Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bye Bye, DC-9

Delta Air Lines recently announced the termination of McDonnell Douglas DC-9 from its fleet in January 2014 (the exact date is still unconfirmed by Delta, although widely speculated to be January 6th), ending nearly five decades of the aircraft's existence of American commercial service. Of special significance is that the same airline that first launched the DC-9 in 1965 will also see its end, and Delta may commemorate the moment by marking the final two flights as 1965 and 2014.

One of the most popular commercial planes ever in existence, the several variants of the DC-9 have always served its niche purpose of providing service on short and medium routes and mostly to the smaller airports in a carrier's network. When utilized to its utmost efficiency, these planes were a workhorse, possibly flying up to six legs within a given day.

The DC-9 was born of a new jet age, before the attention to fuel consumption and noise disruptions were the primary concerns that we know of today. They made jet travel available to those living in smaller communities where previously, only propeller-driven aircraft could accommodate such facilities. And man, were those jets loud! If you had the (dis)pleasure of sitting in the rear of the fuselage, it would be hard not to notice the sound of the two Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbojet engines, each spitting out 16,000 pounds of thrust. The DC-9 also represents one of the last of a dying breed-engines mounted on the rear of the fuselage. They still exist in subsequent McDonnell Douglas aircraft; the MD-80, MD-90, and MD-95 (Boeing 717) however, all are no longer in production.

The last DC-9 (Series 50) was produced in 1982 but they have maintained a presence in the skies. Since acquiring them during the Northwest merger in 2009, Delta installed Wi-Fi on the airplanes and have primarily used them on short to medium legs out of their Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, and (the now-defunct) Memphis hubs. What a passenger may fail to notice is that these planes never saw an upgrade in the flight deck. They continue to use their original systems, without a Flight Management Computer (FMC), requiring pilots to fly using ground-based navigation systems like a VOR. A lack of a FMC often meant that DC-9s were commonly slightly off course, more than other modern airliners.

What piqued my interest in writing about the retirement of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 was the special attention given to these final flights by my fellow avgeeks. Plans are being made by many to be onboard the final legs, and Delta has not failed to notice the draw. Flight 2014 for January 6, 2014 is almost completely full and it appears that a special event is planned before that last flight departs Minneapolis for Atlanta. The attention to this historic event has placed within me a feeling of regret. I cannot, with conviction, tell anyone if I have ever flown on a DC-9 of any type. I just don't remember. It's only now that I appreciate what this aircraft has meant for those of us who love airplanes and it's too bad that I will not have the pleasure of recognizing this special occasion for myself and with those in the aviation community.

For the Delta DC-9s, I wish you a happy afterlife in desert heaven or wherever your next call takes you.