Eddie Rickenbacker was a strong and decisive leader but also a frugal and dictatorial one. He often focused on cost savings and operational reliability over customer service and marketing. The example of Eastern's purchase of its first pure jets is a great example of these aspects of Rickenbacker's Eastern, whereby the airline got a better financial deal but at a price in other areas that could hardly be justified.
Rickenbacker was uncertain about the market for pure jets, but he was far from alone in this view, and even so Eastern ordered a healthy 20 Douglas DC-8s (with 6 extra options) in December 1955. Eastern had just ordered huge numbers of DC-7Bs and had a good relationship with Douglas so it doesn't seem that the Boeing 707 really got a look in. Eastern already had a huge order backlog for piston liners (Super Connies and DC-7s) plus Lockheed Electra turboprops so the price of the DC-8s at $6,500,000 each must have been a stretch for the airline.
Eastern had signed up for the DC-8 only 6 months after the product was launched and its initial order was for the DC-8-10 version powered by the Pratt & Whitney JT3C-6 turbojet engine. The series 10s were aimed primarily at domestic and transcontinental routes with later DC-8 versions to be upgraded for international services. The JT3C-6 engine required water injection to makeup for its sluggish performance. The water was introduced on take-off to the torrent of air entering the engine. It had the effect of increase air density and lowering temperature allowing more fuel to be burned and increasing thrust. It also made the aircraft very dirty, with plumes of thick black smoke exiting the engines. Take-off performance was improved but the aircraft still required a very long take-off roll to get airborne and the water was obviously heavy.
Only the first 6 of Eastern's DC-8s would be the earliest version but soon Douglas was able to offer the aircraft with the improved JT4 engine, which did not require the water injection, and Rickenbacker lost interest in the DC-8-10. He had always been more interested in economics and safety than gimmicky marketing and failed to understand the public relations or competitive advantage that his early DC-8s would garner. At the time, of Eastern's main competitors, Delta had not ordered jets and National had ordered DC-8s behind Eastern's delivery positions. Eastern therefore had a considerable advantage and this perhaps convinced Rickenbacker that he was ahead of the curve with his Electra and DC-8 orders. Eastern cancelled its first 6 DC-8s and replaced them JT4 powered DC-8s giving as Rickenbacker perceived it greater value for money and a better aircraft, with only a slight delay.
Eastern's first DC-8-21 began service on January 24, 1960 between New York and Miami. Prior to service entry Eastern trimmed its order down to 16 units - a sign of Rickenbacker's trepidation about pure jets, but also the amount of money the airline had spent on obsolete piston propliners. As United's W.A. Patterson said when he visited Rickenbacker soon after:
"Hell, Eddie, you're buying sixteen of these DC-8s when you ought to be buying fifty."
Eastern also leased out one aircraft, N8611, almost immediately to Aeronaves De Mexico, who promptly crashed it. Eastern was the launch customer for the series 21, which had much better field performance and could cruise at higher altitudes but only received 15 that it actually operated.
Eastern, as was often the case, advertised not the wonder of the new jets but their safety with headlines like "The Jet With Power to Spare" and "Reserve Power Means Dependability Plus". Rickenbacker also came up with the new moniker DC-8B for the type to distinguish them from Delta's DC-8s and make it seem like they were a new model. Unlike today the equipment flown by an airline was one of the few ways a US airline had to compete against others. Unsurprisingly Delta and United were not impressed with this and complained to the all powerful Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) who sided with them and ordered usage of the term DC-8B to stop.
As with several of the US Trunk airlines the delivery of the first jets required a new livery for them. Eastern created a "Golden Falcon" scheme with a new blue and gold spear on the fuselage and a golden falcon on the tail outlined in red. The initial titles were rather cumbersome and barely fitted on the aircraft since they were "FLY EASTERN'S GOLDEN FALCON JET DC-8B". Following the CAB's decision the DC-8B part was dropped. Sometimes it was replaced with a second US flag and there was also variation about the size of the anti-glare shield on the nose too. N8602 above wears the second scheme variant.
Even though Eastern doesn't seem to have advertised it strongly the DC-8s were equipped with lavish interiors. These were designed by Harley Earl (who had also worked on the Electras, DC-7Bs and Connies). The side panels were either gold, brown or beige, carpets were blue and the seats either gold or blue, with silver trim, alternated through the cabin. The first class lounge was decorated like an English pub. The walls had shields representing Eastern destinations and above the windows there were scenes based on seventeenth century English playing cards. The ceilings were a golden disc pattern (suggesting knight's armour) and fittings were decorated with anodized gold too.
Before the year was out Eastern made further modifications to the DC-8 scheme with the titles changed again, to "FLY EASTERN AIR LINES". There was again variation however as some, but not all, aircraft had also received a modified tail design with a new much larger Falcon and no blue stripe at the tip. This scheme is shown below although I'm pretty sure the falcon should be gold with red trim not red with gold trim:
The DC-8s were however not destined to survive in this version of the scheme for long either, as the arrival of the Electra's into service post-LEAP upgrade meant that the entire airline acquired a new colour scheme. Known as the "720 Scheme", even though first used on the Electras, the DC-8s were repainted but kept their Golden Falcon tails as opposed to the rest of the fleet's Red Falcons.
These would not be the last changes to the DC-8's colours as in late 1963 the titles were reduced to just 'FLY EASTERN' and then in 1964 the famous "Hockeystick" appeared. Eastern received the last of its DC-8-21s in October 1961 and the type saw service for only 11-13 years. By the beginning of the 1970s turbojet first generation jetliners were relatively inefficient and the introduction of new widebodies, plus the looming oil crisis, saw them swiftly leave the fleets of the majors. Six saw service with Air Spain but the majority had been broken up by 1982. Only two of the 14 that survived Eastern service saw any extended life. Both N8612 and N8614 made it into the 1990s with the latter not being broken up until 1997.
Eastern would purchase a handful of DC-8-51s and then move on to the longer series 61, however you can't help feel it made a bit of a mess of the DC-8-21's introduction. Then again it makes the story a lot more interesting!
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: