ROSWELL, NM — Just minutes after the final revenue flight for the American Airlines McDonnell-Douglas Super80 departed from Dallas-Fort Worth for Chicago O’Hare, the mass exodus of Super80 aircraft continued from DFW’s concourse C and other airports in American’s network.
On the DFW ramp once dominated by the aircraft type from an older generation, only a handful of the beloved narrow-body aircraft remained. Basking in the hot Texas sun, these last few stragglers in the dwindling fleet would soon be departing for a more permanent place of rest: Roswell, New Mexico.
In total, 26 Super80 aircraft were retired on Wednesday, with the vast majority of them making their way to the dry deserts of Roswell, New Mexico. American estimates that these 26 aircraft alone carried more than 87 million passengers over their lifetimes.
One by one, the Super80s departed from American Airlines stations including Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, and Tulsa.
While Wednesday morning’s flight #80 to Chicago-O’Hare served as the final revenue flight with paying passengers, two additional flights would operate with passengers from Dallas to Roswell. The first flight, operated by a 20-year-old former TWA MD-83 (N970TW), carried roughly 150 American Airlines employees including American CEO Doug Parker. The second flight, operated by a 22-year-old MD-83 (N9615W) would carry just over 40 members of the media and additional employees.
After waving goodbye to the first employee ferry flight from the very same gate flight 80 had departed from an hour before, it was N9615W’s time to shine one last time.
Prior to boarding, each passenger was assigned a number that would be randomly drawn to award the 16 first class seats aboard. While the first-class seats were certainly a hot commodity, the most sought-after seats were found on the left rear of the plane where passengers could peer into the MD-80s number two JT8D engine.
After a quick boarding process and brief stop by the flight deck, the boarding door was closed and N9615W was ready to push from DFW for one final time. Unfortunately, no water cannon salute was given to our flight while taxiing.
While taxiing, Captain Bruce Taylor spoke on the PA system and announced that he would be hand flying the Mad Dog to Roswell.
Speaking to Airways after the flight, Taylor said: “It turned out both of our autopilots are inoperative today. I had planned to do it anyhow but when it showed up, I’m like really? I think I have done that about four times with passengers. It’s pretty rare.”
Simultaneously several gates over, another MD-83 (N9616G) also pushed for departure to Roswell. The two Super80s, built at the same time in the same factory in Long Beach, California, would takeoff together for the final time.
Just prior to takeoff, a special moment occurred between our flight crew and the air traffic controllers at DFW.
“ATC asked the airplane in front of us and us where we were going next. They thanked us for our service and they thanked the aircraft. I thought it was pretty fascinating,” said Captain Bruce Taylor
As we rocketed through 500 feet on takeoff, Captain Taylor rocked the wings of the Super80 to wave goodbye to American’s largest hub.
“The wing wave was actually for the controllers because they have spent literally 30 years controlling these airplanes in DFW,” said Taylor.
Upon passing through 10,000 feet, the seat belt sign was turned off and seemingly every passenger left their seat to explore the aircraft. Somewhat surprisingly, the WIFI aboard N9615W worked without a hitch throughout the flight. A low load factor certainly contributed to keeping WiFi speeds up. American’s online streaming platform and video uploads to Twitter worked throughout the flight.
After leveling out at a cruising altitude of 28,000 feet, a mostly standard cabin service began. Passengers were offered a choice of a hummus or cheese plate to eat along with a package of Biscoff cookies.
Roughly 30 minutes into the one-hour flight, American Senior Vice President Marketing, Loyalty, and Sales Kurt Stache conducted a game of MD-80 trivia through the aircraft’s PA system.
Stache, a 15 year veteran at American Airlines and self-proclaimed AvGeek was in his element among the aviation media crowd. Prior to boarding, Stache greeted several of the flight’s passengers and proudly recalled his own memories of flying the Super80 over the years.
Trivia questions ranged from how many passengers American MD-80s have flown, to naming the names of the five characters on the 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls. Needless to say, younger passengers competing in trivia faced a substantial uphill battle against the slightly older competitors. The winner of trivia, a local news reporter, won two passes into any of American’s Flagship Lounges.
With only one hour in the air, passengers explored the Super80 nose to tail to capture photos of relics from the past like the DC power outlets under each seat and McDonnell Douglas labeled window shades.
One special passenger onboard flight 9454 was MD-80 Lead Check Airman Don Taylor. “This is a sad day. This is my third trip out parking airplanes. The MD-80 is the last of the true hand flying, mechanical, round dial airplane,” said Taylor, who will be moving to the 787 Dreamliner in the coming weeks.
As we approached Roswell, Captain Don Taylor pulled out his tablet to review Jeppesen charts for the Roswell Airport. Even though he was just a passenger on this final flight, he wanted to conduct a pre-landing review aboard the Super80 one last time.
After what felt like only 20 minutes in the air, the cabin crew began preparing the cabin for one final landing.
Upon touching down in Roswell, passengers aboard flight 9454 were greeted with the magnificent yet melancholic sight of dozens upon dozens of retired Super80s. Instead of taxiing directly to the hangar that would host the post-flight festivities, flight 9454 took a grand tour of the airfield along Roswell’s taxiways.
In addition to countless Super80s, Roswell is home to many retired American 757 and 767 aircraft. For the time being, Roswell is also serving as the storage location for much of American’s grounded 737 MAX fleet.
After obtaining a lay of the land in Roswell, ship 4XB pulled up to a large airport hangar where the roughly 150 American Airlines employees from the earlier arriving flight were in full party mode.
Exiting ship 4XB from the rear air stairs, passengers aboard flight 9454 were immediately greeted by upbeat ’80s music and the smell of barbecue in the air. Inside the Roswell aircraft hangar, a large stage was set up for the day’s ceremony.
To begin the ceremony, several American Airlines employees past and present briefly shared their unique histories with the Mad Dog.
“My flight log reveals every flight and aircraft I have flown on in my life which as of this morning’s flight is exactly 800 entries. Of those, 279 are Super80s. On the Super80 alone that is 222,160 miles flown on 127 unique tail numbers,” said speaker Brian Kilian, of AA Credit Union.
Roswell, New Mexico Mayor Dennis Kintigh spoke of the strong and storied relationship between Roswell and American Airlines.
“‘This has been a deep and long-standing relationship between American and Roswell. We are thrilled to be a partner with American not just in the air service but in the maintenance and overhaul aspect. This is a deep and meaningful relationship between this community and this airline,” said Mayor Kintigh.
To commemorate this relationship, Kintigh presented American Airlines CEO Doug Parker with a key to the City of Roswell.
“I proudly accept that on behalf of the people of American Airlines. It is an honor to be here in support and them and representing them,” said Parker.
In his remarks, Parker said: “We are here about retiring an airplane but this airplane is about people and about what this airplane has meant to people at American Airlines.”
“I started my career at American in 1986 so a little behind some of the rest of you. But I, like anyone who joined American in the 1980s, knows full well how important the MD-80 was and is to American Airlines. It was how we grew this airline to be the great airline it is.”
While celebrating the Super80, Parker admitted that it was time for the old aircraft to exit the American fleet.
“The airplane maybe deserves to be retired from our customer’s viewpoints and maintenance viewpoints. It is certainly one that has served us well but also it is time for it to move on and make way for more customer friendly and efficient airplanes,” stated Parker.
American Airlines is no stranger to retiring aircraft in mass. In late August of 2016, American retired 20 MD-80s in a single day to the very Roswell boneyard used for today’s final flights. While airlines traditionally retire one aircraft at a time, American utilizes the shift from the busy Summer schedule to their lax Fall schedule to retire large quantities of aircraft at once.
At the conclusion of the event, Parker thanked the many employees who made the trip to Roswell and invited all guests outside to welcome the first of the final four Super80s to arrive in Roswell.
One after another, the MD-80s appeared through the hazy New Mexico sun to land for one final time.
The first flight, operated by N968TW, arrived from St. Louis at 1:09 PM and parked behind the earlier arriving N970TW from Dallas.
N968TW was piloted by Captain William Jagust, a former TWA pilot based in St. Louis. Proudly wearing his former TWA wings, Jagust said with a mischievous smile: “Somehow I put the wrong ones on this morning.”
To give the Mad Dog a proper sendoff from St. Louis, Captain Jagust asked the FAA for clearance to perform a low flyby shortly after takeoff.
“After taking off in St. Louis, “I did a maximum performance takeoff and just turned into a little shallow turn to the right and you could see McDonnell-Douglas down there. The people were all out there watching,” said Jagust.
When asked what he will miss the most about the Mad Dog, Jagust said: “I will miss the quiet cockpit. When you put the engines in the back, we can sit and talk to each other up front.”
With the aircraft arriving in near 40-minute intervals and no air-conditioned facilities to host guests, the shadows formed by the MD-80s wing and signature T-tail served as a popular hangout spot.
Catching up with Roswell Mayor Kintigh between arrivals, Kintigh spoke about the important role the Roswell International Air Center plays to the local community.
“It is interesting because everybody looks at it and sees a boneyard but it’s more complicated than that because some of these planes are due to go back out. When American brought their MD-80s here three years ago in the first batch, about half of them went back out. Now some of them do become disassembled so that components can be used on those still flying,” said Kintigh.
“At this airport we do a lot of testing. We’ve had Bombardier and we’ve had Mitsubishi come here. We’ve had Mitsubishi very recently. And then we have the MD-80s which some of whom will not leave. So I will argue that we are here at the beginning, we are not here at the end,” Kintigh added.
With every MD-80 arriving came a crowd itching to say goodbye to each unique bird. At 1:44 PM, N9620D arrived from Tulsa, Oklahoma followed by N983TW at 2:31 from DFW.
One hour later, it was announced that the final Super80 would soon be arriving. N984TW, the very last MD-80 ever produced, would have the honors of closing the books on the MD-80 at American Airlines.
Arriving from Chicago, N984TW had just completed the final revenue flight in the morning.
After flying over the airfield at 7,000 feet, the aircraft touched down at 3:23 PM. While taxiing by the gathered crowd, acting first officer Captain Greg Kunasek hung a Super80 flag out of the cockpit window. Just like hundreds before it, N984TW came to a stop on the Roswell ramp and shut down its engines for good.
Speaking to Airways just minutes after touching down, Kunasek, who will be moving to the Boeing 777, said: “Air traffic control gave us the red-carpet treatment all the way from Dallas to Chicago. Once we got leveled off in Chicago they said you are cleared to Roswell and do whatever you want. Go as fast as you want and tell us how you want to get there.”
After welcoming the final flight to Roswell, much of the crowd was ready to depart after standing for hours in the hot Roswell sun. As we taxied out of Roswell on one of three chartered E-175 flights for the event guests, all eyes were glued to hundreds of aircraft peacefully resting in the New Mexico desert.
It was on this taxi out that it truly hit for many of the passengers aboard that the Super80 at American Airlines was now a thing of the past.