The arrival of the jet age saw a surplus of new prop piston DC-7s at airlines like United and American at the same time as the CAB had squeezed most of the supplemental airlines out of business. Both airlines accordingly transitioned significant portions of their DC-7 fleets to all cargo configuration, whilst Eastern converted Super Connies and smaller trunk airlines like Braniff and Delta flew Curtiss C-46s.
As the converted piston propliners began to lose their appeal during the mid-1960s the airlines began to cast around for jet replacements. Naturally American and TWA looked at their passenger fleets and were able to use the existing Boeing 707-320C in the all cargo role as needed. United had ordered DC-8s and so looked to the big Douglas jet as its source of new Jet Traders.
Donald Douglas Snr had surprised his audience at the DC-8 first roll-out in April 1958 by talking of the future of air cargo being with jet freighters, as up until then nobody had suspected Douglas had an interest. He had actually explored the cargo potential of the series 50 DC-8 for sometime prior, looking at a variant with a swing-tail, forward side cargo door, strengthened floor and other freight standardizations. The variant was initially known as the DC-8A and was offered to the US Air Force in another of several attempts to elicit military interest. Unfortunately this time the DC-8 was beaten by the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. Nonetheless Douglas offered the new DC-8A on the civilian market in both full cargo and combi variants.
The only customer for the all cargo version was however United Airlines which eventually bought 15 - with the first, N8042U, arriving in January 1964. The last arrived over four years later in November 1968 with 10 DC-8-52 passenger variants delivered in between the cargo aircraft. In March 1964 United inaugurated freighter flights between Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. New York was added in April. United developed a specialist ‘Freightair’ system with cargo and loaders which could load 20,000Ibs of cargo onto a DC-8 in 25 minutes. The system was largely mechanised and fully palletised. During 1964/65 Freightair facilities were completed at Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Cleveland and Detroit.
These new DC-8s weren’t United’s last short DC-8s. From September 1967 9 ex-Pan Am DC-8-32s and 2 ex-SAS DC-8-32s were acquired. All but one, N8207U, was placed into service. This aircraft remained unpainted and was thus nicknamed the ‘White Whale’. Based at Denver it was used as a crew trainer. The series 32s were merely stopgaps and were retired in 1974. The series 52s survived until the mass cull in 1980 leaving the series 54AFs as the only non-super DC-8s in the United fleet. They all lasted until 1984/85 except for two lost in crashes.
Surviving in the fleet for so long United's short DC-8s, including the freighters, would not only wear the variants of the Mainliner scheme but also the short-lived Stars and Bars scheme and the original Saul Bass 'Tulip'.
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: