The DC-10 was intended as a successor to the McDonnell Douglas's DC-8 for long-range operations, using a wide-body layout to greatly increase the capacity of the aircraft. More powerful engines allowed it to be powered by three engines, the minimum allowed at that time for long overwater flights, which reduces maintenance costs relative to a four-engine design. Lockheed also saw this niche as an ideal place to reenter the commercial airliner market with their very similar L-1011 TriStar. Although the L-1011 was more technologically advanced, the DC-10 would go on to outsell the L-1011 by a significant margin, due to the L-1011's higher price and delayed entry in the market.
The DC-10 was noted for a poor safety record in early operations, especially due to a design flaw in the cargo doors. Its safety reputation was further damaged by the crash of American Airlines Flight 191, which was and remains the deadliest aviation accident in the United States. Following the Chicago crash, the FAA withdrew the DC-10's type certificate on June 6, 1979, which had immediate far reaching effects. It grounded 138 U.S.-registered DC-10s, forbade any foreign government which had a bilateral agreement with the United States regarding aircraft certifications from flying their DC-10s, and banned all DC-10s not covered by a bilateral agreement from U.S. airspace and use of U.S. airports. Even ferry flying within U.S. airspace was forbidden. These measures were rescinded five weeks later on July 13, 1979 after modifications were made to the slat actuation and position systems, along with stall warning and power supply changes.
Sales of the DC-10 fell dramatically and never fully recovered; in August 1983, McDonnell Douglas announced that it would end production of the DC-10, citing a lack of orders for them. Airline industry consensus at the time was that the DC-10 had a poor reputation both for fuel economy and for its overall safety. In spite of the DC-10's early difficulties, it ultimately accumulated a good safety record as design flaws were rectified and fleet hours increased, comparable to similar second-generation passenger jets, as of 2008.
The initial DC-10-10 model was a "domestic" design with a typical range on the order of 3,800 miles (6,100 km) in a two-class layout. The -15 was a "hot and high" version with more powerful engines. The -30 and -40 models were the "international" versions with extended range of up to 6,220 miles (10,010 km) and a third main landing gear leg to support the higher takeoff weights this required. An even longer-ranged version for British Airways, the -50, was not built. The air-to-air refueling tanker versions, known as the KC-10 Extender, are based on the -30 models. Production of the DC-10 ended in 1989 with 386 delivered to airlines and 60 to the U.S. Air Force.
The DC-10 was succeeded by the related McDonnell Douglas MD-11, essentially an enlarged version of the DC-10 with a number of detail improvements. Boeing, which merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, conducted an upgrade program that equipped many in-service DC-10s with a glass cockpit that eliminated the flight engineer position; the upgraded aircraft were re-designated as MD-10s. The DC-10's last commercial passenger flight took place in February 2014, although freighter versions continue to operate. The largest operator of the DC-10 is U.S. cargo airline FedEx Express. Despite the airliner's popularity, only a few DC-10s are on display, while other retired aircraft are in storage or being scrapped. DC-10s are also used for specialist services, such as the Orbis International Flying Eye Hospital, which has a compartment for performing eye surgery.