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To the 'boneyard': Sending the American Airlines MD-80 into retirement

Sept. 05, 2019
6 min read
MD-80 Roswell
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Sept. 4 will be remembered as a bittersweet day in the American Airlines history books. On Wednesday, American retired all of its remaining McDonnell Douglas MD-80s, bidding farewell to the plane that revolutionized short-haul flying for the airline.

American marked the momentous occasion with a "Super 80 Send-Off" event, where select American employees were invited to the airplane boneyard in Roswell, New Mexico, to bid their final farewells to the MD-80. I had the opportunity to join in the celebration, and what follows are some highlights of the big day from Roswell.

Getting to Roswell

The festivities began way before we even landed in New Mexico. After the MD-80 finished its last revenue flight, American scheduled ferry flights to Roswell, where the plane will be parked initially. The first batch of ferries left from Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and carried the majority of the invited employees to the party.

Members of the media were assigned one of the last MD-80 departures from Dallas: Flight 9454, a 1-hour, 5-minute hop on a 22-year-old MD-80. This flight experience was unlike any other shuttle flight I've taken.

To start, American decked out Gate C2 with balloons and a DJ to get everyone amped for the party in Roswell. Once onboard tail number N9615W, we were treated to a pretty empty cabin with open seating (a la Southwest). I obviously chose row 28 for its proximity to the rear fuselage-mounted Pratt & Whitney JT8Ds.

After geeking around at the signature McDonnell Douglas windows and unique 2-3 economy-class configuration, we were airborne to Roswell.

The party really began once we crossed 10,000 feet. Everyone got up, mingled with each other and told their favorite personal stories of the MD-80. The flight attendants even joined in the fun, engaging everyone in banter and sharing anecdotes from their time flying the MD-80.

Aside from regaling us with their stories, the flight attendants ran an in-flight MD-80 themed bingo game with questions like what month and year did the MD-80 begin service for American (hint: October 1982) and what plane was phased out to make room for the MD-80 (hint: Boeing 727-100). The winner took home two passes to visit a Flagship Lounge. And no, I didn't win.

Before long we were on our bumpy descent to the 96-degree desert heat of Roswell. After we landed, we had a long taxi to the parking area, which made for great views of other retired aircraft.

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The Event

Once parked, we deplaned from the tail stairs and walked the red carpet to the hanger where the event was hosted. The program started with speeches from distinguished guests.

The most impassioned speech was given by Brian Kilian, an employee of the AA Federal Credit Union who has historic familial ties to TWA. Brian eloquently described his connection to the MD-80 and recounted that he’d flown on 127 unique American MD-80s. In all his times flying the MD-80, he only experienced two flight cancellations, well below the norm for the now-aging aircraft.

Doug Parker, American's CEO, was presented the keys to the city of Roswell by the city's mayor, Dennis Kintigh. Parker then delivered his own remarks, describing how the MD-80 is so intricately tied to the lives of the employees of American Airlines.

He talked about the plane's impact on the American Airlines route network and how, through the acquisition of TWA, it placed American on the trajectory to becoming one of the world's largest airlines. When finishing his speech, Parker joked that it was time for the MD-80 to finally be retired in order to make way for more customer-friendly airplanes.

After the speeches concluded, we were invited outside to watch as the remaining MD-80s arrived at Roswell. One by one, each MD-80 flared in the distance on Runway 21 and then taxied to the hangar area, where the pilots parked their planes for the final time. The crowd "oohhed" and "aaahed" as the planes pulled in, offering a round of applause each time the engines were turned off for good.

"Don’t Stop Believing" by Journey played on the speakers as the last MD-80, N984TW (ship number 4YU), pulled into Roswell, marking the end of an era for American Airlines.

Av-Geeking at the MD-80

There was plenty of time in between the MD-80 landings for some AvGeeking. After each MD-80 pulled up to the hangar, the tail stairs were opened and attendees were invited to hop aboard one final time.

In true AvGeek fashion, I made my way onto most of the planes, marveling at the intricacies of each frame. In ship 4YB, I found a reference to the DC-9, the predecessor of the MD-80.

I noticed two pilots left an inscription on the nose gear cover on tail number N9615W. Its clear that the MD-80 was near and dear to many people's hearts.

On the planes, I spent a majority of my time in the cockpit, awed at the number of switches and dials. I'm used to seeing lots of large digital screens in cockpits, so this was definitely a blast from the past.

During one of my flight deck visits, I met Ryan Glanzer, an American Airlines first officer, who explained that the MD-80 was his favorite plane to fly. He said he'll miss all the cockpit switches, since he got to know the feel for each switch over his 10-plus years of flying the MD-80.

I even learned something new on the last day of service for American's MD-80s. When gawking at each of the MD-80s, I noticed there was a black bar protruding out of the landing gear. I asked Ryan what purpose these bars serve, and he responded that these are actually spray deflectors that make sure that water doesn't spray into the engines when rolling down a wet runway.

Overall Impression

The MD-80 retirement marks the end of a chapter in the history of American Airlines. American certainly recognized the importance of the day through its MD-80 "Send Off" party.

The party was a great culmination of the 37 years of MD-80 service, with employees sharing their mutual love and respect for the mad dog. Personally, as someone whose first flight ever was on an American MD-80, I couldn't help but shed a tear to the plane that helped me grow into the AvGeek that I've become today.

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Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)