By Ben Wang / Published November 15, 2014
KLM has a long history with Douglas. The strong relationship between the two companies formed 80 years ago when KLM flew its first DC-2 in 1934. KLM is the only airline to operate every Douglas model beginning with the DC-2, capping off the exhaustive list with McDonnell Douglas’ ultimate widebody, the MD-11.
KLM received its first of ten MD-11s in July of 1993. Unfortunately, the elegant trijet with its distinctive winglets was not a commercial success. Only 200 aircraft were built between 1990 and 2001. Performance issues during initial entry into service, exasperated by late entry to market, followed by competitors introducing more fuel-efficient twin-engined aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A330, sealed the MD-11′s fate.
The MD-11 did find its niche, however with cargo carriers such as FedEx, UPS and Lufthansa Cargo, which received the last MD-11 built. KLM stuck through and kept their reliable MDs in service until the bitter end thus becoming the last airline flying the passenger model.
Setting the Stage
When KLM announced that 2014 would be the last year of service for the MD-11, I had a great interest in flying on the last flight. It was well known via the reservation system that the last scheduled flight was on October 25 from Montreal to Amsterdam. However, rumors of a final commemorative flight persisted.
On Sep 15th, KLM announced via social media that they would sell seats on three “farewell flights”, appropriately on November 11th, appropriately priced at 111 Euros. Flights would be one-hour sightseeing trips around Holland. Knowing the Dutch, ever mindful of their place in aviation history, would give an appropriate send off for such a historic occasion, I did not hesitate on getting a ticket on the farewell flight. Since those flights would be the last flights where you can actually buy a ticket, I considered them to be the more historically significant “last” flight to take.
Tickets went on sale at 1:11 pm Central European Time on Sept 17th. After setting my alarm for 2 am Pacific Time on the early morning of Sept 17th, I managed to secure one ticket on a flight. Demand was overwhelming. 592 tickets were sold out in mere minutes. During the sale, KLM’s site was slow to respond (I later heard it almost went down) and I was only able to confirm that I got a seat because my credit card was charged. KLM later send out confirmation emails indicating which of the three flights you would be randomly assigned to; I got the second of the three. In addition, seats would be randomly assigned as well.
I arrived well ahead of the designated 11 am arrival for my 1:00 pm departure. The first flight has already boarded so the counter was quiet, save a few of us that got there early. At check in, I received my assigned seat 25C. I also received a MD-11 booklet and a sheet noting the “house rules” for the flight.
I tried to switch to a window seat, however, the request was denied. The agent noted that the seats were previously assigned at random. Since it was a sightseeing enthusiast flight, everyone would want a window anyway, so they could not take seat requests.
The house rules described the procedures for the flight. We would be taken by bus to a remote stand where another MD-11 and a DC-3 would be on display. Boarding would be via stairs according to the color code on the boarding pass. Orange would board via the forward stairs and green would board via the rear.
The sheet noted that plenty of time and opportunity would be allowed on the ramp for photo ops. Wow – an airline that actually caters to the enthusiasts – I was impressed!
I went up to the Panoramic Terrace above the terminal trying to spot the first flight. The fog had rolled in and the weather had changed drastically. It was cold, windy, and misty. After awaiting o the Terrace in the bitter cold along with hundreds of other spectators, I came up empty. I decided to instead head to my gate, C22.
Inside the gate area, there was an aura of excitement. Stacks of goodie bags with “I Fly MD-11″ on one side and “I Flew MD-11″ on the other awaited us at the boarding door. Unfortunately, announcements were made in Dutch only – frustrating many (myself included).
Finally, well past the pre-described boarding time of 12 pm, the the orange group consisting of Business Class and forward cabin passengers boarded the first set of buses. I boarded a few minutes later with the green group.
On board the bus, after staring at the goodie bags for the past 45 minutes or so, everyone was eagerly wanting to know what was in the bag. It consisted of sandwich squares on a stick, bottled water, a KLM lanyard, a small bottle of gummy bears (with the MD-11 logo), two KLM barf bags, and most important piece, a MD-11 safety card in clean and pristine condition.
We pulled into the special sectioned off area located next to the cargo ramp. There, MD-11 “Maria Montessori”, registered PH-KCB, and Dutch Dakota Associations’ DC-3 “Princess Amalia”, registered PH-PBA, were on display. The star of our show “Florence Nightingale”, registered PH-KCD, was already receiving her passengers. Both -KCB and -KCD had special decals applied on them: “KLM – Douglas Aviation History” along the fuselage top and a listing of all Douglas aircraft flown along the fuselage bottom (which is all of them), concluding with a large MD-11 logo. By now, the fog had retreated and sun had come back out. As we boarded the aircraft, everyone stopped to take photos and of course, the obligatory selfie.
At the door, two flight attendants greeted the excited passengers aboard. Inside, the all-familiar KLM blue dominated. All the seats had the new MD-11 book “The Last KLM McDonnell Douglas Farewell” as well as special MD-11 headrest covers.
It was nice that buses loaded each group in waves. Because this allowed for time to take photos on board before departure. The cabin crew were enthusiastically asking whether anyone wanted their photos taken (“yes please!”).
My seat-mate joked, “I wonder which movie I am going to watch?”. I actually was hoping the IFE would be in operations so I can see the flight map, but it was dark for the entire flight.
Welcome messages were given over the PA, initially mostly in Dutch,but later rectified. One of the pilots who authored the MD-11 book would narrate the flight.
As flight attendants gave their safety briefing, it was clear that they were having fun too. At one point, our steward remarked it was funny cameras were on him recording his safety brief, which brought laugher and more lens pointed his way.
KL 9897, Amsterdam (AMS) – Amsterdam (AMS)
Aircraft: McDonnell Douglas MD-11
Registration: PH-KCD “Florence Nightingale”
Delivered: Sept, 1994
Scheduled Departure – Arrival: 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm
Actual Departure – Arrival: 12:57 pm – 2:19 pm
Takeoff Runway 18L: 1:10 pm
Landing Runway 18R: 2:06 pm
We pushed back from the stand four minutes ahead of the scheduled 1 pm departure. We were photographed from a hydraulic lift; it was the first of many photographers during our taxi. The funniest was vans chasing our plane trying to get ahead of us for photos.
Someone pointed out the center overhead bins were rocking and flexing as bumped around on the taxiway. Since we also sat over the main center gear strut, we could also hear the brakes squeal. Someone joked, those brakes are probably the first thing they are going to retire.
After taxing past the large crowd atop of the Terrace, we took position on Runway 18L. It was announced that we would be using 90% power for takeoff (helpful translation courtesy from our seat mate).
Even though we had a full load of passengers, our aircraft was without cargo and baggage in the belly. As a result, the takeoff was quite a rush. We quickly accelerated as the whiny roar of the General Electric engines came to power. Laughter and “woahs” can be heard around the cabin as we made a roller coaster style rotation some 35 seconds later. We then made a very sharp right turn to the west. It was clear that the pilots wanted everyone to have a memorable flight.
Only a couple minutes later, we leveled off at about 2000 feet and the seat belt sign went off. Everyone at first thought it was in error and chuckled. But after some hesitation, wow, it was real! So people started moving about, trying to get views of the landscape below from available windows and touring the cabin.
People soon occupied every available floor space. The cabin crew attempted to start service with beverage carts, but the fans made their job difficult. As people noticed that we were being served petite fours and small bottles of wine both adorned with the MD-11 logo, that was encouragement enough to sit everyone back down so the carts can move through.
I quickly ate my petit four (you may call it “small cake”) so I can continue to explore the cabin. By not having a window seat, I really couldn’t take in the view while an excellent tour was being announced over the PA anyway. The narration also gave us status of the flight itself. We had to depart 2500 feet and climb to 3500 and ultimately 5000 feet due to air traffic control. As we toured Holland, the aircraft made sharp turns making walking extremely difficult. We all had to hang on tight as the aircraft maneuvered about.
Windows around rows 10 to 12 gave excellent views of the engine and winglet, making it a popular photo spot.
All the galleys were decked out in party mode.
Purser’s station – which I have never seen nor did I realize existed. It reminded me of the loadmaster’s station on the C-17.
Do you play the KLM MD-11 Challenge trying to win tickets on the farewell flight?
KL had a contest where players had to correctly answer 11 very difficult questions about the MD-11 for a chance to win daily prizes and a ticket on the last MD-11 flight.
So did you think the questions were pretty technical and esoteric? I certainly did. I had to take notes! Well, I met the person that designed the site and came up with the questions. He and a pilot purposefully made the questions challenging but interesting because they knew the enthusiasts would know most of the answers already.
As we neared the conclusion of our one-hour flight, people broke out their permanent markers and left messages on the overhead bin. There was a quite bit of enthusiasm as the precious few markers got passed around.
As we made our approach to Runway 18R, the excellent flight narration informed us of the direction and altitude of our landing. Final approach speed would be at 155 knots.
The seat belt light became illuminated pretty late into the approach process. After everyone finally made their way back to their seats, the back of the plane – obviously the rowdy section – tried multiple times to start the wave. They were unsuccessful. Then they started chanting “go around, go around, go round”. Alas there was no go around. Fifty-six minutes after takeoff, after a loop around Holland, we made a perfect landing on Runway 18R to the applause of everyone on board. Over the PA, the purser thanked us for flying on the last MD-11 and hoped to see us on another KLM airplane in the future.
As we made the long taxi back to the ramp, once again, like our departure, our arrival was met by photographers and service vehicles. At 2:19 pm, we were once again back at our remote stand alongside the DC-3 and the other MD-11 to the applause to everyone on board.
We were told to quickly disembark so the crew can prepare for the next flight. Surprisingly enough, deplaning was quick and orderly, absent of the congestion experienced during the flight. I asked a flight attendant for a cockpit visit so the pilots could sign items I had brought with me. Unfortunately, the request was denied. Given there was a large interest for the same from almost everyone on board, it would not have been possible to accommodate all requests. Disappointed, I made my way to the stairs at the aft door, savoring my last moments with the last wide body passenger trijet in service. And yes, I was among the last people to leave the ramp, boarding the last bus back to the terminal.
Final Farewell Flight
Here are views of the final MD-11 farewell flight (KL 9899) taken from the Panoramic Terrace.
PH-KCD lining up on Runway 24.
One hour later, PH-KCD approached Runway 27, and then did a Kai Tak style bank while on short final and struck Runway 24 with heavy tire smoke one last time.
A fitting end. Led by service vehicles, DC-3 PH-PBA and MD-11 PH-KCD performed a victory lap around the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.
Contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by the author.