Pretty, Shiny and Loud: Why Aviation Lovers Will Miss the MD-80
Some people love it. Some people can’t wait for it to be gone and replaced by more modern airplanes. But whatever their opinion, everybody definitely notices it, because it’s the loudest commercial jet in the United States by far.
The McDonnell Douglas MD-80, which first flew in 1979, is also the oldest jet in airline service in the US. American Airlines, which used to be the largest operator of MD-80s in the world, is retiring them from service on Sept. 4 after a 35-year run. Flight AA80 from Dallas to Chicago, the last-ever revenue flight, has been booked solid for months, full of aviation aficionados who would not want to miss the retirement of a plane with so much history. Among them will be TPG’s Zach Wichter, who will report from aboard American’s last MD-80 service.
But for me, the MD-80 is a personal thing, a throwback to when I was a student just beginning to write about airplanes. So I booked a ticket on a random flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to San Antonio, a couple of weeks before the official retirement date: my own farewell to the American Airlines shiny metal bird. (The airline never repainted its MD-80s in its new colors; they all remained in AA’s classic brushed-metal livery.)
The Mad Dog, its universal nickname derived from the MD initials, played a big part in my education as an AvGeek, and carried me across Europe and America for three and a half decades. When Alitalia flew it between Milan and Rome, I logged many, many thousands of miles in its cabin, which in the early 1980s was the most modern thing in short-haul flying. Seating around 140 people in a 2-3 configuration, or 2-2 in first class, it’s a long, narrow tube, tighter than the Boeing and Airbus jets of similar size, with their 3-3 seating.
"What a great airplane it was," said Niki Snider, an airline pilot who flew MD-80s for Alitalia in the 1990s. Snider now flies Boeing widebodies for a major African airline, but remembers fondly the airplane he earned his captain's stripes on: "It's in my heart. I still dream of it. And it was beloved by pilots."
At 147 feet from nose to tail, it’s one long and skinny bird, made to look even sleeker by thin, small wings and engines placed at the tail. Those engines are, in fact, the reason that the Mad Dog is so beloved of aviation fans everywhere. With their 1970s technology, they’re a sonic reminder of the days when even tame commercial transports howled like fighter jets. In the case of the MD-80, that is literally true: its Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines were developed into the Volvo RM8, which powered the Swedish-made Saab Viggen, one of the classic fighters of the Cold War era.
But because the plane is so long, for those seated at the front it’s actually quieter than almost anything else flying today: the engines are far behind. ("In the cockpit, sometimes we had to look at the instruments to know the engines were on," Snider said.)
It’s a different story for people seated in the back, from row 20 on down, who get to experience that fighter-jet growl from real close. If they aren’t dyed-in-the-wool AvGeeks, they aren’t going to walk away with a love of the MD-80.
The engines are also thirstier than more modern ones. On a typical 90-minute flight, a Boeing 737-800 will carry about 20 percent more passengers for 20 percent less fuel. Considering the $100 million list price of new Boeings and Airbuses of similar size, it made financial sense for some airlines to keep their old MD-80s flying while fuel prices remained relatively low, having long since finished paying for the aircraft. That’s what American and Delta opted to do, until now, when rising maintenance costs and the scarcity of spare parts — the last Mad Dog was built in 1999 — finally made the planes too old to fly economically. Delta will ground its own MD-80s next year.
They could keep on flying, though, as far as safety is concerned. Built famously tough, the Mad Dogs have an excellent safety record, better than many of their contemporary aircraft according to Boeing stats. Their old-school feeling and quirks mean that they aren't as popular with pilots these days as they used to be, though. They aren't as forgiving as more recent models, for example. "It was a challenging airplane on landing," Snider said. "If you weren't careful, you could slam it down pretty hard."
Make sure to take a peek into the flight deck if you happen to fly on one: the plethora of dials and steam gauges looks very different from today’s digital cockpits.
Even the airplane's name is a testament to the past. McDonnell Douglas isn’t around anymore, bought in in 1997 by Boeing, which sold the MD-80’s smaller, modernized sibling as the Boeing 717 for a few years after that. That humble 717, an unassuming jet still found in the Delta fleet, is the last heir to the storied DC-9 family, which started in 1965 and flew on every inhabited continent, under the Douglas name first and then as McDonnell Douglas after a merger. The MD-80 used to be called DC-9 Super 80, in fact, which is what American Airlines still calls it internally — the safety cards in the seatback pouches are even marked “S80,” a nod to the “Super” name.
And all that history is what brought me, on a stormy afternoon in late August, to the San Antonio airport. I had chosen a seat in row 24, just behind the Super 80’s elegantly slender wing and right in front of the engines.
As we stopped and started again on our taxi to the gate, the noise from the two Pratt & Whitneys rose and fell in pitch: a unique sound, half growl and half whine, quite unlike any other airplane.
When it came time to leave, I closed the window shade. Hard to yank down and yellowed by age, it bore the name of its defunct maker, in a font straight out of the 1960s: McDonnell Douglas.
This article has been edited with the correct date for the entry into service of the DC-9. It was 1965, not 1967.
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