal that the A400M is smaller again.
      I can see the possibility of the A400 being reengined with turbofans, as there has been big improvements such as GTF since the turbo prop was chosen. I suppose they have to wait till all the French aircraft have been delivered

    • The C-17 can do things the A400M cannot.

      The A400M can do things the C-17 cannot.

      It can take-off from Europe, fly M.7 over civil airways South with 30t large size load and hours later unload n a short unprepared dirt strip somewhere in Africa & fly out minutes later.


      It closes a large tactical / strategic gap. The A400M is late, over budget and a fantastic asset. Many will be sold over the next 10 years everywhere.

      To move around smaller loads regionally aircraft like the KC390 are way more practical/ cheaper.

      • Thats exactly what the C-17 does.

        M0.7 at 40,000 ft no problem, landing with a full payload (70t) on 3000 ft , no problem.( more if on a steep approach) Even 45t delivered 4500nm.
        Even has a backup capability on those narrow strips without taxiways and can do a 3 point turnaround.
        Generally takeoff from these small dirt strips requires close to zero payload and only fuel for 500nm.

  4. Should not the caption for the super 80 say amended type certificate instead of supplemental type certificate?

  5. How about the Caravelle, not the BAC 111, being the first small commercial jetliner of the 50s / 60s. Worth at least a mention in your pontification, no ? Thanks for all your fun articles (and to Bjorn too).

  6. Can anyone explain why Boeing stopped manufacturing at Long Beach? Unions,lack of subsides or some other reason. I would have thought they would want the trained workforce.

    • The 717 did not sell well.

      To make anything else there would have required moving a whole assembly line to Long Beach and then training people in how to make the new aircraft

      Simply not cost effective.

      Oh, that’s right, if McNneary had been ahead of the curve he could have done that sooner! (and cheaper than Charleston) – take away his bonus.

    • Boeing wanted to kill off the MD ships. They competed with their smaller offerings. Boeing was telling their 747 customers, “Buy our smaller jets or we won’t give you such a great deal on 747s.” That was the beginning of the death spiral for MD.
      Boeing bought the massive plant, killed the product and sold off the real estate making untold millions. Pretty slick: Kill the competition, milk the C-17, sell off the real estate. Done and done!

      • “Slick for the Quarter Mile” so to speak.

        No stamina, no plan for the future.

  7. Are there white (grey) tail aircraft in Boeing’s stock?

    The NZ Defence Force was evaluating the C-17 against the A400m, but no public decision has been announced.

    • Looks a lot like the NZ Govt has the last C-17 whitetail (now stored at San Antonio) with its name on it. Its likely it would be co-based with the Australian fleet at Amberley Qld, to take advantage of training logistics etc and only visit NZ as required.
      This report from the Treasury bean counters/program evaluators was only released this week. As the production line has shut the option of a ‘future’ purchase option being impossible doesnt seem to have dawned on them-yet. And Boeing isnt going to keep a white tail around for years.

      “Future Air Mobility Capability Project – MoD/NZDF
      The Phase One Project Charter leading to development
      of the Indicative Business Case has been approved. The current focus of the project is supporting the consideration of the Boeing C-17 aircraft, including support, training and introduction into service should procurement proceed. Consequently resources are
      committed to the C-17 effort at the expense of the routine progression of Future Air Mobility project outputs
      Defence is in discussions about whether or not to request a formal offer from Boeing for the aircraft. This offer would include a final price and a deadline for New Zealand’s response. The offer would not commit New
      Zealand to a purchase, but it would need a Cabinet decision, most likely before the end of 2015.”

      • The RNZAF currently has 5 C-130H’s, delivered in 1969. They experienced their most recent life-extension in 2011. They’re expected to continue their service until 2021-2025.

        It looks messy, unless they proceed with the A400M. Would they really purchase a single aircraft and then base it in Queensland? (Rather than purchasing 2-4 of a common type in 2019-2023.)

        • The report seems to show they are only evaluating one type, and there is only ‘one unsold’, so it follows that this is ‘the one’.
          of course politicians can change everything round.
          While I dont think these planes are maintenance heavy, its economic and sensible to base that side of things with Australia ( NZ has previously based planes in Australia).
          Setup costs will probably exceed a single plane cost at delivery.
          Pushing a replacement out to 2020 may possibly make half a dozen ex RAF C-130J available then ( they recently announced most will stay but up to 8 will go by 2022)

          The problem still is the long route flying suits a turbo fan transport, the ideal plane is the Brazilian KC390 , as it wouldnt need a second type for smaller tasks, but Brazils recent economic problems may push it further out. And RNZAF would wait to see it in regular service.
          Also to consider is the B757 pair which are cargo door equipped and do long range cargo and passenger duties. They wont be around much past 2020.
          No easy choices here

  8. Real lesson in how do you keep a very capable aircraft in production?

    What you should do is build as slow as possible to make it eek out as long as possible giving more opportunities to sell it to in between buyers.

    LRS-B is setup that way.

    Hate to see it out of production, we won’t see the like of it again.

    • There is a very good reason to keep production going. If you stop production you diminish the military worth of the ones you already have.

      Resupply is, as far as I can tell, an influence on how a piece of military equipment gets used. With something as useful as the C17 there’s no way the military operators will risk losing them in a theatre of operations now that there is no prospect of replacing losses.

      It’s the same all over. Infantry on the ground who are running low on ammo will start conserving it for fear of running out altogether.

      All those design features that make a degree of battle damage survivable won’t count for anything if they never actually get to go places where they risk getting shot at on a regular basis. As the airframes age that reluctance will only increase. They may as well have bought 747Fs.

      • IMU the number of frames ordered by politics already significantly exceeded the AF requirements. Then it appears to never have been a a problem with other out of production assets.

      • Its called ‘supply chain’ The same reason a van will deliver your parcel to your door rather then a semi trailer. The large transport aircraft deliver to rear base areas which then maybe get transferred to supply helicopters or even trucks.
        Matthew, the airliner type freighters carry fairly light pallet loads and are not equipped to carry heavy vehicles with larger dimensions, let alone land on rough runways. Food , medical equipment , light weapons and their ammo are ideal for passenger jets with cargo decks, thats why AF’s have them as well.

        • Exactly. There is no way that you can take heavy or large cargo in a 747-8 or 777F. Their floors aren’t strengthened for the weight, and they certainly don’t have the dimensions to swallow APCs or helicopters. Leasing or contracting heavy lift to commercial operators can fill the gap, until the day that they’re not available to you – which is when you are likely to need them most.

          The USAF have enough frames, and without their demand a new clean sheet aircraft will be a long way off.

      • Never undersemaite the power of milgary suipidity.

        Anchorage AK: AWAC crash, all aboard perish on a flight that was just touch and goes but military requires a full crew regardless. Why crashed? Goose injecstion . Goose control was about job 22 on one guys list with no resources allocated for said task (eventually he was exonerated and they sacked the base commander, almost unheard of).
        when asked if they had known about the goose issue would the pilots have taken off? Yes, they are combat jacked up even for non combat missions.

        Anchorage AK: C17 Crash: Air show work up, pilot was hot dogging, kept going over the edge until he found they really did mean it. Lost a $200 million aircraft and two other people.

        B2 Bomber: Crashed on takeoff on Guam. 1 billion gone for a known issue.

        V-22 Crash Afghanistan: Special Forces, aircraft worth 100 million, known issue with dirt into the engines. Covered up, just came out similar crash in Hawaii.

  9. Good news for Airbus (A400M) and Embraer C-390, I suppose.

    I presume the C-130J is still in production.

    Below that of course the C-27J, C-295, etc.

    Unfortunately no Buffalo replacement (short field, simple, Viking own the design but can’t justify speculative development of a re-engine replacement). Could be a worthwhile frontier freighter but typical operators don’t have the capital to invest in purchase.

  10. In a sane world, I think it would have been a great idea if Europe and the USA would have come to the decision that the Europeans would buy the C-17, the Americans would buy the A330 MRTT, and development of the K-46 and A400M would be scrapped. Everybody would have come out ahead.

    But…that’s just my sanity talking.

  11. While its a nice idea in concept, reality is a hard nut to crack.

    Take the C-17. It was almost cancelled, looked lke a real dog. they finally fought thorugh the issues and its turned into a steller perfomrae, probably the best of all time in its area.

    The KC46 will get there, and the big issue is not made where (though its a factor you can’t ignore) but the fact tht the US stations fleets of tankers all over the world and needs numbers not huge capacity (and fule bring back is high for typeicl missions)

    THe A330MRT would make a good replacement for the KC10, but we don’t need nor can usualy use the pax and cargo it offers.

    Tanks: The US Abrahms is the best in the world, followed pretty close by the Challenger and behind but probably better than anyting Russia or China has is the Leopeoard. US anhd Germany could not agree on a tank. The Germans did come up with by far the best tank gun and the US switched to it in the latter versions of the Abamsh. France makes their own tank.

    Itally makes a heck of a good trainer aircraft, but its all tangled up in politic and the US may well not buy it (or they are not alighed with the right group to get the bid considered)

    A big part is the vested interest each country has in maintaining whatever armament it has instead of specializing in one area and buying from others.

    Brits came out by far with the best caliber for shoulder arms during cold war (.276, US refused to adapt it and forced two changed in calibers (7.62 and then by default the 5.56.

    All wind up pay far more for their stuff than a group buy would get.

    the only reason the A330 is offered is they quit making the A300/310 (first Airbus tankers were made on those models.

    then like a bug in software it was sold as a feature even if said feature does not do any damage (or hopefully no damage) . Kind of like the US Sherman tank, not the best but they made it work.

    so it goes.

    We have seen the limitations of the 5.56, now we arte stuck with it.

  12. TransWorld great overview, I’ll bite 😉

    – Tanks, WTF moment when the greatest switched guns. Is it more?

    “Kind of like the US Sherman tank, not the best but they made it work. so it goes.”
    – Probably referring to the KC767, 10 air forces weighed/bought..

    – C17 unprepared short strips by night.. it’s different from a A400M

    “A big part is the vested interest each country has in maintaining whatever armament it has instead of specializing in one area and buying from others. ”

    That is correct. All countries want the best from local suppliers. People get double tongued when the best is not local 😀

  13. I never understood why the USAF let Boeing shut down the C-17 assembly line as early as 2015.
    It has been a big mistake because this move is giving the market to heavily subsidized French-German-Spanish Airbus A400M.
    Boeing and the US Department of Defense could have pushed current C-17 users to order more aircraft:
    USAF: 25 more
    Canada: 2 or 3 more
    UK: 4 or 6 more
    Australia: 2 or 3 more
    NATO: 4 or 6 more
    India: 10 more
    Qatar: 2 more
    And attracted new users:
    Japan: 15
    South Korea: 8
    Saudi Arabia: 10
    Mexico: 4
    Indonesia: 4
    New Zealand: 4

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *