June 14, 2010

Airliner Graveyard

I recently delivered two pristine McDonnell Douglas MD-82's to Roswell, New Mexico for long term storage. Strange day to say the least, emotionally and otherwise, as I sent two perfectly good aircraft to an arguably early grave. The day started with the simple task of parking my car. I could have parked within walking distance of the jet, which was parked across the airport at the hangar, but at the end of the day I was going to deadhead home from Roswell on a revenue flight and...well, the airline is a lot more interested in helping me find my way to the jet at the beginning of the day than helping back to my car at the end...so, I parked at the terminal and began my journey to the other side of the airport.

The crew scheduler who assigned me the trip the day before knew nothing of the process except that the aircraft would be at the hangar, not the terminal. A fact with which I was already familiar. So, I did what any pilot does when he doesn't know what to do, I called the Chief Pilot. That is, I called the Chief Pilot's secretary, because they, not the chiefs, are the ones with all the answers. I was provided with the phone number I needed to set up transportation and managed to get to the hangar. Once there I had to determine which aircraft was to be ferried that day and where the logbook was located. Flight planning was already done, but I was responsible for requesting fuel and servicing the aircraft for departure. Just finding the jet was no easy task, as there were about ten MD-80's scattered in and around the hangar, all a significant walk from where I was planning my flight.

Once at the jet, things didn't get any easier. To make matters worse, the Captain I was assigned to fly with had not planned on having so much trouble getting from the terminal to the hangar and showed up about 45 minutes late. I performed my pre-flight walk around inspection, loaded the FMS and prepared the cockpit. The cockpit was like any other 80, the cabin was another story. Anything that was not permanently attached to the airframe had been removed. Nothing in the gallies. No supplies in the lavs. No unnecessary fluids of any kind...DO NOT USE THE LAVS! No I didn't make that mistake. When the Captain finally arrived, I had the jet ready to go and we left on time. No one, was impressed.

By the time we were ready to depart, a mechanic had already removed the chocks, closed the aft stairs behind us, given us the all clear for engine start and left. The ground crew for a normal start and push-back would include two wing walkers and a tug driver with whom we are in constant contact. Today, we were on our own. We started engines and taxied out from the hangar without assistance from any ground personnel, mark that up for another strange feeling. When you can't see your wing tips from the cockpit, taxiing out without extra eyes on the ground is unnerving to say the least.

A normal takeoff weight for an MD-80 is somewhere between 125,000 and 160,000 pounds. This jet, at just over 80,000, wanted to fly and was ready to leap into the air about the time we managed to get the power set for takeoff. To illustrate, there is a point on our departure that we usually struggle to cross at the mandatory "5,000 or above" restriction...we were level at 10,000 before this point. En-route was pretty uneventful except for the fact that we were alone. No passengers, no flight attendants...no one calling to complain about the temperature...I wondered if this was how UPS and FedEx guys felt. Quiet.

Landing, as you can see in the video, is difficult when landing at this weight. The extra weight on the struts during a normal weight landing helps to smooth out a less than perfect touch down and in this case, there was no extra weight. My landing was a little long and a little firm, but hey, we walked away. After all, any landing you walk away from is a good landing...but everyone knows that's just what you say after a crappy landing. After clearing the runway we were happy to find an eager "follow me" truck to lead us through the maze of lonely jets on our way to the final resting place of this old friend.

With about an hour until our flight home, we accepted the hospitality of an airport employee who generously offered to give us the grand tour. We hopped in his car and meandered up and down the various rows of abandoned planes. Some of what I saw that day did not surprise me at all...old 727s and early model 737s that were long past their prime. DC9s that hadn't flown in years. 747s that were nearing the end of their life when I was learning to fly. Other sights were a surprise, like a line of Air Canada 767s that looked freshly painted and ready for service. Four American Airlines F100s left over from the company's ill-timed decision to get rid of 100 seat jets. A line of UPS DC8s with new high bypass engines while old, seemed out of place. On a side note, it is my understanding that the DC8s were the casualty of a bureaucratic pissing match between UPS and the FAA over maintenance records. The list goes on.

The MD-82 I sent to it's grave was a nice flying, well equipped machine with GPS, moving map, EGPWS, TCAS and more. Much of the equipment I only dreamed of having a short time ago. Now we're sending such aircraft to the desert. Money is always the bottom line in these decisions, but not always the way you might thing. After all, the old MD80 is significantly less efficient than the 737 that is it's replacement. But metal fatigue is an even greater issue. As an aircraft ages, all its structures and components experience metal fatigue. Once this internal deformation exceeds its limit, the structure needs to be replaced. On an aircraft of this size, the cost to undertake such a procedure would be prohibitive. No matter how great they look from the outside...the useful life of these jets has come to an end.

If you enjoyed the video, you can find more like it on my YouTube page.



  1. Regarding the F100's when I was in Tulsa 3 years ago on a College visit (No I ended up not going there) there were about 3 F100's still hanging around the Tulsa MX Base.

  2. Dear APC,

    Thank you for these stimulating, thought-provoking posts! I'm not a Twitter follower, I like the more fully developed story-telling that the bigger canvas allows. (And from my perspective, when it comes to reading about the world of professional flight, there's no such thing as too much detail.) Will look forward to future posts.


  3. Great Blog!

    Love the stories, very well written. I'm just starting out as a newly-minted CPL and love reading along with those that have gone before me!

    I look forward to reading more!

  4. I was just directed to our blog and enjoyed it quite a bit. Thanks and keep writing. Greg R.

  5. Great blog sir! Very well written and interesting. I'm a aerial photo guy so it is cool to read about how it works in the airline world...


  6. So why is Delta hanging on to the DC-9s? They are from the 60s, so I am suprised that they don't have as many cycles on them as your MD-80s? The 9s are usually operated on hour long routes (ie MSP up here to Grand Forks).
    Regards from a UND guy
    (I commented on your previous blog- got my instrument checkride either tomorrow or the next day! Dependent on thunderstorm activity...)

  7. Delta has announced that they will retire the last of the old NWA DC9s in late 2010. But the fact is that every airline will draw the line in a different place. It's difficult to compare the relatively small fleet of DC9s at DAL vs the exceptionally large fleet of MD80s at AA. Keep in mind that AA has close to 260 MD80s. Replacing the 80s is something that has to be done...and it is going to take a very long time.

    ps. I hope your instrument ride went well.

  8. I am a commercially-rated pilot (but not employed as one), an airplane owner and aviation enthusiast. With nearly 2 million revenue miles on AAL, I have probably flown on every one of those MD80s at least once - and they are (apart from the B777) my favorite ride, especially in the front 6 rows.

    So I found this post to be immensely sad on almost every level.

  9. I've always thought the MD-80 was a great ride for the passengers forward of about row 25. I dead-headed home from ORD yesterday in the last row of coach and was about deaf by the time we landed.

    BTW, I instructed at ADS in the early '90s and have landed at TKI about a thousand times.

  10. Hmm. I got my private at ADS in 1993. F*****e Fr***d was my CFI at Addison Flight Training, I moved over to Monarch when AFT went under. Wonder if I flew with you....

    Fortunately I have enough status on AA to usually avoid the back in the MD80's. They are noisy!

  11. I started out as a free-lance CFI at Centerline in late 1992 then worked for Monarch from December 1992 until January 1994, so if we never flew together, we've probably met.

  12. Hi there, I found the link to this blog while reading one of Aviatrix' very nice stories. I've seen plenty of pictures of airplane graveyards, but I've only been to the fence of one in real life -- smallish KIGM with a DHL few 727s and TWA TriStars... Seems like these places never fail to amaze me. I guess if I was an airline pilot, I'd probably bid for flights to these storage/graveyard airports a lot...

    How do pilots usually get assigned to fly these trips?

  13. This was a reserve assignment for me. The trip was in open time...looked like fun so I called and requested the trip. Glad I got it as it was an enjoyable and unique experience. I delivered two jets to the desert that day.

  14. I just stumbled across this video. I am a UPS pilot and I flew every UPS DC-8 and B-747 you had in your video many times. The shot of the tail number 868 reminded me....we nicknamed that one eight-sick-eight many years ago because when we first got it we had a lot of problems with it....I could tell stories about every one of our airplane at Roswell...

  15. ...aaand three years after the original post, I just stumbled across this entry. The comments here are just as interesting as the blog and video! It would be fascinating to hear some of the stories that are lurking out there.