September 4 was a bittersweet day at American Airlines. The once-bellwether of its domestic fleet, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80, was flying its last flights for the world’s largest airline. All of the memories, the first flights, the careers of captains who bypassed promotions to stay on the MD-80, and emotional recollections of flights with fathers and sons, came to a head for a single day. But it wasn’t just an airline saying goodbye to a jet, it was something more. In corporate America, there’s rarely room for Heart. There was plenty of it on display on September 4 at DFW Airport and Roswell, New Mexico.
When Apple got rid of the classic iPod, it was a press release and a few blog posts. This was so much more than that. It was a rare moment seeing an enormous corporation invest resources in saying goodbye to a beloved product.
Before we get going, a brief aside to remind you to check out my MD-80 video tribute, which will help you understand why it was so beloved by so many.
American Airlines MD-80 Retirement Ceremony at DFW Airport
The day began early, before sunrise in fact. I arrived to DFW Airport’s Terminal C with a buffet of camera equipment to capture the day. Once I cleared the achingly thorough TSA security checkpoint I made my way to gate C2, which, although it’s at DFW’s oldest terminal, has enough space to handle events the scale of the MD-80 retirement.
It was barely 6am but event setup was already in full swing.
Of course they had balloon letters, and, as fully expected, soon after people started arriving the letters were a constant photo spot for all manner of frequent flyer and American Airlines team members. There was a stage and podium set up for remarks as well, with lots of airline branding all over the place.
The schedule was set up as follows:
- 9am: the last revenue flight of the MD-80, American Airlines flight 80, departs for Chicago
- 10:45am: chartered American Airlines team member flight departs for the boneyard at Roswell, New Mexico
- 11:30am: the last passenger-carrying flight, a chartered media and special guest, flight departs for the boneyard at Roswell, New Mexico
As the boarding time for AA80 crept closer, the gate was overtaken by all manner of American Airlines team members, executives, and frequent flyers and avgeeks who booked AA80 just to fly on the last one. Meanwhile, a few MD-80s stood ready at the various gates at DFW before making their way to Roswell, offering a final chance of the long-beloved silver American Airlines livery before it went away forever later that day.
An aviation photographer I’ve followed for years on Instagram, @diecastryan, was roaming the terminal not only shooting pictures but also doing stories for American and DFW Airport on Instagram. It was an absolute joy meeting him in person, we’ve both followed each other for years on Instagram and he’s an absolutely phenomenal photographer!
Oh, and there were at least two people who just happened to book a flight to Chicago and had no idea what all the hubbub was about.
Anyway, the pre-flight ceremonies commenced with Cedric Rockamore, VP of DFW Airport for American Airlines, welcoming everyone to a special day.
Then an assortment of folks made some remarks, from Captain Greg Kunasek, MD-80 Fleet Captain, informed us that the two captains on AA80 had almost 37000 hours on the MD-80 combined!
Then, one my favorite people I’ve met in my time as a frequent flyer, a long-time flight attendant named Patti Strait, spoke about her history with the MD-80 and what it meant to her.
After the remarks were through (a few more people spoke) the party really began. From out of nowhere an MD-80 flag appeared, which was subsequently signed by the crew for the flight.
It was at this point everyone noticed that American Airlines CEO Doug Parker had joined the crowd. Although I know many have criticized his decisions (ahem…myself included), I don’t think anyone would say he’s anything but personable when you see him out and about. He was instantly deluged by frequent flyers, passengers on AA80, and American Airlines team members hoping for a picture with the CEO.
Eventually boarding was called and an enthusiastic group of frequent flyers made their way through the boarding area. After a really quick boarding process, the gate was shut on revenue MD-80 flights for the final time.
As flight AA80 pushed back for departure, one of the captains opened the cockpit window to unfurl the MD-80 flag signed by the crewmembers for one final photo-op as assorted ground crew and staff looked on.
The charter flights to Roswell
Ultimately almost every American MD-80 would end up in Roswell at the end of the day, but there were two special flights: the team member flight (for which American team members had to enter a drawing to attend on their internal JetNet website) and the final passenger flight carrying media and a few other American team members. Since these were charter flights, seating would be first-come, first-served, but they did have a special drawing for the super-quiet first class seats, led by Doug Parker himself.
It was a festive atmosphere, and people were really embracing the trip out to Roswell, including one of my favorite American Airlines corp comms folks.
Team members were boarded and the team member flight was pushed back to head out to Roswell.
Finally, it was time for the MD-80s last passenger-carrying flight. Similar to the team member flight, they had a drawing for the First Class seats, led by American Airlines SVP Global Engagement Ron DeFeo and SVP Marketing, Loyalty, and Sales Kurt Stache.
The first name they called was…mine! I eagerly grabbed my First Class boarding pass, happy to sit up front for my final flight on the MD-80. My buddy Ed, from the world-renowned Pizza in Motion blog and Now Boarding podcast, was the next name called, so we were pumped about sharing the experience.
Eventually boarding was called for the handful of passengers on the flight. I boarded the MD-80 for the last time and, of course, the first picture I took was of the distinct window shade.
Boarding was very quick, since there were so few passengers on the flight, and we quickly pushed back and heard the Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofans spool up for taxi. Captain Bruce Taylor, who you might remember from my video above, introduced himself and informed us that he’d be hand-flying the flight today as a final tribute to the MD-80. We taxied out behind another MD-80 making its way to Roswell!
The MD-80 is famous for its ability to get off the ground in a hurry, and, as we lined up for takeoff on runway 18R, we saw the MD-80 in front of us rocket into the sky almost as soon as it began its takeoff roll! We began our takeoff roll and I wondered to myself if our captain would follow a similar takeoff roll. I didn’t have to wait long as we screamed into the skies!
Now, I was somewhat expecting what came next. I knew from watching plane videos on YouTube (I’m an avgeek, what can I say) that pilots will frequently dip the wings to either side when that aircraft (or a retiring pilot) leaves an airport for the final time, a “wave” of sorts. The plane tilted to the left and then reeeeeally far to the right, causing some nervous laughter from those who didn’t know what to expect!
We leveled off, had some quick vittles from the fantastic flight attendants, and then pretty much everyone on board got up when the seatbelt sign was turned off to walk around the plane one last time during the short flight over to Roswell. It was a rare opportunity to get some in-flight pictures from perspectives I never could get as a passenger.
And then I couldn’t help but get one more picture from 27F, one of the best seats in all of aviation.
It was a beautiful day for flying until we were over the desert when we encountered the typical turbulence of monsoon season.
We made a smooth landing at Roswell and I immediately grabbed my camera and
left my seat while taxiing to take pictures wait the FAA might read this sat in my seat with my seatbelt securely fastened until the captain turned off the fasten seatbelt sign.
I was excited about landing at Roswell because so many jets are stored out there in various stages of disassembly. It was kind of a shock to the system, though, as the first row of planes we came across were rows of MD-80s configured for storage.
There’d be more time for the boneyard though. We taxied to a special hangar with a red carpet outside and actually got to disembark from the rear stairs of the MD-80!
We were quickly ushered into the terminal as the ceremony was beginning soon. There was a really cool stage set and a great 1980’s playlist playing on the sound system.
American Airlines SVP Global Engagement Ron DeFeo was the emcee for the event. The first guest he invited up was John Wilt, a retired captain of the MD-80, who spoke briefly about how much the MD-80 meant to him as a pilot.
Up next was a very moving testimony by Brian Kilian, who works at American Airlines Credit Union. He shared an emotional story about his experience with the MD-80, as he had documented every flight and aircraft he had been on since his dad took him on his first flight as a baby. He had the tail number of the last jet he had flown on with his dad before he passed away tattooed on his arm, and that tail number belonged to an MD-80. He said he was proud to carry on the family tradition with his son, as he had already begun filling out his son’s logbook!
Kisha Hardaway, Sr. Analyst, Tech Ops Planning at American Airlines, formerly based at the maintenance base in Tulsa but now based near DFW, had extensive experience with the MD-80. She shared a story of starting at American and growing up in her career with the MD-80, reaching levels she never imagined helping coordinate tech ops for the jet.
Finally it was time for Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh. Obviously the boneyard at Roswell is the source for many jobs in Roswell but Mayor Kintigh, during his presentation of a key to the city of Roswell to American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, cut right to the chase, saying to Parker, “Now Doug, I’ll tell you the same thing I said to President Barack Obama a few years ago when he came to Roswell. He asked me where the aliens were and I said to him, ‘Mr. President, as a retired FBI Agent, you don’t have the credentials to know that information.'” Hearty chuckles all around.
Parker really spoke about the people surrounding the MD-80. Everyone loved the jet but he was most proud of the team members who worked on, in, or with the jet. He thanked everyone for coming and then the ceremony concluded, which meant one thing: time for more pictures of the MD-80! Many ferry flights had already arrived in Roswell but there were four more scheduled to land, with the final one coming in from Chicago (the same jet that served flight AA80 earlier in the day).
Out on the ramp it was a steamy day (I mean, we were in the desert, of course it was hot) but everyone was in good spirits because, hey, planes!
I didn’t realize this until I was looking at my pictures afterward, but I caught an MD-80 landing in the background underneath the wing of the MD-80 on the ramp!
And this trippy one where it looks like the MD-80 is chasing its own t-tail.
Off in the distance, we could see other MD-80s which landed earlier in the day.
Another MD-80 came in for landing and was nice enough to face my camera directly for a head-on picture.
The Roswell Boneyard
So somehow my Instagram buddy from earlier and I ended getting into the boneyard. On our way over, though, we stopped at where some other MD-80s were parked just to grab some awesome pictures of that magnificent t-tail one more time.
A little further down the road we saw the fate which awaited some of these aircraft (although many have been sold on to other airlines).
We entered the boneyard through an enormous hangar where an old 757 (previously operated by American) stood.
We were given permission to climb into the jet, where we were greeted by a combination of the familiar American Airlines 757 interior and the eeriness of it being in mid-disassembly.
Out in the yard we saw another 757 in the process of being scrapped.
It was rather eery if I’m honest, it was a windy day out in the desert and the wind moved the horizontal stabilizer back and forth.
The primary reason we were out at the boneyard was to get a unique perspective of the final landing of the MD-80 at Roswell. We saw the jet (the same one which operated AA80 to Chicago earlier) enter a pattern for final approach…to land at the opposite end of the runway that we were set up at since the winds had changed…ugh.
It landed, of course at the exact wrong end of the airport for us, and taxied towards the hangar. I was thankful that my 100-megapixel Fuji GFX100 can crop in so much and save these shots!
As it pulled up towards the hangar we ended up with a really cool view of the American team members and assembled media capturing the jet.
We continued into the boneyard, trying to maximize the time we had at such a cool place. We saw everything from old American 737s…
to MD-80s in the storage phase.
We even caught some pictures of some illicit jets, which I may be able to share someday 😉
And then…it was over
We were running a little late to catch our charter flight back to DFW (on an E175, not an MD-80 #eyeroll). The poor TSA workers at Roswell’s small airport were working super hard to get us squared away, and all the media with our assorted camera equipment didn’t help things, but we eventually boarded and I think the entire plane instantly fell asleep for the quick flight back to Dallas.
We landed at DFW at terminal B and I made my way up to the Skylink to head to the parking garage at Terminal C, where I had parked a little over 12 hours before. As I watched the planes at their gates, I could immediately see how different everything looked without the MD-80. The new American livery dominated and every tail looked the same, a metaphor for how The Same it is aboard American flights now that the MD-80 is gone (and will become even more so after the Project Oasis refurbishments are complete). In an era of uniformity, a little jet called the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 was different. It brought us to our memories, even on its final flight. But, even in its absence, the world moved on. Planes were still flying, and American Airlines jets were still taking passengers to where their memories would be.
An enormous thank you to American Airlines for inviting me to cover the festivities. This was my toughest media assignment, as I cared deeply about the MD-80, so I hope I struck a good balance between reporting about the day and just enjoying the experience.
To the American Airlines MD-80: I wish you nothing but clear skies and clean air. Godspeed.
Share your favorite memory of the American Airlines MD-80 below in the comments!