Monday, August 23, 2010

The Ubiquitous DC-9

We'd landed at 1400 on flight 143 from FRA in a B-767-300ER, right on time by the way and taxied to gate 34 at DTW. It was just a matter of processing through Customs and Immigration, stowing my flight bag downstairs, dropping off the flight papers from our crossing, exchanging my uniform shirt for a golf shirt and heading to gate 17 to commute home.

As seems to be the norm these days, the flight was full so I'd enjoy my commute home in the jumpseat of this DC-9-51. I feel right at home here! As much as I've grown accustomed to flying "glass," there's much about this cockpit that I love. Look at all this stuff. There's stuff everywhere! But it's going away fast so enjoy it while you can.   

I'm sitting in the jumpseat of a DC-9-51. This placard is just to my left at shoulder height and identifies the ship as serial number 47730 constructed in February 1977. It was built for North Central Airlines, but survived to fly for Republic Airlines, Northwest Airlines and now Delta Air Lines. It's lineage is impressive too, dating to 1921 with Donald Douglas's most famous design flying in 1935 in the form of the Douglas DC-3. Merging with McDonnell Aircraft in 1967 forming McDonnell-Douglas, the Douglas name faded into history entirely when purchased by Boeing in 1997.

Even this placard is a highly collectible piece of airline memorabilia as I reach for my pen knife. Oh yeah... I can't carry a pen knife any longer as I'm considered suspect by authorities, but I'd love to include this with my DC-9 collection.

I was hired at Republic in 1985 where they operated the largest fleet of DC-9's at the time. Acquired from a variety of mergers with North Central, Southern Airways and Hughes Airwest the fleet numbered 130. Some even date back to West Coast and Bonanza Airlines who, with Pacific Airlines merged to form Air West in 1968. After merging with NWA in 1986, the fleet grew even larger with additions from Eastern Airlines and Swissair bringing the total to 175. We flew them everywhere (thus my use of the term ubiquitous) and its reliability factor was outstanding. It was a bullet proof airplane. 

780NC built November 1979 for North Central Airlines

The DC-9 first flew in 1965 just six years after its big brother, the DC-8 made its debut in 1959 signaling the beginning of airline jet service. Both aircraft entered passenger service with launch customer Delta Air Lines, but if you want DC-9 pictures don't wait too long to get out and get them. This is how our DC-9's look today, but the fleet now numbers only 53 from as high as 136 when we merged a year ago. I'm hearing a variety of rumors as to when she'll finally be retired, but suspect that her tenure is short. She's a gas guzzler according to all reports, but a reliable, dependable and historically significant gas guzzler none the less.

Here's a view of a DC-9-30 from the jumpseat as we taxi out to 21R at DTW. This is 8926E, built in June of 1967 and I think acquired from Eastern Airlines. There aren't many NWA paint schemes left, but seeing as though the -40's and -50's will be the last to leave the property, the remaining unpainted -30's will probably be just that... unpainted. This was probably the third NWA livery this aircraft has sported; the first was the old Northwest Orient red/white/blue, the second was the "bowling shoe" and this is the third.

Just in case you've forgotten, here's the bowling shoe livery. Interestingly, this was 13E's last day on the property (1/14/04) as she taxied in MSP to be stored at Marina, Tucson. I learned this from their conversation with ground control, scrambled, got my camera and took this parting shot as this 1966, -10 series DC-9 left the stage. Our -10's came from Atlanta based Southern Airways and some of those had been former Delta birds. The -10's had no leading edge devices or slats in Douglas speak, was a little hot rod and a ball to fly. 

Jay is our captain, we'd flown together a few years ago when he was a 757 FO. He has only a few DC-9 trips remaining as he starts MD 88/90 school in September. We're number seven in line for take off with six other aircraft on the west side of the runway out of view.

We're in position awaiting our takeoff clearance to fly the MOON2 departure.

We're underway for BOS

New glass "flightdecks" focus a pilots information to a specific screen. Take a look here, there's information everywhere! We called it developing a scan. You needed to discriminate between primary and secondary information and then move on. An engine failure at rotation here requires absorbing information from several instruments as your eyes continually scan them, updating your situation.  

I very much enjoyed flying both the DC-9 and the 727. Look closely, the only glass that you'll see here are the faces on the instruments... and there are many of them. I learned about "situational awareness" here. There is no moving map, no top of descent indicator, no wind indicator, no auto throttles or LNAV or VNAV. Everything needs to be planned out ahead of time, checked and re-thought again. And then again!  

A picture is worth a thousand words. Just about everything that you need to know to fly the Airbus in the same situation described above is right here, right in front of you. Information required from five instruments clustered above, is displayed here in just one. Technology is a marvelous thing.

Decision time ahead

When ATC called and directed, "Cross 15 miles west of GARDNER at ten and 250," you'd build a point, but not in the computer and see it pop up on your screen with a Top of Descent Point like in the 757 or A-320, but in your head. In order to comply with the clearance these are the mental gymnastics that ran through your brain.

Let's see, I'm at 31,000 feet and need to lose 21,000 feet. With my tailwind I'm covering six miles per minute, so at a descent rate of 3,000 feet per minute it will take me seven minutes to loose 21,000 feet. At six miles per minute I'll need 42 miles to do this. I'll also need five miles to slow from 300 to 250 and need to reach this point 15 miles west of Gardner. So, I'll start down at 3,000 feet per minute and pull the thrust levers to idle when I hit 300 knots 57 miles west of the GARDNER VOR. I'll also add a five mile fudge factor to the equation and start down at 62 miles west of GARDNER. Don't forget, I can reach 10,000 feet before GARDNER.... but not AFTER!  

Every 2,000 feet or so I'll repeat this exercise to see how I'm doing. Are the winds aloft unchanged, have I lost or gained ground speed? Do I need to increase or decrease my rate of descent to cross as planned? On the 757 you build the point, put 10,000' in your altitude selector and when you reach top of descent, automatically the aircraft noses over, the power goes to idle and a green arc let's you know if you're on profile. Can I get another cup of coffee here?

When we reach our destination  and the weather is 200 and a half, I need to know where I am in the pattern while being vectored. On a left downwind the runway is off to my right. When turned on a base, it's still off my right and one more 90 degree turn will line me up or a 60 degree turn will set me up for localizer intercept. If I have a located outer marker, I can use my ADF needle to watch myself being incrementally turned from any point along the approach. We still do the same things, but in the Nine and Seven Two... we did it in our heads. And it was fun! There was more a sense of accomplishment from flying a smooth, well planned arrival and approach, without "jockeying" power, than in today's glass airplanes. At least from my point of view.


Let me tell you about Lenny Wing, just one of many guys over the years who have had a hand in teaching me how to fly airplanes. One of many who have influenced my thinking, my habit patterns, my thought process. I was a relatively new Twin Otter copilot at Air New England and after watching me descend and land at such places as Burlington, Montpelier, Lebanon, Hyannis, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, captain Wing explained that future descents and approaches should be planned in such a manner that only power reductions were acceptable. In other words, plan for a continuous descent where a lack of planning was evident by adding power. It was a game and we'd play against one another. At first I thought he was nuts, but as I observed his methodical, planned out flying skills I became intrigued. Lenny was a hell of a professional pilot and he was determined to make me the same. 

"Every power change Rand is an EGT change that imparts stress on the burner section. The less throttle movement the less EGT change and the happier your engines will be."  Thirty-six years later I can still hear Lenny's words from the left seat of those Twin Otters. I'm sure he learned this from our Chief Pilot Jim Pashley who preached, "take care of your engines boys and they'll take care of you." Jim demanded smooth throttle movement on our 14 cylinder, Pratt and Whitney powered DC-3's to obtain slow, even cylinder head temperature changes. Good advice from two of the most professional pilots that I've encountered.

To this day, when I see a pilot slam the throttles back on a jet engine I cringe.

Well, this is how it looked a few years ago in DTW, but the DC-9 fleet is rapidly changing.

But as the sun sets on this fabulously reliable old airplane I easily remember all that it taught me as a copilot, captain and check airman. I remember eating box lunches from the outer marker inbound, no jetways at Mobile, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi, back course approaches at Green Bay, Wisconsin, NDB approaches at BOS... yes BOS, NDB holding, DME ARC approaches at Midway and late night approaches to short, snow covered midwest runways with devilish crosswinds. I'll forever value my Republic and Northwest heritage but won't confuse the nostalgia with my new allegiance to Delta Air Lines. My previous airlines are part of my past, a colorful history that I treasure, but look forward to the future with Delta and new experiences that will usher in retirement.

I loved flying the historic, noisy, windshield leaking DC-9 that prepared me to command a 767-300ER spanning oceans and continents with hundreds of passengers aboard. The box lunches are gone too as I now enjoy hot first class meals topped off with a hot fudge sundae... sometimes two! But I could probably still wolf one down inside the outer marker.

Thanks for reading along but before I leave a question for Sarah. After introducing myself to the crew and settling into the DC-9 cockpit jumpseat, I said "six."  Why?? If after a couple of days Sarah doesn't reply, it's open to all.

Happy Flying...



  1. Great post Rand. These DC-9s are probably the first planes I ever flew on. I was born in '75, and we would fly out to see grandma on Republic or Northwest Orient to the exotic cities of Bismarck or Minot, ND! Thanks for the stories!

  2. I reported to work in Delta's Engineering dept on 12/20/1965, the day the first DC9 was delivered, and my first assignment was engineering for the "accessories" (fuel control, constant speed drive, fuel manifold, etc.) on the JT8D. Fond memories - and my "other" engine was the CJ805 on the Convair 880 - now THAT's a gas-guzzling hot rod. Long retired now, but hope to see you someday on the line. Don Hodges - NW FL

  3. Excellent post Rand! I've never actually flown a DC-9, but Delta replaced the MD88s on the routes from ATL-DAB and I'm booked on a DC-9-50. After reading this, I'm looking forward to it.

    My flight experience is limited to small airplanes (172s and the DA20). I've flown mostly in round-dials for the reason you mentioned - it's a better sense of accomplishment. The G1000s practically do all the work for you and make it pretty easy, but I think you learn to be a better pilot and have a better situational awareness with some of the old tech. I don't discourage new tech, and it is nice to just have to look at one area to get the pertinent information, but it is more fulfilling to do it with the round-dials.

    I enjoyed reading your mental thoughts / calculations before the descent - always a joy to read your blog!

    Thanks for sharing this post!


  4. Rand,
    Thanks for trip down memory lane, your yarn brought back a recollection of a lot of sights, sounds, and smells. I wasn't smart enough to fly the glass so I finished my career on the venerable 'nine' and enjoyed every minute of it, all 18000 hours of my 22000. I flew her for the Air Force, McDonnell Douglas, and the airlines both here and abroad. Like her predecessors at the Douglas Aircraft Company she was straight forward,uncomplicated, and a joy to fly and I'll always be grateful for getting the chance.

    Tom Helwick, Livingston, Montana

  5. Ok, no googling this time, I'll guess. You, the jumpseater were the 6th crew member.

    I rode a DAL MD88 last week. Peeking in, I saw a lot of glass panels instead of round dials. I did notice a few 9's still in NWA paint on the ground in Atlanta. They must not be long for the line.

  6. OK, Sarah doesn't know the answer to this one... it's open to the floor.

  7. "Let's see, I'm at 31,000 feet and need to lose 21,000 feet. With my tailwind I'm covering six miles per minute, so at a descent rate of 3,000 feet per minute..."

    Woah! You lost me at 3,000 feet per minute. Honestly, I have cold sweats at night thinking that Delta will buy our airline and I'll be in the the right seat of the DC-9 befre it retires, and I'll have to do mental math exercises like that! Great post again.


  8. We get taught to fly without increasing power. It was weird i was actually thinking about that today, because i had to increase power for a change as i got a little too low and slow with relatively high winds.

    Great read!

    All the best,


  9. My guess is that it's the location of your emergency exit which would be the cockpit door you came in. Rand, I never heard that term before, please enlighten us.


  10. Thanks everyone for your comments, I'll address each one soon but I'm out the door... but before I do though, dc9man is pulling my leg. Go ahead Tom, explain the term "six." And Sarah, unless you've flown a nine, you'd never know what this meant. A bit of an unfair question on my part.


  11. Rand,

    Do you ever get to fly yourself into BOS, or are you always flying as a passenger?

  12. Would the term have anything to do with the Northwest Flight 255 ?

  13. Riding jump in the -9....Rand, you get combat pay for that?
    I never had to fly the -9 but carry the same feelings and sadness when thinking about my days on the 727s-Both are 'pilot's' airplane. There are days I wish my right-seat had experienced and learned from them.
    Keep up the good writing Rand..

    Tim 8DME W ORD

  14. Now I remember !! Sarah (by the way that's my daughters name too... when we would show up for a jump seat on the '9' we would generally stand just inside the cockpit door kibitzing with the cockpit crew. Typically they would be involved in their preparation duties as we exchanged formalities. Part of the preflight is a fire system check and right where we're standing at head height are the fire protection loop lights, all 'six' of them. When the captain checks the fire system on the forward panel these 'six' lights illuminate and since it's a bit of a contortion for the captain to hold the fire test buttons then try to check for the loop lights the jump seater's gentile response would be to say 'six' so the captain wouldn't have to do that neck twisting maneuver.

    Tom aka dc9man

  15. Interesting info dc9man. Always nice to hear the inside bits to the industry us self-loading cargo never get to experience! =0)

    Joe, Claremont NH

  16. It makes me fee old when I think of the aircraft that I used to ride on but are now obsolete and are sitting, rotting in the sun at VCV MHV or some other desert airport.

    I rode on a chartered 727-200 a few years back and knew at the time that it was likely the last time on a three-holer. The operator, Champion Air soon went belly-up and it turned out it was the last 727 I ever rode on.

    Will I live long enough to see the last 757 leave the fleet?

  17. Wow - what a great read Rand! Having your personal experience with those Diesel 9's brings all the more to the reader! I've only traveled on one Diesel 9 - a late night DTW-STL many years ago - I sat right at the back close to the engines - what a loud experience that was! And, I haven't shot many 9's either - they haven't tended to come to South Florida a lot over the years I've been here. Think I need to take a photography trip to DTW before they finally disappear....

  18. Great post Rand. Best airline trip I've ever had was as a kid in '83/'84 on Republic DC-9s from Bismarck to Mpls to Houston Hobby direct with stops at Kansas City and Dallas/Ft. Worth. It was a kid's dream trip with all the landings and take-offs.

    Andy in MN

  19. I tried to post a comment yesterday but was unable... Error 303 is what it said. I plan a new post for Monday or Tuesday telling you a little about dc9man. Stay tuned!

  20. 2-15-77 Hey! That was my 16th Birthday! That plane's not SO old!!

    Tim G in MN

  21. Rand: Great post. I grew up & live in PHL, but my folks are from N. Miss. and I went to college in MEM. I grew up riding Republic and NWA from PHL to MEM. Only airline that could get you to MEM nonstop. good memories. Thanks!


  22. Rand: I love hearing from the pilots who have flown these wonderful birds. being a pilot myself i certainly can identify with doing the math. These days many of the NW 9s are heaading to fact there are 8 of them that are in teardown so yes its an era that is coming to an end. Really enjoyed reading your story. I continue to make progress on my DC-9 cockpit restoration. Take a

  23. Captain Peck- Thanks for this great post fully of DC-9 memories. As someone who grew up in Detroit I did a lot of RC/NW DC-9 flying over the years and this brings back some good memories. I'm pretty sure my first DC-9 trip was a short hop from DTW to TVC to visit my grandparents as a precocious eight year old in the Summer of 1979. I think the flight was on a DC-9-30 and took place right after the merger between Southern and North Central.

    Following that trip I managed to catch every other DC-9 type in the RC/NW fleet over the years including a lot of MD-80 flights between DTW and CLE (RC 740 going to CLE, RC 733 coming back...don't ask me how I remember those flight numbers!). It will be a sad day once the last 9 leaves the fleet after all the years of service.

    Thanks again for the great aviation memories!

  24. I was just looking at the manufacturer's aircraft placard and noticed the date of manufacture as 2-15-77. I was still working for those guys during that time and may have production tested that aircraft. Time to dig out some old log books and see.

  25. Absolutely amazing! A benchmark of aircraft americana. Thanks for sharing, keep the good work!

  26. Great post. Always loved the DC-9. Still seeing the occasional DC-9-50 here in BOS. Will be sorry to see them go...

  27. I'm 23 years old and only recently became interested in aviation, and really enjoyed your post. I've never flown a plane (i just graduated college to be a school teacher) but i really enjoy being a flying passenger. I've developed a favorite plane, it being the 727- but have never flown on one as a passenger. Trying to get the closest "experience", i've taken several "Day Trips" aboard Delta's remaining DC9-51 aircraft and must say i really enjoy row 23 and 24 next to the roaring JT8D's! On one of my recent day trips (i've now taken 4 since last July) the crew noticed me filming and took some time to share their love of airplanes with me! I got to sit in the cockpit and the crew allowed me to walk down with the F/O as he did his walk around. I must say, the pilots and flight attendants couldn't have been nicer, and they made that day (Jan 10, 2012) a day i will never forget. The captain had flown the 727 and moved to the DC9 at Northwest, and admitted the DC9 was a difficult bird to fly (noting that the controls weren't assisted as they were on the 727). I've grown to really appreciate the DC9 for it's structural integrity and excellent reliability, and am currently planning another DC9 trip for the end of this summer. I've been a passenger on N777NC twice, N779NC and N770NC, built in 1979, and 1978. It's amazing to think these planes are still flying almost 40 years with a major carrier, and it's all thanks to the great engineering at Douglas Aircraft Company and the excellent maintenance work at North Central, Republic, Northwest and now at Delta. Long live the DC9 and a great thanks to all that have flown and maintained these planes through the years!

    Chris from Rhode Island