One Final Bon Voyage

Aviation enthusiasts descended on Birmingham last weekend for the final passenger flights of an iconic aeroplane. Steve Beauchampé reports.

It was more good fortune than anything else, but for five days over and either side of last weekend Birmingham Airport became a Mecca for over a thousand aviation enthusiasts as the final passenger flights of the rather beautiful McDonnell Douglas DC-10 flew into, and out of, the city. Launched in 1971, 446 of these wide-bodied and instantly recognisable planes were built, collectively ferrying millions of passengers to and from almost every airport on the planet. As more modern aircraft have steadily replaced the DC-10, we are down to the very last one, this being a DC-10-30 model, dating from 1988 and the penultimate DC-10 ever to be built. Following the final scheduled international flight last Thursday, from Dhaka in Bangladesh to Birmingham, operator Biman Bangladesh Airlines offered nine special one-hour ‘scenic’ trips from BHX, culminating in the last flight, which lifted off the runway at 15:20 on Monday, February 24th.

Naturally, all 156 seats available for this notable moment of aviation history were quickly snapped up, despite costing £150-£200 each. More than an hour before the flight time, hoards of enthusiasts, cameras in hand, have gathered around Departure Gate 65 awaiting buses to take them over to the aeroplane. Out on the apron, everyone gets the chance for a leisurely walk around the plane, photographing it from the front, side and back. The DC-10’s distinctive nose is reminiscent of that of a friendly dog, but it’s the engine mounted on top of the rear of the fuselage and below the tail fin which to me instantly dates the plane from a bygone age (there are two further engines, one located under each wing). As we wait in the sunshine to board I overhear numerous accents and tales of folk who have travelled from North America, the Middle East, Spain, the Netherlands, Turkey and various parts of the UK. One man (and they’re virtually all men) even recounts a tale of being deported from Iran last year whilst photographing civilian aircraft (despite having an official permit!).

Once on board however it’s easy to understand why the DC-10 is being retired. The materials, fabrics and finishes are reminiscent of a family car from yesteryear, perhaps a Hillman Avenger or Vauxhall Chevette. Yet the seats are comfortable, and the legroom as good as might be found on a contemporary passenger plane. Amongst the press corps is BBC Radio presenter Janice Long who worked as a member of cabin crew on DC-10s prior to her professional broadcasting career. To mark today’s occasion she makes the pre-flight safety announcement, and in true aviation tradition, nobody appears to be listening.

Once we’re airborne and heading for Scotland, people are traversing the aisles (there are two seats by each window and a centre block of four) photographing the planes’ internal features, it’s passengers, cabin crew; occasionally someone even glances out of a window. A Bangladeshi flag is produced, and the stewardesses pose in front of it, souvenirs are on sale, commemorative certificates are distributed, and more stories of global plane-spotting exploits exchanged.

We turn back just south of Glasgow, and before anyone has thought to open a window and shout “Scotland, stay with us”, Birmingham is beckoning. Bang on time the world’s last ever DC-10 passenger flight touches down, an excellent landing by our pilots, captains Anenul Islam and Shoel Chowdury, in ideal flying conditions. As we taxi along the runway, the jet receives a water arch salute (i.e. water is sprayed over it from both sides by airport fire engines), apparently a tradition on the occasion of an aeroplane’s inaugural or final flight. As the wheels stop turning for the final time applause breaks out and before disembarking there’s an opportunity for the faithful to view the flight cockpit, ask questions of Biman staff, take final photographs and perhaps exchange contact details with new friends made during the day.

A happy ending, although sadly not for the aeroplane itself, which will be broken up and sold for scrap. A small number of DC-10s still operate as freight carriers, with a further vehicle performing the rôle of flying eye hospital, although I was advised that even these are likely to be retired in the next couple of years.