One year after American Airlines retired its long-serving T-tailed MD-80s, Simple Flying looks back at this iconic aircraft that first took to the skies over 40 years ago. Follow along from its launch customer to where you might still be able to catch one today.
The distinct aircraft with its turbofan engines fitted in the rear fuselage used to be a common sight, and sound, crossing the skies to and fro, delivering passengers from regional airports to larger hubs for over 30 years. Today, only a few are still in passenger service, and you would have to travel a long way to find one.
One year on following the retirement of American Airlines’ McDonnell Douglas MD-80s, let’s take a trip down memory lane with this sleek, iconic T-tailed aircraft, affectionately known as the “Mad Dog.”
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First flight over 40 years ago
The McDonnell Douglas MD-80 was conceived as a stretched variant of the manufacturer’s DC-9 model, a tried and tested short-haul aircraft with space for fewer than 140 passengers. The MD-80 offered improvements in avionics, cockpit, and engines, and took its first flight on October 18th, 1979, as the DC-9 Super 80. It was certified within the year, receiving approval from the FAA on August 25th, 1980.
The MD-80 was built at the manufacturer’s production facilities in Long Beach, California. Until the end of its production, just before the turn of the century, the planemaker had made and delivered 1,191 of the twinjet. Although, of course, McDonnell Douglas itself was not around anymore, as Boeing purchased the company in 1997.
The MD-80’s first customer was Swissair, the old national airline of Switzerland that filed for bankruptcy in 2002. The carrier launched the program in October 1977 with an order for 15 and an option for an additional five.
It received its first of the jets on September 13th, 1980, and entered it into commercial service nearly a month later, on October 10th. At one point, Swissair had 29 MD-80s in its fleet.
Of course, that is nowhere near the model’s largest operator. American Airlines was the first US operator to order the aircraft and flew its first service with the MD-80 from Santa Barbara Municipal Airport to Dallas Fort Worth on May 2nd, 1984.
At the height of American’s MD-80 operations, it had 360 of the model. That equaled 40% of American’s entire fleet, and 30% of all the MD-80s ever made.
Final US flight
The last US passenger airline to still operate the jet brought its retirement date forward due to the current upheaval going on across the global aviation industry. Delta operated its final flight with the MD-80 this summer. The aircraft, an MD-88, flew from Washington DC to Delta’s hub in Atlanta on June 2nd, 2020.
Now to the more technical details. There are several variants of the MD-80; the -81, -82, -83, -87, and-88. There is even a -90, depending on how you classify. Up until the shorter fuselage -87, which was announced in 1985 and entered commercial service with Austrian Airlines in 1987 (!), the differences between them were relatively minor.
Apart from the shorter -87, the basic “long-body” versions of the MD-80 have an overall length of 147 feet 8 inches, with a wingspan of 107 feet 10 inches. The cabin itself was more narrow than the short-to-medium range planes that have since come to replace it, measuring 122.5 inches with space for five seats abreast in economy.
Designed for frequent short-haul flights, it has a max passenger configuration of 172. Typical arrangements would allow for 135, with 12 in a four-abreast first class, and 123 in economy.
All the models have a two-person cockpit. However, the MD-88’s has an EFIS cockpit instead of the more traditional analog flight deck of the other models. The final model of the -80 series was also updated with a wind-shear warning system, that came to be offered as a retrofitted option on the older models as well.
Engines, speed, and range
The MD-80 is powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-200 series turbofan engines. They provide it with a cruising speed of 873 km/h and a maximum of 925 km/h.
The MD-80’s range increased over the years and the upgrades. The MD-81’s maximum range with 155 passengers and reserves came in at 2897km. However, when the MD-83 entered service in 1985, it already had a range of 4,637 km, which remained much the same for the later models.
In the end, the company and its subsequent owner sold 132 MD-81, 569 MD-82, 265 MD-83, 150 MD-88, and 75 of the shorter fuselage MD-87.
The aircraft can, due to its rear-mounted engines, be extremely quiet if you are lucky enough to travel upfront. Pilots have even joked that they needed to check the instruments to make sure the engines were still on. However, if you are seated in row 20 and further down, it is one of the noisiest experiences in modern commercial aviation. Therefore, it might only be truly missed by hardcore aviation enthusiasts.
The plane is affectionately nicknamed “Mad Dog.” Hailing from its initials, but also because of its powerful take-off and the fact that it still, unlike most modern planes, requires a pilot’s full attention to fly and land.
But where could you fly one today?
Should you really miss the experience of the MD-80, most of the ones still operating passenger services can be found flying through the skies in Iran. Argentinian regional Andes Líneas Aéreas might be a safer bet, though. There are also a few in Africa, including one belonging to the Chadian Government. Or, you could make it onto the NBA team of the Detroit Pistons, which as of July this year still had its own MD-83, not that it has had much use of it this season.
What are your memories and experience of the MD-80? Do you miss it? Let us know in the comments.