Co-Written by Chris Sloan, Roberto Leiro, & Cody Diamond
ROSWELL — The sound of the Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines coming to life for one last time reverberated throughout the empty passenger cabin, with just five people onboard, as American Airlines flight 9643 readied its departure from a sunny morning in Tampa to Roswell, New Mexico, its final resting place.
Wearing registration N9401W (Ship 4WJ • MSN 53137 • LN 1872), this MD-83 was built by the Shanghai Aviation Industrial Corporation (SAIC) on July 19, 1992 under license of McDonnell Douglas, and it was delivered a year later to Trans World Airlines (TWA) on July 19, 1993.
As TWA merged with AA in 2001, the aircraft was subsequently transferred to AA. Since then, the jetliner has proudly wore the AA silverbird livery —which is also fading away in history as the New American livery becomes more and more common.
Many changes took place during its 24 years. Once upon a time, passengers could smoke in the cabin, they were served hot meals in economy class, and walkmans and books were the in-flight entertainment.
In the cockpit, pilots carried paper charts and advanced automation seemed to be part of a science fiction novel. Even so, the aircraft evolved with the times.
The spotless clean cabin now carried WiFi placards, and a Flight Management System (FMS) improved the navigational accuracy of this aging bird.
Ship 4WJ was pretty much alike to AA’s other MD-80s as it taxied down to runway, with its slats and flaps configured to start another flight. Nevertheless, this journey was different, with a destination that never appeared in any AA MD-80 schedules—and it was not an AA maintenance base. It’s a place in which many aircraft touched down, but some have never left.
This aircraft, and 19 others, were part of a symbolic retirement.
A 20-aircraft order placed by American Airlines to McDonnell Douglas in 1982 marked the beginning of an era in which AA became the world’s largest MD-80 operator, but as the decades passed through and as new and more efficient aircraft joined the fleet, the venerable Mad Dog era is now heading into the sunset.
Once the last AA MD-80 parks in Roswell in 2018, it will close a chapter in the company’s history; yet it will also signify a new era, with the arrival of new Airbus A320 family aircraft and Boeing 737 Next Generation and the coming MAX variant, all part of a major $4.6 billion order placed back in 2010 for 460 aircraft —the largest commercial aircraft order in history at that time.
These new airliners will not only enhance the passenger experience with new entertainment systems, but also are more efficient in fuel burn and have greater range.
For American Airlines, the end of the MD-80 in the fleet is a new beginning. The airline expects to reduce the average fleet age at the end of 2017 to 9.9 years. For comparison, at the end of 2011 it was 15 years for the mainline fleet.
The Tampa ground controller cleared American 9643 to taxi to Runway 01L. Slowly, but firmly, Ship 4WJ began to roll down the taxiway, with a yellow and black marking leading the way forward.
As we approached the runway, the crew imparted the safety instructions, and informed us that as we had light load of just 116,000 pounds gross takeoff weight, we’d be taking off “like a home sick angel en route 3 hours and ten minutes to Roswell.”
Ship 4WJ would soon commence its final takeoff roll, and it was going to be a memorable one.
The Final Takeoff
“American 9643, Tampa Tower, line up and wait Runway 01L.”
The instructions imparted by the air traffic controller brought Ship 4WJ a step closer to its final resting place. The crew of two, led by Captain Al Matter and assisted by First Officer Robert Cornelius, lined up the jetliner along the white piano keys painted on the concrete surface. The takeoff clearance, the final one for Ship 4WJ would arrive soon.
Meanwhile, inside the cockpit, a well-rehearsed choreography of checks and sets took place before spooling up the engines. Ship 4WJ knew this routine well, with 32,862 cycles in its lifetime and about 66,745 flight hours logged so far.
“American 9643, cleared for takeoff, Runway 01L”
First Officer Cornelius opened the throttles as over 116,000 pounds of aircraft, fuel, and people go thundering down the 11,000-foot runway, with the distinctive JT8D high pitched whine began to fill the cabin. When the engines stabilized at 1.86 EPR, a melancholic dichotomy of sounds encompassed the 147 feet of the fuselage.
It would be First Officer Cornelius’ takeoff in Tampa, and Captain Matter’s landing in Roswell, so that both could get an opportunity to fly the airplane on her last flight.
While pilots are essentially isolated from noise, passengers in rows 31 and 32 are seated abeam the engines. No doubt that these were the best seats in the house while roaring down the runway at 91db.
Needless to say, the takeoff performance was impressive. Takeoff speeds for the 116,308 pound aircraft were unbelievably low. With 125 knots (V1), 130 (Vr) and 137 (V2). The takeoff was executed with a 11° flap setting, A/C packs on and a stabilizer trim setting of 2.4 units. The derated takeoff (flex takeoff) would yield a takeoff N1 of approximately 89.7 %. Ship 4WJ’s center of gravity was calculated at 27.5%, and at takeoff, the aircraft had approximately 32, 735 pounds of fuel onboard.
At 10:16 local time, after just 36 seconds, the MD-83 gracefully tilted its nose skywards, and with a positive rate of climb established, Ship 4WJ’s landing gear flexed for a last time and retracted the tires into the fuselage as Tampa was left behind.
The aircraft flew toward the ENDED waypoint on the ENDED7 departure procedure—and an ironic one given the flight. The ATC flight plan was as follows:
KTPA ENDED7 SZW J2 FST DCT KROW
This route would take Ship 4WJ over Tallahassee, Crestview, Semmes, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Houston, San Antonio, Junction, and Fort Stockton, before beginning the descent into Roswell. Ship 4WJ would burn approximately 19,127 pounds of fuel during the three hour and ten minute final journey, which would cover 1,337 nautical miles at a cruise altitude of FL360. Our cruise Mach number would be 0.755 or roughly 442 knots.
Despite the flight being operated under Part 91, the flight deck door would remain closed inflight.
36,000 Feet Over Louisiana
Ship 4WJ reached its 36,000-foot cruise altitude, 30 minutes after takeoff. The ambience was no longer dominated by the sound of the engines, but the wind caressing the metallic fuselage along the route.
Millions of miles had unfurled beneath Ship 4WJ, from the Far East where she was built, to freezing Calgary in Canada to the sunny Los Cabos in Mexico, from Los Angeles to Chicago, and then to New York, transporting about 3,700,000 passengers during its career.
The day before its retirement, Ship 4WJ had a busy day, starting in Des Moines, Iowa, and flying to Dallas / Ft. Worth (DFW), then to Norfolk, back to Dallas/Fort Worth and then, its last revenue flight to Tampa.
There, the crew symbolically signed the lavatory walls and the galleys, a written testament to the thousands of flight attendants that had worked on this aircraft during their careers, to the mechanics dedicated to keep it in good order and to the innumerable ramp staff, who loaded and emptied the three cargo compartments of the jetliner.
Most of AA’s pilots have flown the MD-80, and now, as the type is phased out, most of its crewmen will be moved to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 family aircraft. Others, just like Ship 4WJ will retire after years of service.
Approaching to Roswell with a New Beginning
At 11:46 local time, and after an uneventful flight, Ship 4WJ started its descent into Roswell. A moment of epiphany for those onboard this flight.
During descent, Albuquerque Center asked the crew: “Are you taking it to the graveyard?”
“-We’re going to the retirement community, yes” Captain Matter replied.
American Mad Dogs have a distinctive look when landing, resembling to a tilted canoe gliding downward through invisible waves, with its characteristic wing-mounted landing lights shining bright.
Ship 4WJ’s last minutes aloft were routine. It held its customary three-degree final approach pitch attitude—proudly holding its head high once more.
The New Mexico sun casts the aircraft’s shadow upon the forlorn landscape. The black outline grew larger as the cockpit’s altimeter needles slowly unwound.
At just above 10,000 feet, Captain Al Matter disconnected the autopilot, autothrottles, and flight director, and flew the rest of the flight entirely manually. Ship 4WJ was now just like her ancestor, the DC-9s, without any bells and whistles.
“-I wasn’t about to let her go in on autopilot. This is one of the last types of airplanes that you can really fly,” – Captain Matter said. He went on to describe his love for the MD-80 in that if a pilot were to lose all his hydraulics and electrics, he would still have a perfectly flyable airplane.
Fifteen minutes after our descent, the MD-83’s landing gear crossed the runway 21’s threshold. Ship 4WJ’s ground proximity warning system [GPWS] began enunciating altitudes as the pavement unrolled beneath. “50… 40… 30…” The robotic voice counted down the aircraft’s final seconds.
At 30 feet, the Captain raised the nose an additional degree to reduce the descent rate; the aircraft ‘flared’ as the mechanical voice called, “10.” The throttles were slowly pulled toward idle thrust; the pitch attitude was held as the aircraft streaked above the runway.
When Ship 4WJ’s tires spun-up along Roswell’s asphalt at 11:09 local time, as the spoilers deployed, and the nose gear lowered against the center line, the pilots opened the bucketed clamshell-shaped thrust reversers. The airspeeds were called out as the MD-80 slowed: “100 knots…80 knots… 60 knots.”
As we parked on the apron and the systems of Ship 4WJ were systematically powered down forever, its 19 sisterships began to join us.
“It landed like a kite. I did a 28 flaps landing and it didn’t want to land.it was kind of sad to shut it down for the last time. Our Vref was only 117 knots,” Captain Matter commented.
Our flight was the first to arrive to Roswell, while the second aircraft from Tampa (N403A • MSN 49314 • LN 1256) was the second to arrive. Interestingly, this aircraft happened to be until now, the oldest MD-80 in service with AA, replaced by N424AA (MSN 49336 • LN 1321), which was built in 1986 as well.
After our arrival, a graceful dancing ballet of Mad Dogs began to appear successively every 5 to 10 minutes. Each aircraft has a different story, but with a common final meeting place. Three of the twenty were ex-TWA MD-83s, and these three (N9401W, N9402W, and N9404V), interestingly, were all Trunkliner MD-83s built in China. This leaves only one Chinese build MD-83 still flying in the AA fleet, which is N9405T.
The fate of these aircraft, like many others stored in Roswell, is decided based on the proximity to their “C” Check —a comprehensive inspection performed.
Back in October 2012, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), issued an Airworthiness Directive (AD) pertaining to MD-80 fuel pumps. Every aircraft has to incorporate the required upgrades by fall of 2017—a costly expense now driving what’s happening today.
Outside Ship 4WJ, the scenery at Roswell, reflects the future of the aircraft. Engineless fuselages and scrapped aircraft form an endless sad line along the runway. There, two full-time employees process the incoming aircraft, which are subsequently handed over to third party contractors for storage, lease returns, aircraft sales and scrapping.
Lately, we learn that Roswell is the final resting place of nearly 200 AA jets—more than half of the aircraft parked there. Such number exceeds, by far, any number placed in AA’s system, including all of its hubs.
The choosing of this place is not accidental. Roswell is a large open area, with plenty of premises and resources available to do anything needed for the aircraft. Also, the dry climate help to preserve the fuselages for longer periods of time, and the commercial service there makes it easy for crews to fly back to their stations after delivering aircraft.
Subtracting engines, the current parts market value of an MD-80 varies from $100,000 to $200,000. Once all marketable parts have been harvested, the value of the fuselage carcass ranges between $10,000 and $12,000. It can take a month to part out an MD-80 yet only a few hours to crush it into scrap metal.
While AA retired today 20 MD-80s, the airline’s remaining 61 Mad Dogs will continue flying—safely and reliably transporting their passengers and crews.
The average age of the 20 aircraft retired was 27.5 years, with the oldest (N403A) having been delivered in 1986. The newest was built in 1992, which is one of the TWA aircraft. All of the TWA airplanes retired were under lease from BCC Equipment Leasing.
All twenty airplanes combined had total cycles of 808,554 cycles and 1,604,622.10 hours. That equates to over 66,850 days in the air or about 183 years total combined flying time. Using an average load factor of 80%, it can be estimated that these twenty airplanes once part of a 383 strong fleet at AA have flown approximately 90,558,048 passengers safely.
Below is a list of all twenty airplanes with their delivery years, and where they flew to Roswell from on their last flight.
Back to Ship 4WJ, now in the infinite blackness of the cabin and the warmth of the hot New Mexico sun, the crew made final entries into their logbooks.
The penned words were a farewell, an appreciation for the aircraft’s ruggedness, and an acknowledgement of its dedicated and faithful service to American Airlines. The entry in the maintenance logbook is:
“Info to MX: N9401W has served TWA & American Airlines well. May she enjoy her retirement.”
Airways would like to thank Captain Al Matter, First Officer Robert Cornelius, and Joshua Freed and Ross Feinstein, Corporate Communications, at American Airlines for their contributions to this article and experience.