Tuesday 11 November 2014 saw KLM, the world’s last commercial airline flying passenger-configured McDonnell Douglas MD-11s, bring down the curtain on the type’s near 21-year service with the Dutch flag carrier and an association with Douglas aircraft stretching back some 80 years.  To mark the event, KLM laid on three enthusiast flights for those desperate to experience the type for one last (or in some cases, first and last!) time.  Ben Luck fell into the latter category, and this is his personal account of the experience.  

An air-to-air shot of the final passenger flight of a KLM MD-11 © Evert Keijzer - Ironbird Photography

An air-to-air shot of the final passenger flight of a KLM MD-11 © Evert Keijzer – Ironbird Photography

On Monday 15 September 2014 it was announced over the internet that KLM would be providing the chance for aviation enthusiasts to fly on one of the airline’s McDonnell Douglas MD-11s for the final time.  The tickets would go on sale the following day at 1111 (CET) for a price of 111 Euros.  Further details were announced stating that KLM would be flying three flights on 11 November, enabling over 600 people to experience the MD-11 for the last time in commercial, passenger service.

I was lucky enough to secure a ticket on the day of the sale, which was a stressful process to say the least!  I was very happy to have a ticket to get on-board my favourite aircraft for both the first and final time.  Since a young age I have always been fascinated by the MD-11 and the type’s iconic nose-up approach prior to landing, as the FedEx Express and Martinair Cargo machines visit my local airport, Stansted, very frequently, but to experience a flight on this amazing machine was something I never thought I would achieve.

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

A FedEx MD-11 at Stansted last year. These FedEx jets led to my love of the MD-11! © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

Sunday 26 October 2014: The day had arrived that I wished would never happen – the final ever scheduled, commercial flight of a KLM MD-11 left Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport for Amsterdam Schiphol Airport as KLM 672. Flight 672 was operated by PH-KCE, named Audrey Hepburn, and upon landing at Schiphol Airport around 0635 (CET) she received a water-cannon salute from the airport fire service.

KLM recognised the event and said the end of MD-11 operations was “the end of a remarkable era in aviation”, as the 80-year relationship between KLM and Douglas aircraft had come to an end.  KLM also applied a decal to its fleet of remaining MD-11s for the last few commercial flights celebrating its own 95 years of operations.

After the last commercial flight had been completed the three remaining MD-11s out of the ten KLM once had were stored on the eastern side of Schiphol Airport near the maintenance base before the enthusiasts’ flights.

The final three remaining MD-11s were:

PH-KCBMaria Montessori – Delivered: 01/03/1994

© Karl Drage - www.globalaviationresource.com

“Maria Montessori” is seen climbing away from Schiphol on a dank February day in 2012 © Karl Drage – www.globalaviationresource.com

PH-KCDFlorence Nightingale – Delivered: 16/09/1994

© Paul Dunn - www.globalaviationresource.com

© Paul Dunn – www.globalaviationresource.com

PH-KCEAudrey Hepburn – Delivered: 18/11/1994

© Paul Dopson - www.globalaviationresource.com

© Paul Dopson – www.globalaviationresource.com

PH-KCD flew her last scheduled, commercial sector to Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport as KLM 671 on 22 October 2014, while PH-KCB flew her last commercial flight on 25 October 2014 from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to Toronto Lester B Pearson International Airport at KLM 31, returning to Schiphol as KLM 692.

The first MD-11 was delivered to Finnair on 7 December 1990, and KLM’s first, PH-KCA – Amy Johnson – rolled off the production line at Long Beach in California during 1993 and was delivered KLM on 7 December 1993, and the last, PH-KCK, was delivered on 25 April 1997. All in all only 200 MD-11s were produced, and one of those 200 was the experimental sales MD-11, N111MD, which is still flying as N601FE for FedEx Express.  All ten of KLM’s MD-11s were named after inspirational women.

© Karl Drage - www.globalaviationresource.com

© Karl Drage – www.globalaviationresource.com

Tuesday 11 November 2014:  I arrived the previous afternoon from Stansted Airport on-board G-EZFS as EZY 3005 in preparation for my flight on-board the MD-11. The day had come, I would fly the MD-11 at last.

The first flight was scheduled to depart at 1030 (CET) for a one-hour low-level flight around the Netherlands; the following flights being scheduled for departure at 1300 and 1530. The middle flight was the one I was going to be flying on.

The first flight of the day departed under the cover of cloud via Runway 18C, which I sadly missed, then it was time for me to check in.

Check-in opened at 1100 for my flight – KLM 9897 – which was located at a special desk in Departures 1. I checked in with no issue and was handed my boarding pass. I had been allocated seat 29B automatically, which was a little disappointing as it was not a window seat. KLM automatically allocated passengers seats on the three flights to prevent any issues inside the aircraft which was totally understandable.

Once I checked in I made my way to the departure hall which has a fantastic view of the operations at Schiphol. At around 1230 I headed to gate C22 to catch a shuttle bus to the southerly cargo stands where Florence was waiting for her next load of passengers for the penultimate time.

Before boarding the bus KLM employees distributed a goody bag which had “I flew MD-11” printed on the side of the bag.  Inside was a safety card, a lanyard, a book depicting the history of the MD-11, sick bags and lunch, which consisted of a sandwich, a bottle of water and a jar of jelly aircraft shaped sweets.

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

The items we received as part of the 111 Euro ticket © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

The transfer journey took around ten minutes, passing the KLM Cityhopper aircraft and the exotic freight aircraft awaiting their next load. Then as we turned the corner there she was, PH-KCD sitting there looking as good as new.  Patiently waiting next to Florence was PH-KCB and the DC-3, PH-PBA wearing KLM’s retro livery. These aircraft were parked for the aviation enthusiasts to have last-minute photo opportunities after arriving from their flight on-board the MD-11.  Before the flight I grabbed a few images before I boarded via the rear stairs.

PH-KCB was sadly parked in a backlit location for the whole day, but nevertheless it was fantastic to be up close to two MD-11s at the same time!

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

PH-KCB – Maria Montessori © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

The elegant wingtip of the MD-11 and how it still looks advanced despite its age. This wing tip reminds me somewhat of Boeing’s newly-developed winglet known as the split scimitar winglet © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

An image of the iconic number two engine on the MD-11, taken whilst boarding via the rear stairs. There is just something about trijets that sets them apart from the rest! © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

There were two types of boarding tickets, tickets with a green sticker and tickets with a red sticker; people with the green sticker boarded via the rear stairs and people with the red sticker via the front stairs to make the process more efficient.

Once on-board I located my seat and prepared my camera for the flight; I was using my Canon EOS 7D and my EF-S 10-22mm lens. The aircraft was filling up with passengers rather quickly but seat 29A was still to be taken.  Then the rear door was closed and the “Cabin crew, prepare for departure” command was given over the PA.  The window seat next to me was still available, with the last few passengers finding their seats I was just waiting for the passenger to arrive, but as we started to push back from the stand it then became apparent that the passenger for seat 29A was not going to turn up; result!

I quickly moved over and took the unclaimed seat before departure. This was the only unclaimed seat on the whole aircraft; today was my lucky day!

We began to taxi with the airport patrol cars shadowing us, taking photos and videos.  I could also make out the the panorama viewing deck which was heaving with aviation enthusiasts trying to catch a glimpse of the old girl for one last time.

Before I knew it we were lining up on Runway 18L with the sight of more enthusiasts on the outside of the airport photographing us prior to departure. Then the three General Electric CF6 engines of the tri-holer throttled up to 90% of max power, and everyone was thrown back into their seat by the sheer grunt of this beautiful aircraft as we roared down the runway. There was excitement in the cabin, and we were soon airborne.  The gear retracted and we headed south to start our tour of the Netherlands.

The video below shows our departure:

It was not long before the Captain announced we had reached our unusually-low cruising altitude, “Ladies and gentlemen we have reach out cruising altitude of 1700ft”; the passengers cheered and the celebration of the MD-11’s service with KLM begun.

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

© Ben Luck – V One Aviation

People were saying their final goodbyes to Florence in the form of ink, and they wrote their last messages all over the aircraft including the overhead lockers, toilets, back of seats and tray tables. The cabin crew gave each passenger a complimentary drink, which was either orange juice or alcohol, and each passenger received a cake which had “I fly MD-11” written on top – a nice touch.

We continued to head south to The Hague and Rotterdam.

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

This image shows the view as we toured low over the Netherlands.  The location which can be seen is the small town of Maasdijk © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

The flight continued, and it was soon time to return to Schiphol.  We lined up for Runway 18R, also referred to as the Polderbaan, and thanks to the crew for proving the cabin with excellent detailed information it was announced that our final approach speed would be 155 knots before touching down.  This runway is the furthest away from the terminal, giving those of us on-board more time to experience this classic aircraft.  As we came in to land, chants of “Go around, go around!” rang out in the passenger cabin, simply because we all wanted an extra few minutes in this beautiful aircraft.

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

Turning onto final approach for the Polderbaan © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

Once we touched down the whole cabin cheered, and my first and last flight in the MD-11 was over!

We touched down at 1406 and taxied back to our remote stand which was over four kilometres away from the Polderbaan.  There were some nice views during the taxi.

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

Seen here is the N520 road and one of the many dikes that are a common sight in the Netherlands © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

We arrived back at out remote stand at 1419 after taxying on taxiway Quebec, and it was time to get some more images of the MD-11 from the outside.

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

This image shows the front of Florence and part of the special decal applied to PH-KCD to mark the relationship between KLM and Douglas.  KLM first received a Douglas product in 1934 with the delivery of a DC-2 © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

This image shows the iconic tail and winglet of the MD-11, this is something I really wanted to capture as there are no other aircraft that boasts features like this and I doubt there will be another aircraft in the future that will! © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

Note the signatures and messages near the rear door: “Safe flight Florence” © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

One of three General Electric CF6-80C2 engines which each provide 61,500 lbs of thrust © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

© Ben Luck – V One Aviation

Once I had my photos I wanted it was time to board the bus once again and head back to the terminal and then onto the viewing deck to witness the world’s last ever MD-11 flight with passengers on-board.

I thought she would depart Runway 18L so I elected to head over to the left-hand side of the viewing deck, but then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Florence lining up on Runway 24 to my horror, so a mad dash to the opposite side of the viewing deck was necessary.

© Ben Luck - V One Aviation

I managed to get this image, which I am happy with despite the heat haze © Ben Luck – V One Aviation

Watching KLM 9899 power up and thunder down the runway for its last ever departure with paying passengers onboard was a very sad moment. To think that there never will, in all probability, be another commercial flight with passengers onboard a wide-body trijet is something that makes the 11 November 2014 an incredibly sad day for the aviation world.

So, after months of planning and years of wishing, I finally achieved my dream to fly my favourite aircraft, a day I would not forget!

We say goodbye PH-KCE, known as Audrey Hepburn, who leaves Schiphol Aiport today (17 November 2014) for Mojave Air & Space Port, via a stop at Los Angeles International Airport, most likely for parting out and eventually the scrap man.

© Paul Dunn - www.globalaviationresource.com

The first of KLM’s MD-11s to leave service did so in July 2012. This pair are seen in storage at Victorville, CA, USA © Paul Dunn – www.globalaviationresource.com

I would like to congratulate and thank KLM for providing aviation enthusiasts with the chance to fly the MD-11 one last time and on how well the whole day was organised – a job very well done!  The MD-11 got the send-off from KLM that she deserved, and I got to experience her before it was too late.