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Recently, in the fall of 2014, KLM retired its last MD-11 aircraft. While this may not seem particularly noteworthy, since the type has been out of production for many years, there’s more to the story than simply another fleet turnover/replacement event.

The MD-11 was a derivative of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and entered service with Finnair in December 1990. It had the same basic layout as its tri-jet predecessor, albeit somewhat larger, and offering a greater capacity. It was acquired by a number of well-known airlines, including American, Delta, Alitalia, JAL, Swissair, Garuda and VASP, as well as KLM and Finnair.

In addition to its career as a passenger-hauler, the MD-11 went on to have a successful run as a freighter, both for new-build aircraft and conversions from ships delivered originally as passenger airliners. Both U.S.-based integrators, FedEx and UPS, include the type in their fleets, as well as Lufthansa cargo, for example. KLM was the last passenger operator of the type; approximately 140 MD-11s, all freighters, remain in service, however. (Interestingly, the final DC-10 passenger service, by Biman Bangladesh Airlines, also took place in 2014, in February.)

Probably the most distinctive element about KLM’s retirement of the type is that it not only takes out a long-serving fleet type, but ends a relationship that began in the 1930s. KLM began its dealings with the Douglas Aircraft Corporation with the DC-2. Not content to simply operate the modern type in its scheduled service, the airline entered an aircraft, PH-AJU, named “Uiver” (Stork, in English) in the MacRobertson London to Melbourne (Australia) air race. Most of the other competitors were smaller, purpose-built racing aircraft. The result, as related by Chronicle Communication’s Chronicle of Aviation (1992) was surprising:

More astonishing than the Comet’s performance [the D.H.88, not the later, jet-powered Comet of the1950s] was the showing of the Douglas DC-2 airliner Uiver of Dutch carrier KLM. …it flew three passengers and 420 pounds of mail over the route in 3 days 18 hours 17 minutes to finish second behind the racer.

On a handicap basis, allowing for its relative size, it won.

KLM followed up with orders for the DC-3, and post-World War II, the DC-4. And in its most distinctive connection with Douglas, the airline was the only airline operator for the little-known DC-5. Continuing in a logical progression, the Dutch flag carrier also acquired the DC-6 and DC-7 for its longer-haul services during the era of the large four-engine piston aircraft.

Would it surprise you to learn that KLM’s choice for its initial jet aircraft was the DC-8? Or that it added the DC-9 to its fleet, not that many years later? Of course, the KLM fleet wasn’t exclusive to Douglas, nor to American products: Lockheed placed both the Constellation and the L-188 Electra turboprop at KLM; twin-engine Convair aircraft served the carrier on both sides of the Atlantic (via local services in the Caribbean) and even a CV-880 flew in KLM colors, albeit leased from VIASA; the British-built Viscount provided earlier turboprop capacity on the carrier’s intra-European routes; and, not surprisingly, Dutch-built Fokker products, including the F-27, F-28, and ultimately, the F-100 were all employed by KLM.

Boeing was long absent, however, due both to its lack of airliner products during the 1950s piston era, and KLM’s loyalty to Douglas for its early jets. This changed in 1971, when 747s entered the KLM fleet, but this was tempered somewhat by KLM’s adoption of the, by now, McDonnell-Douglas, DC-10 for its longer-haul services requiring less capacity than Boeing’s “Queen of the Sky”. And, finally, the cycle was completed when the DC-10s were supplanted by the MD-11. KLM’s blog summed this up well on October 26:

We’ll be giving the MD-11 a worthy send-off, but will also be marking the end of an 80-year partnership between KLM and Douglas, and later McDonnell-Douglas. KLM is the only airline to have operated all of the series-built DC types ever produced by this manufacturer.

A unique distinction, indeed, and an indication of great respect in a long-term business relationship. With regard to “a worthy send-off”, following the last scheduled service in October, the airline sponsored a trio of “Farewell Flights” from Amsterdam on November 11, 2014. Did anyone else care? In this case, yes; according to KLM’s website, “These popular roundtrips sold out with minutes of going on sale.” A classy way to commemorate a significant piece of airline history, that’s now “in the books”.

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