Rare Aircraft – McDonnell 119/220

By me

While the Lockheed JetStar may have been the only bizjet quad to see service, it certainly wasn’t the only such type built (thankfully for us aero-obscurists :D). At about the same time in the mid 50s, McDonnell – then still not associated with Douglas – started work on a design of their own, the little-known, but quite interesting (and in retrospect unjustly unlucky) Model 119.

What a handsome and striking thing! The one and only Model 119 back in happier days at the beginning of the program. If the JetStar was your own private VC-10, this is definitely your own private DC-8 ๐Ÿ™‚ (photo from: http://www.boeing.com/history)

1. A fish on dry land:

The genesis of the 119 – not “MD-119” as is sometimes thought – bears some striking parallels to that of the JetStar. Quite apart from the fact that both were aiming for the same USAF Utility Cargo Experimental (UCX) tender, the 119 was as much of a “shot out of the blue” for McDonnell as the JetStar was for Lockeed. An already-famed manufacturer of carrier-borne combat jets (and the occasional odd land-based fighter), McDonnell was as much of a first choice for the personnel transport UCX as the then all-civilian Lockheed had been for the fast-climbing P-38 Lighting interceptor. Yet the P-38 worked – in no small part due to Lockheed’s outside-the-box approach – so there was no reason or basis to discount the innovative McDonnell just yet…

Far from it in fact, for McDonnell’s pluckiness and appetite for unorthodox solutions had already put the company on the proverbial map. Though today much overshadowed by its merger with Douglas in 1967, McDonnell had notched up several achievements by the time of the 119, including:

  • the XP-67 Bat (or Moonbat according to some sources), McDonnell’s first aircraft which was pretty much one of the few aircraft to actually live up to it’s name :). A very advanced twin-engine interceptor, the XP-67 had attempted to blend everything on the airframe into the wing, trying to create the most aerodynamically-perfect aircraft at the time…
Promising to be able to outrun anything in the skies, the XP-67 was - like the XP-55 Ascender mentioned in the Starship article - too an advanced a design for the technology available at the time...
  • the FH Phantom, the first American jet aircraft to land on a carrier, and – with Lockheed’s P-80, the only American jet to be developed to something near operational status before the end of WW2
  • the F2H Banshee, the follow-up to the Phantom and one of the key jet fighters of the Korean War (and arguably, alongside Grumman’s F9F Panther, the most important Navy jet)
  • and the F-101 Voodoo, after some teething troubles the USAF’s premier high-speed reconnaissance aircraft – and the proving point for the configuration and technologies used on one of the world’s most prolific and famous fighters to be, the F-4 Phantom II

Despite these not being quite the exact references needed for the UCX tender, McDonnell’s team – strengthened now by designers with transport aircraft experience – went ahead with the Model 119 design undaunted. Hey, if Lockheed could do it – whose entry wasn’t even designed outright for the role! – so could they…

2. Great minds think alike…

While McDonnell and Douglas hadn’t started cooperation before the merger talks of 1963, when the prototype 119 was rolled out in 1958 it had definitely warranted an “Any similarity to the DC-8 is purely accidental” sticker :). And while the 707 and DC-8 – flying in 1957 and mid-1958 respectively – were aesthetically pleasing designs, according to many the 119 took their layout to a new level…

Though some say it looks like a mini-707, to me the 119 looks more like a short-body DC-8, the -10 to -50 versions, with the wings, sleek and slim fuselage and pointy vertical stabilizer...

Indisputably fine aesthetics aside, the design was also quite intelligent and very well thought out (for its intended mission). The classic – and today unique – layout meant the engines could be easily accessed for repair and removal, while their separation into individual pods meant that a catastrophic failure of one engine wasn’t likely to affect the other, as would be the case on the JetStar. The pods and pylons themselves were strengthened to support the aircraft and protect the wing fuel tanks and fuselage from damage during a wheels-up landing; indeed, being considerably below the fuselage and right on the aircraft’s center of gravity meant they could act as pretty good skids in an emergency.

Operationally this yielded another advantage: with the engines below the wing and not out back, the cabin could be roomier; and not having a huge mass of exotic metals yanking the tail down all the time meant more flexibility with distributing the payload inside. This in turn meant that if you had wanted to equip yer 119 in a “cattle class” configuration, you could comfortably squeeze 26 people inside!

The low-slung engines meant that sucking in foreign objects - debris, dirt, ground crews ๐Ÿ™‚ - was a very real possibility. To reduce this as much as possible, the engines were fitted with special square intakes that prevented the formation of vortices that could suck up objects from the runway (photo from: n303wr Flick gallery)

Being built with McDonnell’s customary sturdiness – brought to you by a manufacturer constantly watching their planes being crashed onto ships – the 119 was normally a tad heavier than the JetStar, tipping the scales at 20.5 tons at maximum takeoff weight versus the JetStar’s 19.4. To propel this not at all insignificant mass, the 119 was to be powered by the same Pratt & Whitney JT12 turbojets as the JetStar – but as these were unavailable for some reason, the decision was made to use the slightly less powerful Westinghouse J34s (quite an ironic choice, given the problems the company’s unreliable J40 afterburning turbojet was giving McDonnell’s F3H Demon carrier-based fighter).

Despite the somewhat lower power, the 119 had promised to be quite a performer, with a 45,000 ft ceiling,ย  840 km/h cruise speed and 3700 km range against a 70 knot headwind – an impressive set of numbers any way you put it. Thinking ahead as to how could this be improved with the new engine technologies then appearing on the horizon, the design team was also working in parallel on a trust reverse-equipped version, powered by General Electric CF700 turbofans, that would be able to operate in and out of 1,500 meter runways – a tremendous achievement for a rough-and-tough ’50s transporter that could now cruise at 900 km/h at the same time.

A three-way view of the 119, sporting the extended air data probe used during testing (photo from: http://www.aviastar.org/air/usa/mcdonnell_119-220.php)

Back in the present, the sole Model 119 prototype – registered N119M – had made its maiden 49-minute flight on 11 February 1959. All that was left was to hand it over to the USAF and see what their test pilots would make of it… ๐Ÿ™‚

3. Want a jet? Anyone?

With a design as good as this, the design team felt that they had produced an aircraft more than adequate for the role. Backed by enthusiastic comments from the air force test pilots that flew it, morale within McDonnell was high – right up until August 1959, when the UCX contract was suddenly awarded to Lockheed…

The blow, when it came, had put McDonnell in an unenviable position, with a one-of – and consequently quite expensive – blue-white albatross sitting on their hands. Rather than chop it up, and hoping to salvage the situation, McDonnell again offered the 119 to the USAF, this time rebranding it as a multipurpose high speed platform capable of filling the roles of a bombardier and navigation trainer, electronic countermeasures trainer, air communications service aircraft (a role eventually taken up by the military JetStar, the C-140A), interception radar trainer, flying electronics testbed, high-speed bulk cargo hauler, EMS aircraft… you name it and it was probably somewhere on the list :).

Imagine what impression this must have made taxiing around the airport... even today, this would turn a lot of heads ๐Ÿ™‚

However, the answer was still a firm “no”, which again left McDonnell desperate for some way to sell the 119 and recover at least some of the funds invested in its development. Following the same path as Lockheed – which had from the start intended the JetStar to be of two worlds, serving as both a military transport and civil business jet – McDonnell quickly sought to market the 119 to civilian customers; in fact, low key negotiations with Pan Am for a 170 aircraft lease had already started even before the final UCX decision.

Given the rotten luck this aircraft has had with marketing so far, it almost wasn’t a surprise when the deal fell though… Despite 170 aircraft sounding like a lot – if you line them all up on the apron – it was nowhere near enough to cover all the costs the program would incur if it had started series production (the greatest being the production tooling) – and with no civil orders forthcoming to take up the rest, the negotiations were dropped as quietly as they had started.

4. When it rains, it pours:

To try and drum up some civil interest – the options list by now running dangerously short – it was decided to shift into high gear and turn fully to the world of business aviation, marketing the 119 as a high-end business jet to rival its eternal thorn in the eye, the JetStar. To this end, and at the suggestion of Jim McDonnell – Ol’ Man McD ๐Ÿ™‚ – the 119 became the McDonnell 220 (still without the MD prefix), a designation commemorating the company’s entry into its second 20 years of existence. Re-registered as N4AZ, and repainted into a duller version of its original prototype colors (no dayglo orange anymore :(), the aircraft was then refitted with a custom deluxe 10-seat interior, including a galley and lavatory (still considered pretty posh amenities at the time).

Although not as good-looking as during its "119" stage, the 220 did at least look presentable (photo from: http://www.airport-data.com/aircraft/photo/343515.html, author Mark Pasqualino)

But given that the God of Aviation – Murphy ๐Ÿ˜€ – has some bright moments every now and then, the 220 finally caught some tailwind when it became the first non-airline type to receive an FAA Class I provisional type certificate for air transport operations – in effect making this the first certified business jet :). A fact much used during 1963 by McDonnell salesmen, dispatched to the 750 (!) biggest corporations, agencies, airlines, leasing companies and businessmen in the world in an attempt to sell the “new” 220 by the hundreds. In the face of stiff competition though – the Rockwell Sabreliner and Dassault Falcon 20 having joined the fray in the mean time – their efforts didn’t gain much headway.

By the end of the year, McDonnell was back at square one and down to desperation with Plan Z – selling the actual prototype, the existing production tooling and design rights to the whole type, all for next to nothing.

Incredibly, there were no takers.

At that point, McDonnell gave up. Accepting that they were stuck with the 220 for good, the design team turned the aircraft into a company shuttle, to at least make some use of it. Its service was short-lived though, with the aircraft being retired in 1965 with just short of 230 hours on the clock…

5. Whoop, whoop! Pull up!

The “for good” in the end turned out to be just one year, for after being retired the aircraft was donated – DONATED – to the Flight Safety Foundation. This successful international non-profit organization had made a name for itself with its work on improving worldwide air safety, often going experimental to point out critical areas in need of improvement. One of their more famous experiments was running a specially-instrumented and remotely-piloted Douglas DC-7C into a hill to test the survivability of American aircraft. And that’s all fine and dandy, safety being important and all – but thankfully, common sense prevailed and the 220 was spared the same fate (which was already on the cards) :).

Instead, it was sold – for the first time! ๐Ÿ˜€ – to an aircraft retail company, which began its long physical and even longer legal odyssey around the US… the full story of which can be read on this very detailed and informative page: http://www.anav8r.com/page03.htm (too much to cram into this post ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

The Model 220 at Albuquerque in the early 70s @ Airliners.net (mistakenly wearing it’s old Model 119 registration)

Today, restored almost to airworthy condition, the 220 is parked at El Paso airport (ICAO: KELP) in Texas waiting out its fate. As of the end of 2009 it is up for sale for a bargain price of $800.000, which is – considering its rarity – not really all that much; less than half the price of a new Cessna Caravan or about the same as three moderately equipped Cessna 182s. So readers of Achtung, Skyhawk!, what are we all waiting for? ๐Ÿ™‚

Looking well-kept and cared for... and with its restoration almost complete and engines remanufactured, we may yet see her flying! ๐Ÿ™‚ (photo from: http://www.abpic.co.uk/photo/1169919/, taken by: Andrew Martin)

SPECIFICATIONS (some projected):

Takeoff weight: 20,560 kg
Empty weight: 10,530 kg
Wingspan: 17.55 m
Length: 20.27 m
Height: 7.21 m
Wing area: 51.10 sq m
Max. speed: 901 km/h / 487 kt
Cruise speed: 837 km/h / 452 kt
Ceiling: 13,685 m / 45,000 ft
Range: 3,765 km / 2,032 NM

5 thoughts on “Rare Aircraft – McDonnell 119/220

  1. What a beautiful little aeroplane! The old adage “If it looks right, it usully IS right!” is on the money. I think that Lockheed’s well known “influence” with Capitol Hill had something to do with McDonnel’s difficulties. But oh boy, it does look so like a miniature Douglas DC8-62!! – Same fuselage length as the -10 through to the -50 versions! I hope that it finds a “fairy godmother who will preserve it as an example of aeonautical engineering excellence.

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