Story by Bernie Leighton , Cody Diamond, and Chris Sloan

Photos by Chris Sloan

T-tails have fallen out of fashion, even seem a trifle uncool. But I can’t help it, I’m a romantic fool. They represent an era when FOD ingestion was still a real threat when cruise speed was allowed to be something higher than “max economical.”

Reaganomics was saving America, and the Union was strong!

Far Away in Time

Our ship, N984TW was the last MD-80 ever delivered. It was accepted by TWA in December of 1999. By 2001, it was in AA’s colours. It’s truly wild to think that on the day of the final flight, American only had 26 aircraft remaining.

They were going to CLT, ICT, AMA, LBB, PNS, CLE, VPS, MFE, OMA, RDU, DSM, SAT, CVG, STL, ABQ, and ORD. With all returning back to DFW for disbursement except ours, which would carry on to Roswell from Edward H. O’Hare directly. That’s not my part of the flight.

One must also remember there was another MD-80 coming into Roswell from STL.

With a 2,000nm still-air range, the MD-80 series allowed American to fly to every corner of the Continental U.S. form its DFW and ORD hubs. It was their mid-con king. They had a fleet of 362 of these beasts at their peak. That’s an unfathomable number of JT8D-219s.

It’s sad to think that this is, largely, the end of the JT8 series in America. At least, at least, Pratt & Whitney lives on with the excellent, and far quieter, GTF.

When AA decided to make these aircraft MD-83s in 1993, all their MD-82s gained extra tanks, 7,000lbs more of fuel capacity, and an additional 500nm of still air range. Very useful, especially in Winter.

I remember, once, my 737-823 on DFW-SEA subbed for an MD-80. With strong headwinds and bad weather at SEA-TAC, I imagine those tanks saved us a potential diversion. The flight’s 140 seats were nearly full – though there were a couple of no-shows.

American was not the only airline within the U.S. to operate the “Super 80”, though they were the first major with their lease-order for 20. Muse Air, Frontier, PSA, Republic, and Hawaiian all operated the type before. Ironically, many of those frames would later end up operating in AA’s colours.

American has operated almost every model of the DC-9 “Super 80”, including the MD-82, MD-83, MD-87, and even the MD-90. American operated five MD-87s and five MD-90s acquired through its acquisition of Reno Air.

These aeroplanes were painted in full American colours following the merger but bore a distinctive white fuselage with traditional AA colours otherwise. American also acquired several -82’s and -83’s from Reno. Lacking commonality with the rest of the fleet, all of Reno’s aeroplanes were retired fairly quickly.  American took delivery of its last new build MD80 from the McDonnell Douglas factory in 1992.

On the final day of operations, American had 26 operational aeroplanes, including one original AA MD-82, N501AA, built and delivered in 1989. American was required to keep at least one MD-82 on its OpSpecs as the -82 was representative of the simulators used for training. At the time of this writing, Ship 501 was the oldest aeroplane in the American Airlines fleet and the last aeroplane remaining from the 1980s. All in all, those 26 retiring planes carried more than 94 million passengers.

The other 25 aeroplanes were former TWA aeroplanes, relatively new for a DC-9, all built between 1997 and 1999. A few fun facts here are that they were the last post-merger TWA aeroplanes remaining in the fleet, and, several are even newer than some of the oldest Boeing 737-800s in the fleet!

Other than one 737-800 retrojet, the retirement of the Super 80 marks the retirement of the final aircraft remaining in the iconic American silver bird Massimo Vignelli 1968 livery, a livery officially retired in 2013 with the unveiling of the “New American”.

When AA accepted our bird, ship 4YU it was C12 123Y now it’s C12 35MCE and 89 Main Cabin. So, not much of a change. It’s always been a near 150 seat mid con haulier, though as the second hand unwound and fuel became more expensive, it did start operating much shorter sectors.

Interestingly, as N984TW was built after the merger between McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing, it bears a Boeing manufacturer’s data plate, still showing it as a DC-9-83 under the DC-9 type certificate of A6WE. The TWA MD-83s also had an auxiliary fuel tank for added range.

Many speculated that the AA MD-80 might continue on given the recent grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX. This was not technically possible as the simulators used for training on the Super 80 did not include the software required for new FAA required enhanced envelope upset recovery training, required as of 2020. Thus, it was never feasible for the AA MD-80s to continue flying due to the simulator limitations.

The JT8Ds still cool faster than almost any other engine in commercial service today. The JT8D is a fuel cooled engine, much more sensitive to throttle movements than modern higher bypass motors!

American also operated 5 former TWA MD-83’s that were built by Shanghai Aircraft Industrial Corporation (SAIC) in China under the “TrunkLiner Program”. 

When American launched Super 80 service on May 15, 1983, the three aircraft initially entering service flew to DFW, LGA BNA, ONT, MEM, and DTW with 13 flights on opening day. Flight 577 from LGA-BNA was the inaugural service. 

In 1984, less than a year after the Super 80 entered service with American, AA made the largest aircraft order in history for an additional 67 airframes and 100 options for delivery between 1985-92.

The S80s were ordered specifically to expand the DFW & ORD hubs and cut fuel burn costs, replacing the 727-100. American took delivery of its final new build MD-80 in 1992.

This aircraft is MSN 53634, LN2287. It was 19.8 years old as of July 31, 2019. According to AA spokesman Ross Feinstein, this aircraft had accumulated 27,554 cycles and 53,598 hours in its logbook. And at an average of 115 passengers, had carried 3.2 million passengers over its nearly 20-year career. It was produced in Long Beach. And again, it was the last MD-80. What a tribute.

The Flight

Flying into DFW on an A220-100, in many ways a spiritual successor to the DC-9, was surreal. Mostly because by the time I arrived, I only saw a grand total of three MD-83s.

Three, three at DFW. DFW, the land of the MD-80! It really hit home that this was not just the end of the type at AA, this was the end of their historic, polished aluminium, livery. They really stood out. Still, a sad sight. DFW, nor ORD will never look the same again with these T-tailers’ demise.

There are two things interesting about this flight. One, in the Words of my favourite lady from Trinidad and Tobago – I am “Pelican Fly.” Yet here I am in 19D. It’s louder back here. Just the way I like it.

The MD80 was quiet upfront and noisy in the back. Like a mullet, party in the front and business in the back (or is that the other way around?)
Two, I’m wearing a lime green suit because it’s still 1986 in my head. I never left the 1980s, and I don’t plan to.

A man needs a lime green suit. No regrets. Photo: Chris Sloan

The MD-83 is coming from an era when seats had this thing called padding, something sorely missing on most domestic airliners, and even many long haul seats. That, in and of itself, is inducing of nostalgia.

Some of us, even, Remember those crazy brown leather recliners AA had up in F back in the A300 era. Those were nice. I miss those. Flying an MD-83 always reminded me of that, even when the seats went to the blue cloth.

The legroom was never Oasis’d – it was certainly better than any other aircraft in the fleet at the time of its retirement. It was pleasant. It was familiar. I used to have very high AA status. I’ve spent a lot of time on Mad-Dogs, I’ll miss them.

Our flight, scheduled as AA 80 (normally the flight number from DFW-LHR), quickly sold out when it was marketed as the last scheduled AA Super 80 flight. Operating the iconic city pair of DFW-ORD, the flight would be the only scheduled MD-80 departure from DFW on September 4.

Several RONs would arrive prior to the departure of AA 80, with most of the fleet retiring to DFW as originators from outstations. 20 or so MD-80’s would ferry from DFW to Roswell (ROW) throughout the day, beginning at 0715, with the final one departing to ROW at 1415. At least two flights to Roswell would carry media and retirees or employees, bidding a final farewell to the desert.

Editor’s Note: Our reporter, Ben Bearup was on one of the Roswell Charter flights. Click for this story.

Our airplane would fly Flight 80 to ORD before ferrying to ROW as AA Flight 9605, arriving at Roswell at 1530 local. Two airplanes, one being N501AA would ferry to Tulsa (TUL) to be donated for preservation at a school while another would remain at DFW reportedly as a de-icing trainer.

AA 80 was scheduled to depart DFW at 0900 and arrive at ORD at 1135, ending 36 years of scheduled DC-9 Super 80 service at American Airlines.

By the numbers, American operated well over 350 MD-80’s, including 270 MD-82’s, 108 MD-83’s, 5 MD-87’s, and 5 MD-90’s.

American began phasing out the noisy and gas-guzzling MD80 fleet years ago, especially after the historic 460 narrow-body aircraft of A320, A320neo, and 737 MAXs order in 2011. This has resulted in AA renewing its once elderly fleet with the youngest, most fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly fleet of any US network carrier.

AA went all out for this celerbrAAtion with swag bags, social media feeds, t-shirts, ’80s music (including a playlist on Apple Music), 1980s SABRE commemorative boarding passes, and balloons festooning the gate.

Many of the boarding passengers were attired in MD80 and 1980s garb. Online, an AA MD-80 timeline and special Instagram video caught many an eye.

The airline’s CEO Doug Parker, who would be on the later special charter to Roswell was in attendance helping with the boarding and autographing boarding passes – and enduring selfies aplenty.

AA Flight 80 was flown by two veteran American Super 80 Captains, Captain Clint Beedle, and Captain Gregory Kunasek. Captain Kunasek was the Fleet Training Manager and MD-80 Fleet Captain.

They were not retiring but joked “Because it’s a special flight, you get two Captains for the price of one. And after 38,000 hours between us, we’ve got it figured out by now.” In the cabin were three Chicago and one Dallas based flight attendants. 

Nearly everyone who was on this flight was here to celebrate the historic occasion. One of the FA’s announced over the PA: “Is anyone here mistakingly on what they thought was a normal flight to Chicago?” Of course, most everyone onboard was here for this fun and a fond farewell though there were a few perplexed passengers who had booked this flight as a regular trip.

Nearly Mixed in with the press and AA team members were many AAdvantage members: 10 Concierge Keys, 47 Executive Platinums, 2 Platinum Pros, 6 Platinums, and 8 Golds.

After an efficient boarding process, American 80 pushed back at 0903 local time from Gate C2 and taxied out to Runway 18L. We witnessed other MD80 arrivals from that morning that would soon be heading to Roswell.

Holding short of the runway, Captain Kunasek and Captain Beedle introduced themselves. It was evident it was both an exciting and somber day for most of them.

Captain Beedle has over 21,000 hours in the MD-80 and has been flying the jet since 1987 with American Airlines. Between both Captains, they have a total of over 38,000 hours in the MD-80.

Captain Beedle remarked that with his next aeroplane, he’d have to “learn French” too big laughs in the cabin, referencing the Airbus. 

Flight 80 was flight planned for 1 hour and 51 minutes at a cruising altitude of 25,000 feet, with a field cruise speed of 477 knots, roughly Mach 0.77. Our filed flight plan routing was KDFW AKUNA7.MLC.SGF.J105.WELTS.TRTLL5 KORD.

Flight 80’s ramp weight at DFW would be about 141,000 lbs, with a blocked fuel of just over 25,000 lbs and a burn-off of about 17,000 lbs of fuel, covering a distance of 774 nautical miles. 

Takeoff occurred at 0925 local into a beautiful shining blue sky, with a takeoff flap setting of 6 degrees. Chicago weather was mostly partly cloudy skies with light winds out of the northeast.

Unsurprisingly, the flight itself became an absolute airborne party. Once the fasten seatbelt sign was turned off, the aisle became party central. It was amazing that the Flight Attendants were able to conduct a service at all. Everything on the drink and catering cart was free “until we run out”.

The cabin crew who had bid this special flight got into the act, enthusiastically snapping selfies and making hilarious quips on the PA.

Nancy Shippel, a forty-year AA FA had been flying the MD80 since it entered service in 1983. Though she has many fond memories of the Mad Dog, she said: “My highlight is this special flight.” Indeed, she hadn’t flown it in 6 years as she regularly works internationally.

The AA employee standby list was well over 400. Many paid Z fares to be there, but American also raffled off seats to grateful employees. Brandon Carpenter, who works in cargo revenue management was one of the lucky winners. His father was an MD80 First Officer so for him “This flight was bittersweet but a dream come true because it instilled my love for American. It runs in my family.”

American Airlines VP of Network Planning, Vasu Raja and his son were among those aboard. Raja’s son was operating a GoPro and hosting a celebratory Mad Dog video for later internal use. Raja, a well respected figure at the airline did not attempt to hide his enthusiasm and inner #AvGeek.

This was the flight no one wanted to end. The crew passed around a safety card to be autographed by all the passengers. This card was destined for the C.R. Smith Museum. But with Sharpies now in the hands of nostalgic and enthusiastic passengers, it wasn’t long before the Sharpies were used to autograph the cabin with many messages and drawings. Clearly, there was a lot of love for the old Mad Dog!

With only 10 minutes remaining in the flight, the crew was asked to clear the aisles and prepare for arrival. Some people resisted chanting for a go around!

Captain Beedle made an extremely smooth touchdown on Runway 10C at O’Hare at 1112 local time. Parking at Gate K5 at 11:18 local to a round of applause, Flight 80 had arrived.

Usually, there’s a mad rush to disembark a flight but not with Flight 80. Another chant went up to depart via the rear tail-cone stairs – though, at ORD, this was not to be.

Instead, everyone was greeted to another party on the ground festooned with balloons and applause from the ground staff. It felt like a hero’s welcome!

The weird thing about this flight is that, even with everyone decked out in their MD-80 finest, it felt like a completely normal flight from DFW to ORD… until it didn’t!

Seriously, it was a strange mix of familiarity and excitement – and it opened with the former! I can’t describe what it felt like beyond. “Well, this is one of those times my UDU didn’t clear – here I am on a Maddog, it’s comfy.”

When the captain started making announcements that this was the last flight, it had struck me. It’s an end of an era. And while I may not be as impacted as many given that I was not born in the USA and did not grow up flying AA – it’s a big deal. There will never be another passenger announcement made on an AA MD-80, as one of the captains pointed out. It’s done. Finished. They’re all memories now.

It was such a cool experience to be in a flying party! Within the CONUS! No less. Never done that. It was magical. Everyone was there because they love planes. That made me so happy.

I’m very grateful to have been on this historic pAArty in the Sky with the #Super80SendOff. After 36 years, AA’s Mad Dog has earned her retirement her place in history, and in many people’s hearts.

My 1980s Super 80 Playlist

Linda Brock of AA Corp Comms in Tulsa cleverly created a 1980s playlist on Apple Music. And so did I.

For those of you who are curious, when I fly as a passenger on something that I’ve been on eleven million times – I wield a pair of Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones. You should listen to it!

  • “Echo Beach” – Martha and the Muffins
  • “Our Lips Are Sealed” – The Go-Go’s
  • “Cities in Dust” – Siouxsie and the Banshees. The version from Tinderbox, not the single version.
  • “(Nothing But) Flowers” – Talking Heads
  • “Island of Lost Souls” – Blondie
  • “Private Idaho” – The B-52’s
  • “Mad About You” – Belinda Carlisle (Quelle surprise)
  • “Hero Takes a Fall” – The Bangles. “Walk Like an Egyptian” – The Bangles. Can’t be too careful.
  • “My Best Friend’s Girl” – The Cars. It’s way better than “Magic,” I am convinced the person making the playlist at AA was one of the cool kids. Or they palmed it off onto their, cool-kid, millennial intern (hence the pointless Rickroll). This band called Echosmith said that they wanted to eat all the cool kids, at least from the one time I heard that millennial trash in the distance.
  • “The Old Man Down The Road” – John Fogerty
  • “Suddenly Last Summer” – The Motels
  • “Head Over Heels” – The Go-Gos. They put Tears for Fears on their playlist. It must be counteracted. Tears for Fears did a song with the same title, but it wasn’t a secret allegory for misery. They also used two songs by the same artist – therefore, so can I. Nothing happens and I’m not head over heels. Especially when the decadence of the past must be corrected.
  • “Supervixen” – Garbage. The Maddog served well in the 1990s, it’s a super 80. There is nothing but this, this thing you’ll never doubt.
  • “Monkey to man” – Elvis Costello. Few planes have soldiered on through as many comebacks and attempts to return to making good music as the MD-82. It’s fitting to use a good Elvis Costello song that came out after This Years Model!
  • “А Я всё летала” – Блестящий. I’m me. The song literally translates to ‘And I kept flying!” No, I don’t know why either. Oh, wait I do. The MD-80 continues to serve in the Islamic Republic of Iran. There are also a few freight dog mad dogs in Alaska.

Even more reason for this song, the DC-9 type certificate is not even dead within America and will not be gone for quite some time.

Delta will keep the MD-88 going until 2020 (maybe even later), taking the MD-90s with them around 2022. The 717 will soldier on after.

Of course, even that is not the end of the DC-9, as airlines within the People’s Republic of China take deliveries of its grandson, the COMAC ARJ-21.