United was involved from an early stage with informing Douglas what it was after in its first jets. United's President William A. 'Pat' Patterson was a major proponent of a six-abreast seating layout and his views were fully taken into account in designing the DC-8's cross section.
Douglas pushed into sales mode and 12 days after the announcement of Pan Am's split DC-8/707 order, which had astounded the industry, on October 25, 1955 Douglas Snr and Pat Patterson were able to announce United's own order for the DC-8. It amounted to 30 aircraft costing $175 million - the largest single order for civilian airliners at that date. Deliveries were scheduled to commence in May 1959.
The first DC-8 took to the skies on May 30, 1958. It was accompanied on its first flight by a Cessna T-37 chase plane and fittingly a United Air Lines Douglas DC-7, which carried the photographers. Following the first two aircraft in the test programme the next three were all to be destined for United. Line number 3, N8028D, which became N8002U in service with United, first flew on December 28 and was painted in full United Jet Mainliner colours.
United was the launch customer for the DC-8 and received its first aircraft, N8004U 'Mainliner Capt R T Freng', on June 3, 1959. She was the eighth DC-8 built and a series 11 with JT3C-6 engines, which required water injection. The water injection was a costly and messy measure but served to improve the poor take-off performance of the earliest turbojet engines. Distilled water was mixed with alcohol and injected into the engine creating denser air for better combustion whilst at the same time decreasing temperatures enabling more fuel to be injected without exceeding the engines temperature limits. It did however require 5,000 gallons of water per take-off to feed the engines, hampered training flights and was extremely smokey!
Douglas Snr handed over the DC-8's logbook personally to Pat Patterson and in the next three months 5 further DC-8s would join United for training purposes. As well as training United created a travelling Jetarama tent show with mockups of the engine and other information about the new jets, as well as one of the actual aircraft itself. This travelled around the United network getting the public used to and excited about jet travel.
It wasn't until September 18, 1959 that the DC-8 first actually entered revenue service when both Delta and United put the type into operation. United was actually pipped to the post by Delta due to time zone differences but at 08:30 local time United's first DC-8 service left San Francisco bound for New York Idlewild. Though Douglas had slipped beyond its original in service date it had closed the gap with the competing 707 which had first gone into scheduled transcontinental operations just under 8 months earlier on January 25 with American Airlines.
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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: