Cruise speed: 504 mph
Wingspan: 108′ 0″
Engine type: Pratt & Whitney JT8D
Thrust: 21,700 pounds
Unit cost: $41,500,000 – $48,000,000
Crew: Captain, First Officer and three Flight Attendants
Manufacturers: McDonnell Douglas, Boeing Commercial Airplanes
In the olden days, pilots all knew who Jimmy Doolittle, Hap Arnold, Pappy Boyington and Paul Mantz were. They all read Wind, Sand and Stars, as well as Fate Is The Hunter. They quoted The High and The Mighty, Flying Leathernecks and Twelve O’Clock High. Pilots drank coffee and whiskey, smoked cigars and didn’t wear digital watches. Pilots didn’t bend over for a strip search in front of the passengers at security. They didn’t go through the terminal pulling a suitcase, computer, guitar and food bag. And they hand-carried their suitcases and kitbags – no wheels. They wore jackets, hats, ties and kept their bright-white shirts pressed and tucked in. There was no pink string with granny glasses and ID dangling from their necks and they didn’t bump into passengers while talking on their cell phones. They nodded an acknowledgement of respect to other pilots that passed by. And these real pilots, well, they flew real airplanes too.
When Jets Roamed the Earth
In the day of the 707, 727 and DC-9, there was very little plastic or composites on the airplane. They were proportional and sexy. They had no vortex generators, ventral fins, winglets, flow diverters, tattoos or nose rings. They were the last of the “real” airliners: ones that had flight controls connected to the yoke with something solid and made smoke and noise. Along with military fighters of the day, they gave birth to the moniker “the sound of freedom.” Airlines were run by men like C.R. Smith (American), Juan Trippe (PanAm) and Bob Six (Continental), who built their companies virtually from scratch, knew most of their employees by name and were lifetime airline employees themselves. Except when low on fuel, economy cruise was something buried in the performance book. And when the clacker went off, no one got nervous or scared, because Lockheed, Boeing and Douglas built their machines out of iron. Nothing was going to fall off these jets and the barber-pole sound caused the same result on pilots then as Viagra does now. After all, this was the jet age and the idea was to go fast – really fast.
The McDonnell Douglas DC-9 is a series of twin-engine, short to medium-range, single-aisle commercial jet airliners, lengthened and updated to become the MD-80 and acquiring the marketing name of Super-80 (S-80) and the nickname Mad Dog. It’s an accurate and enduring description of the darling that has been my home for almost 20,000 hours. Note the “has been.” The airplane is leaving our fleet this fall, ostensibly due to high operating costs – even with oil, and therefore jet fuel, being comparatively cheap these days. Management wants to tout a younger average fleet age and smaller overall carbon footprint (aka, cheaper to operate). Of course, our new generation of customers enjoy the new-car smell, the new-cabin gadgetry and the new-hire flight attendants of these new-generation airliners, despite the new lack of legroom. Sometimes newer isn’t nicer. Truthfully, the primary reason for retiring the Mad Dog is a looming and costly fuel tank AD, precipitated by the loss of TWA flight 800. The 747 fuel tank explosion in 1996 was caused by a spark at one of the submerged fuel pumps in a fuel cell. The MD-80 has a similar fuel system with pumps in fuselage-mounted tanks and is, therefore, like many AD’s, guilty by association. And it’s this association that management doesn’t want to be associated with. As the airplane is retired, and like the GPS and ADS-B updates for the Duke last year, the new-world is once again running me over as I’m forced into a new, next-gen airliner.
Arrogant Fighter Pilot
In 1990, the 737-200 systems were still old-style and the instrumentation was round-dial “steam gauges.” In order to apply to Southwest, I completed a 737 type course in just such a jet. Having come from GA and a single-seat fighter, training in an airliner with two pilots and antique, manual systems was strange, and quite a challenge. I had to borrow money for the type-class but it was money well spent, because it eased my transition into the Part-121 jets at my carrier. Two years later, when I went through initial training on the MD-80, there was a Captain in the class transitioning from the left seat of the 727. I remember that he was struggling during the systems class and in the simulator. He had been at the airline for about 25 years, likely all of it on the 727. Having begun his career as a Flight Engineer then moving to FO and Captain, he was a master of the three-hole Jurassic Jet. Since I trained on the 727 panel as a new hire myself, I was surprised at his difficulty with the MD-80. I had found the 727 to be much more complex and difficult to learn than the 737 and MD-80. But, be silent and bow low in respect, oh ye arrogant fighter pilot–ye are but a squire. It took years, but this new-hire airline pilot would learn that not all was as it appeared.
It’s only now, as I become an antique pilot myself after finishing 25 years on the MD-80, that I am able to empathize and fully understand the Noble Knight of the 727’s dilemma. The comfort level you acquire in an airplane after 20,000 hours is significant. It’s wonderful to recognize the quirks, idiosyncrasies and even the moods of your machine, and to feel like you’re always ahead of the airplane. The trust that passengers intuitively feel when they see a grey-haired captain is well placed. But I’ve also come to realize that a grey-haired, 60-year old body and brain are very different than that of a 30-year old. It’s similar to when you were young, you could play baseball, tennis or golf all day and remain alert, engaged and active during the evening. You could also remember things without writing them down and the reason you walked all the way to the other end of the house to get…… something? At some point after 55, those physical and mental gifts begin to deteriorate. Stamina, vision and memory degrade. Body parts begin to creak, groan and fail. Eventually, the degradation becomes significant and you must adapt your behavior in order to continue at the same level of competence and safety. If you are fortunate, increased effort, study and fortitude will be enough to compensate. But in a profession where you need both mental and physical dexterity, age, like fate, is the hunter.
One of many great MD-80 FO’s I’ve flown with, Greg, is already 60 and had to leave the MD-80 as well. He chose a transition to the Baby Bus–the Airbus 319. I’ve been picking his brain to see how he handled the training; making light of our age in an attempt to clue him in on my concern. He showed me a stack of study material he got from the company to help with the transition. Another writer/associate retired after a lifetime as a surgeon to become a professional Citation pilot. Training in a completely new and complex aircraft, especially when at retirement age, is not for the faint of heart – or absent-minded. Perhaps the secret is simply to coax enough brain cells out of hibernation and into action. But many pilots don’t suffer, or enjoy, my affliction. Anthropomorphism is both a blessing and a curse. What is the airplane thinking, what does it want and what is it trying to tell me? It has been a successful method of interacting with the Mad Dog. At first, my knowledge level in the 737 will be low and its anthropomorphic language difficult to understand. It will be my task to transition from squire to knight as quickly and smoothly as possible. With pun intended, I anticipate it will be difficult to teach this Mad Dog captain new tricks. I will soon feel the pain and frustration of that 727 captain trying to learn the MD-80 some 26 years ago. Hopefully, my love of airplanes and flying will wake some brain cells that still have memory space remaining.
End of the Trail
Except for a couple of years, my entire airline career has been spent on the Mad Dog. I’m often dismayed how some pilots buy and sell airplanes and change equipment without feeling a profound emotional loss. I tell its detractors that the Super-80 is one of the last real airliners. One that not only makes smoke and noise, but one that needs a pilot as badly as the pilot needs it. It’s a symbiotic relationship and I surely have needed that airplane. All along, you have been my smoky, noisy, reliable and steadfast partner. As we reach the trail’s end, I’m grateful we rode it together. Leaving you isn’t my idea and I will miss you profoundly.