Why Was The MD-80 Called The Mad Dog?

Having made its first flight in 1979, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 went into service with launch customer Swissair in 1980. The aircraft, which was developed from the Douglas DC-9, became affectionately known as the Mad Dog. But how did it come to get its nickname?

The MD-80 is affectionately known as the Mad Dog. Photo: Getty Images

The MD-80 Mad Dog

The McDonnell Douglas MD-80 was designed as a stretched version of the Douglas DC-9 and was originally designated as the DC-9 Super 80. It wasn’t until 1983 that it would be officially renamed as the MD-80. It is a narrowbody aircraft featuring twin Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines attached to the rear of the fuselage, a distinctive T-tail, and small and efficient wings.

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The Mad Dog nickname came not only from its MD initials but also because it takes off like a rocket and makes a hell of a lot of noise. Unlike later automated planes, the Mad Dog also needs full hands-on attention from the pilot during takeoff and landing.

Another possible reason for the nickname was the availability of a notorious cheap American wine called MD 20/20. Popular with winos, it was commonly known as Mad Dog 20/20 because it gave you a mighty buzz for your money!

The MD-80 became a common sight across the skies as it became something of a workhorse on short-haul routes. If you lived close to an airport served by the Mad Dog, you’d certainly be aware of it taking off as it roared into the sky.

American Airlines MD-80
The MD-80s powerful and noisy takeoff helped it to gain its Mad Dog nickname. Photo: TxPoor via Flickr

The Mad Dog was no easy sell

Between its maiden flight in 1979 and the end of production in 1999, McDonnell Douglas, and later Boeing, built and delivered 1,191 MD-80s. It featured many technological advances, including two autonomous digital flight guidance computers, a glare shield-mounted flight guidance control panel, flight director, autothrottle, a thrust mode selection system, and an autoland system.

McDonnell Douglas had good initial orders from Europe. Launch customer Swissair ordered 15 aircraft, while Austrian Airlines took eight planes. However, apart from Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), no North American airline showed any interest in ordering the MD-80.

The main reason was that the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) insisted that the aircraft needed a crew of three pilots. This was despite the fact that the FAA had approved the Super 80 with a minimum crew of a pilot and co-pilot. Before confirming its order, even PSA had to convince its pilots’ union, which was not affiliated to ALPA.

MD-80 Mad Dog
American Airlines and delta were finally convinced to take the controls of the Mad Dog. Photo: Don McCullough via Flickr

MD-80 sales finally take off

Between 1977 and 1982, McDonnell Douglas had only secured orders for 109 MD-80s. However, in 1982, the company launched an inspirational sales campaign, including a world tour taking in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. It also used every trick in the book to convince American Airlines and Delta to place orders for the MD-80.

The manufacturer’s persistence eventually paid off. According to Planespotters.net, American airlines had owned 383 Mad dogs until their final retirement on September 4 last year. Delta, which had been the launch customer of the DC-9, ordered 165 MD-80s. Its final Mad Dog was retired on June 2.

The MD-80 is still flying over 40 years after its launch, but you might have to travel to some far-flung places to get onboard one of the iconic planes.

What are your experiences of the Mad Dog? Let us know in the comments.