Published in November 2015 issue

Proven Workhorses Flying Toward Retirement

By Bradley Sunshine

The Venerable Pratt and Whitney JT8D engines spooled up to breakaway thrust as the American Airlines (AA) MD-82 began taxiing at Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport. The distinctive T-tail wore the company’s ‘AA’ logo and protruded from the shiny aluminum fuselage. The red anti-collision light flashed atop the metal—the aircraft’s own steady and reliable pulse.

Wearing registration N490AA (Ship 490), the MD-82 had been delivered to AA in 1989 (MSN 49683/LN 1563). Displaying the airline’s red, white, and blue, it had flown over 75,000 hours and carried millions of passengers. Many changes had taken place during its 26 years. Passengers could once smoke in its cabin and would buy tickets via travel agencies. Pilots carried paper navigation charts and did not have GPS. Advanced automation wasn’t even a glint in the cockpit’s partitioned windscreen.

Yet, the airplane evolved with the times. Its overhead bins now carried WiFi placards. A Flight Management System (FMS) augmented its avionics. Cellphones and tablets were mistakenly left in its seatback pockets—taking the place of ghostly Walkmen and Gameboys.

Ship 490 resembled AA’s other MD-80s as it lumbered toward Runway 18L, its wings’ slats and flaps extended for another flight. But this trip was different. Flight number 9644 had departed from Hangar 5 instead of the terminal ramp. No flight attendants occupied the cabin’s jumpseats. The 140 blue-patterned passenger chairs were empty.

The Captain and First Officer were AA Pilots but they didn’t wear the silver and blue uniforms. Both men were based in Tulsa, Oklahoma (TUL)—a crew domicile not listed in any bidpacket. They were pilots who normally tested aircraft that had undergone heavy maintenance checks before they could rejoin the passengercarrying fleet; revenue flights were not their normal duty.

Flight 9644 fit neither classification. Its remote destination had never appeared in AA MD-80 schedules and was decidedly not a maintenance base. A 13,000-foot runway awaited the journey’s end, but finality coursed through the pavement.

Many aircraft touched down; few ever left. The Roswell, New Mexico, International Air Center (ROW) is an aircraft storage and teardown facility.

Ship 490 was being retired from American’s fleet. Flight 9644 was its last trip. It would rest alongside many of its jet-engine brethren—the New Mexico sun shining from the sky in which the aircraft had once been most at home.

The DFW ground controller cleared American 9644 across Runways 17C and 17R. Ship 490 rolled along Taxiway Zulu and past Terminal A, where it had spent years nuzzling jetways. The familiar and half-circle shaped structure disappeared behind the MD-82 for the last time.

Ship 490’s nose strut soon crested the bridge spanning International Parkway. The distinctive black water-spray deflector affixed to its tires rode just inches above the taxiway’s centerline. The yellow markings led the way forward. Runway 18L was just ahead—the aircraft would soon commence its final takeoff roll.

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When Ship 490 emerged from its Long Beach, California, assembly line in 1989, AA had already been operating ‘Super 80s’ for six years. McDonnell-Douglas had originally bestowed the moniker on the aircraft; AA kept it. The airline’s June 1983 timetable introduced customers to the new fleet: “Share the excitement of this next step in aviation. A great airline and a great airplane for the Eighties. American’s Super 80.”

Twenty aircraft made up the airline’s original MD-80 order in 1982. By 1990, AA had booked another 240. The aircraft were a mixture of MD-82s and MD-83s—the primary difference being the latter’s 7,000-pound extra fuel capacity and increased max-gross weight of 160,000 pounds. American’s first MD-83 was delivered in June 1987.

The MD-80s’ arrival helped position AA for growth and streamlined labor costs. Along with the Boeing 767-200s, the elongated aircraft had the airline’s first two-pilot cockpit. American’s DC-10s, Boeing 727s, and 747-100s all operated with flight engineers. The MD- 80s bolstered American’s domestic network and provided financial benefits through economy of scale. When Ship 490 arrived in 1989, AA was preparing to open its (now massive) Miami hub.

“What [the MD-80] represented back then was the beginning of a major increase in size and presence of American Airlines,” explained Mike Jeffers, American’s MD-80 Fleet Captain (or Fleet Manager). “Getting all those airplanes on property… allowed the senior management of that time to take a very aggressive stance to being a very big airline.”

By July 1999, timetables had ample ‘M80’ aircraft codes. Route map boundaries expanded as the aircraft sliced through the sky. The MD-80’s outermost destinations resembled a diamond-shape across North America. Calgary (YYC) anchored the northern point; Montreal (YUL) the northeast; Miami (MIA) in the southeast; Acapulco (ACA) and Cabo San Lucas (CSL) to the south and southwest; Seattle (SEA) affixed the northwest.

Countless destinations lay in-between, ranging from Bakersfield (BFL) to Pittsburgh (PIT). MD-80 crew bases extended across the country: Dallas, Chicago, Boston, New York (LGA), Washington (DCA), Los Angeles (LAX), and San Francisco (SFO).

When AA acquired Reno Air and TWA in 1999 and 2001, respectively, the airline’s MD-80 fleet swelled to nearly 375 aircraft. McDonnell-Douglas built 1,191 MD-80s—nearly one-third of which belonged to American. The carrier was, by far, the world’s most prolific operator of the type.


“American 9644, DFW Tower, Runway One- Eight Left, line up and wait.” The air traffic controller’s directive brought Ship 490 closer to Roswell’s sandy brush. Its Captain taxied onto the 200-foot wide runway—endless white piano key markings splayed along its concrete surface. Takeoff clearance would come soon; DFW’s operational pace was brusque.

As the MD-82 prepared to throttle-up a final time, a different controller’s voice came over the radio frequency. “You guys going empty?” he asked. “Is that [aircraft] retiring?” The reply from Ship 490’s cockpit was matter-of-fact: “That is affirmative.”

Approximately 15 seconds later, the controller transmitted again: “American 9644… Runway One-Eight Left, cleared for takeoff.”

Jet aircraft are operated by highly choreographed procedures. The takeoff roll is especially critical— flight crews are trained to perform its profile the same every time. Ship 490 knew the routine well. It had accrued 39,775 cycles in its lifetime— nearly 40,000 takeoffs and landings.

The throttles were pushed forward and the JT8Ds’ whine cycled higher; the aircraft edged forward. When the clock-like engine instruments stabilized at 1.4 EPR, the pilot flying called, “Autothrottle on.” The flat-metallic switch on the Flight Guidance Control panel, located beneath the cockpit’s center window, was flipped upward. The stubbed-looking thrust levers slid forward on their own.

A dichotomy of sounds encompassed the MD-80’s 147-foot fuselage. Pilots are essentially cocooned from noise; passengers seated in rows 31 and 32, however, sit abeam the engines. There is no doubt when the turbines awaken into fuel-fed hunger for compressed air. The JT-8Ds reverberate the aft cabin with their distinctive high-buzzed roar. At approximately 60 knots, the auto-throttles clamped upon the programmed takeoff power setting. The nose gear tires thrummed against the runway’s centerline as the aircraft accelerated. Both Pilots referenced their airspeed indicators when the white needles swung past 80.

At 10:11 local time, the pilot-not-flying called, “Rotate.” Ship 490’s bulky control yoke eased backward and the aircraft’s nose tilted skyward (to prevent inadvertent tail strikes, the initial pitch attitude target on MD-80s is eight degrees).With a positive rate of climb established, the cockpit’s landing gear handle was raised; Ship 490’s hydraulic system flexed one last time and retracted the tires into its fuselage as DFW fell away behind it.

The MD-82 flew south toward the LARRN waypoint on the KATZZ1 departure procedure. It eventually turned west toward the town of Lubbock. The Texas/New Mexico border lay just beyond. Flight time to Roswell would be just over an hour.

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With Ship 490’s departure, AA’s Super-80 fleet decreased to 117. The remaining aircraft are a balanced number of MD-82s and -83s. Approximately 35 of the latter are former TWA airframes constructed in the late 1990s. N984TW, a MD-83 assembled in 1999 (MSN 53634 / LN 2287), is the last MD-80 built and still flies in AA’s livery.

The TWA airplanes differ from AA’s original MD-80s. Their cockpits have digital engine instruments and dual flight management system (FMS) displays versus AA’s traditional ‘round dial’ presentation and lone GFMS keypad. The TWA computers’ formats and functionality are different from those of the single units—the Mac versus PC of the MD-80 world. These younger aircraft are slated to be the last MD-80s operated by American. The final revenue flight is projected to take place in the second half of 2017.

The phase-out date will coincide with aircraft deliveries stemming from AA’s 2011 massive order for 200 Boeing 737s and 260 Airbus A320 variants. These new airplanes offer inflight entertainment systems, have greater range, and are more efficient. The 737’s GE CFM-56 engines alone offer 35% additional fuel savings per seat mile over the MD-80.

Maintenance also factors into the targeted retirement date. In October 2012, the 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. “This modification has to be installed to fly [any MD-80] beyond October of 2017,” Mike Jeffers said. “That’s a big driver with what’s happening with the MD-80 at American.”

As the MD-80 fleet declines, its current Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles crew domiciles will eventually close. DFW will be the aircraft’s final hub because of its maintenance capabilities and proximity to Tulsa’s repair and overhaul station. By 2017, AA’s technicians will have sustained the MD-80s for 34 years. “It’s a testament to how well it was built and also how well our [mechanics] have maintained the aircraft,” said Andrea Huguely, AA’s Director of Communications.

Ending its longtime run at DFW is fitting. The June 1983 timetable stated the Super-80 would “tie together many shorter haul routes such as those that feed into AA’s DFW and Chicago Hubs.” The aircraft’s tenure will conclude in the way it started. Memphis, Houston, Kansas City, New Orleans, and other current MD-80 destinations mostly lay within a 500-mile radius of Dallas.

Boeing 737s and narrow-body Airbuses now serve the far-flung MD-80 cities of the late 1990s. Seattle, Calgary, and Miami are in the aircraft’s past. West Coast airports such as San Diego (SAN) and Sacramento (SMF) still have MD-80 service, but the list is dwindling. LAX is a shell of its former MD-80 haven; the aircraft now only connects Los Angeles with Austin (AUS) and St. Louis (STL).


Ship 490 reached its 34,000-foot cruise altitude 15 minutes after takeoff. The ‘even-numbered’ flight level was just one of the changes that had occurred during over nearly three decades aloft. Before the implementation of RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums) in 2005, the MD-82 had crossed North America at ‘odd numbered’ altitudes (31,000, 33,000, etc.), including its maximum ceiling of 37,000 feet.

TV-like ‘glass’ instrument displays had replaced Ship 490’s original attitude and heading indicators; pilots now carried company-issued iPads—their bulky flight cases no longer stowed along the cockpit’s sidewalls. The modifications also extended aft. A screwdriver head-shaped tail cone now jutted behind the rear air stairs; the original and less aerodynamic rounded fixture had long since been replaced.

Millions of miles had unfurled beneath Ship 490’s 107-foot wingspan. It was photographed in Montreal on March 9, 1993; Washington’s Reagan Airport on August 28, 2004; in front of Las Vegas’ casinos on January 24, 2015. It had flown through snowstorms and circumnavigated squall lines. Roswell’s clear and quiet skies promised a well-earned reprieve.

As the MD-82 continued west and transited Fort Worth Center’s high-altitude sectors, it symbolically carried AA’s dedicated employees within. Thousands of flight attendants had worked the MD-80 during their careers; countless mechanics had turned wrenches upon Ship 490’s axle nuts; innumerable ramp personnel had loaded and emptied its three cargo compartments.

Most of AA’s pilots have flown the MD-80. Many transition to other fleets as their seniority accrues; yet many others choose to remain aboard. It isn’t uncommon for Captains to retire off the aircraft, water cannon salutes arching over their final MD-80 flights. The number three pilot on AA’s 10,200-pilot seniority list is a DFW-based MD-80 Captain. In Chicago’s domicile, the 10th-bidding Captain was hired in 1986 and has flown the Super 80 since 1992.

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In 1979, when McDonnell-Douglas introduced the MD-80, it was technically unveiling its newest DC-9. It was 14 feet longer than the DC-9-50 and embodied the original DC-9’s typecertification from 1965. AA’s MD-80 pilots have ‘DC-9’ listed on their licenses; DC-9 operational manuals are loaded on their iPads. They can legally fly the original DC-9-10 series through the more modern MD-90 and Boeing 717 variants (the airline briefly operated these types when it absorbed Reno Air’s MD- 90s and TWA’s 717s; neither aircraft was ultimately integrated into the fleet or donned AA’s full livery and titles).

Durable engineering fosters the MD-80’s longevity. Its fuel, electrical, flight control, and hydraulic systems are direct DC-9 carryovers. “It has literally been so successful in the systems, there has really been no need to improve on an already solidly built aircraft,” Mike Jeffers explained. “The engineers got it right from the get-go.”

Many of the DC-9’s design quirks endure in MD-80 cockpits. The No Smoking sign is still labeled ‘NO SMOK’. The square-cornered lights on the cluttered overhead panel are AC-powered; the tear-dropped shaped toggles are DCdriven. The magnetic compass is arguably the strangest link. Interference from the electric windshield heat warrants its peculiar placement—embedded in the ceiling behind the First Officer’s head. Two mirrors (one for each pilot) sit atop the glare shield and flip upward to display the instrument’s reflection (if one looks directly at the compass, the numbers and cardinal heading letters are backwards).

The MD-80 has additional features that are entirely its own. Its autopilot can ‘auto-land’ in low-visibility conditions and complies with present-day RNAV (area navigation) routes and procedures. Amber-colored digital readouts displaying heading, course, altitude, and navigation frequencies are illuminated on the Flight Guidance Control Panel. The ‘Dial-a-Flap’ system is also MD-80 specific. For optimal performance, flight crews can select variable takeoff flap settings in addition to the standard detent of 11 degrees. The system also utilizes the selector wheel on approach; 23 degrees are commonly dialed-in before extending the landing gear and selecting final landing flaps.


At 09:57 Mountain Daylight Time, Ship 490 commenced its descent into Roswell. The final moments of an aircraft’s retirement flight can be emotional.

“From a pilot point of view, it certainly hits you,” Mike Jeffers said. “You’re descending into Roswell, you have the runway in sight, you’re maneuvering the airplane to its last and final approach… [and] when you get it on the runway and taxi in, it’s done—that’s it.”

An AA MD-80 has a distinct appearance when landing. The bare-metal fuselage resembles a tilted canoe gliding downward through invisible waves, its wing-mounted landing lights shining bright.

Ship 490’s last minutes aloft were likely routine. It held its customary three-degree final approach pitch attitude—a proud aircraft holding its head high once more. The New Mexico sun probably cast the aircraft’s shadow upon the forlorn landscape. The black outline grew larger as the cockpit’s altimeter needles slowly unwound.

At 10:14 local time, the MD-82’s landing gear crossed the runway’s threshold. Ship 490’s ground proximity warning system [GPWS] began enunciating altitudes as pavement unrolled beneath.

“50… 40… 30…” The robotic voice counted down the aircraft’s final seconds.

At 20 feet, the pilot flying raised the MD-80’s nose an additional two to three degrees 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 490’s tires spun-up along Roswell’s asphalt, its spoiler lever automatically shrieked backward. Any residual lift was forever lost as the wings’ rectangular panels deployed. After the nose gear lowered against the centerline, the pilots opened the bucketed clamshell-shaped thrust reversers. The airspeeds were called out as Ship 490 slowed: “100 knots…80 knots… 60 knots.”

The MD-82’s fate lay ahead as it turned off the runway. Carcasses of stored and scrapped aircraft dotted the airport’s expanse. “You see all the [AA] tails,” Mike Jeffers said. “It’s quite a sight to see all those aircraft out there buttoned up and not working… It’s sad.”

After Ship 490’s engines were shut down, it took its place amongst Roswell’s other permanent tenants. Each silent airframe had its own history—its lofty past scattered in the desert wind. The aircraft once operated with defined flight and maintenance schedules; all they see now is the rising and setting of the Roswell sun.

While AA retired N490AA, the airline’s remaining 117 MD- 80s continue flying—safely and reliably transporting their passengers and crews. Parking the last MD-80 will close a chapter in the company’s 85-year history; yet it will also signify a new era. Factory-fresh 737s and Airbuses are positioning the airline for the future. “Watching the [MD-80s] retire is not an end,” Andrea Huguely said. “It’s actually a beginning.”

N490AA arrived at Roswell on May 8. N8031M, a brand new Airbus A319, was delivered a week later. A Boeing 737-800 (registered as N971NN) joined the fleet on May 19. AA now operates over 250 737s—unequivocally taking the reins as the airline’s primary workhorses.

“[It] represents a total modernization of American Airlines,” Mike Jeffers explained. “It is putting to rest an airplane that has done a lot of work and been around a long while, but it also… represents a milestone for the airline itself.”

The Roswell International Air Center will continue receiving AA’s MD-80s as they fly into retirement. The airfield remains a non-scheduled destination for the stalwart aircraft, but its presence looms inevitably on the western horizon. Roswell’s ‘KROW’ identifier will be the last airport typed into the MD-80s’ flight management computers.

One particular Tulsa-based test pilot has flown several retirement flights. N490AA was not under his command, but he has guided numerous aircraft to the New Mexico desert. As the MD-80s’ systems were systematically powered down toward infinite blackness, he made final entries into their logbooks. The penned words were a last goodbye, an appreciation for the aircraft’s ruggedness, and an acknowledgement of its dedicated service to American Airlines. The pages essentially read: “Rest easy, friend. You’ve earned it.”