A development of the highly successful Douglas DC-9, the MD-80 continued the line of rear-engined medium range jet airliners that would take the world by storm, even giving the venerable Boeing and its 737 a run for its money.
To trace the MD-80 you need to, as mentioned, look back to the original Douglas DC-9 of the 1960’s. The DC-9 was constructed as a short-range companion for the four-engined DC-8, and to create a competitive short to medium range jet airliner that would match Boeing’s 727 and the Hawker Siddeley Trident. The DC-9 pioneered the concept of having twin rear engines with a T-Tail configuration, combined with a narrow fuselage that could carry between 80 and 135 passengers depending on seat arrangement. The DC-9 would go on to become one of the most successful domestic jet airliners in the world, selling 2,400 units, ranking it third behind the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737. By the 1970’s, however, a greater emphasis began to be put on domestic aircraft that could fly to small airports, but entail an increased capacity at the same time. While Boeing busied themselves with derivatives of the 737, the newly formed McDonnell Douglas began work on what would be dubbed the DC-9 Series 80.
Prior to this, the first lengthened version of the DC-9 was the DC-9-50, which stretched the fuselage by 8ft and could carry 139 passengers. Despite its higher Maximum Take-Off
Weight (MTOW), the aircraft was complimented by higher fuel capacity and more powerful Pratt & Whitney JT8D high bypass engines. The success of the -50 led to developments for the -55, which began development in 1977. The -55 was intended to extend the fuselage 14ft, and also featured an enlarged wing design to allow for extra lift, compensating for the increased size of the aircraft. The -55 was also intended to feature updated avionics and cockpit layout, making it much more advanced than the previous DC-9 and its antiquated design from the 60’s. Most notably though, the aircraft would be fitted with the more powerful, efficient, but also quieter, JT8D-200 engines, which were larger than those used on previous models.
With the aircraft planned for release in 1980, the name of the DC-9-50 was changed to the DC-9-80, then latterly the DC-9 Super 80. Eventually, the name MD-80 was chosen, due largely to it being easier to pronounce, and also demonstrating the initials of the new McDonnell Douglas company. The MD-80 took to the skies for the first time on October 19th, 1979, but the test phase wasn’t without incident. During test flights two MD-80’s were seriously damaged in landing incidents, but regardless, testing continued and once the tests were completed on August 25th, 1980, the FAA granted the first variant of the MD-80 model, the MD-81, its airworthiness certificate. The first aircraft to be delivered was to Swissair in September 1980.
As the MD-80 was not in effect a new aircraft, it continues to be operated under an amendment to the original DC-9 FAA aircraft type certificate (a similar case to the later MD-90 and Boeing 717 aircraft). The type certificate issued to the aircraft manufacturer carries the aircraft model designations exactly as it appears on the manufacturer’s
application, including use of hyphens or decimal points, and should match what is stamped on the aircraft’s data or nameplate. What the manufacturer chooses to call an aircraft for marketing or promotional purposes is irrelevant to the airworthiness authorities. The first amendment to the DC-9 type certificate for the new MD-80 aircraft was applied as DC-9-81, which approved on August 26th, 1980. All MD-80 models have since been approved under additional amendments to the DC-9 type certificate. In 1983, McDonnell Douglas decided that the DC-9-80 (Super 80) would be designated the MD-80. Instead of merely using the MD- prefix as a marketing symbol, an application was made to again amend the type certificate to include the MD-81, MD-82, and MD-83. This change was dated March 10, 1986, and the type certificate declared that although the MD designator could be used in parentheses, it must be accompanied by the official designation, for example: DC-9-81 (MD-81). All Long Beach aircraft in the MD-80 series thereafter had MD-81, MD-82, or MD-83 stamped on the aircraft nameplate.
Upon the launch of the MD-81, Douglas continued production of the DC-9 until 1982, when the last of 1,085 aircraft left the factory and was delivered to VIASA. From then on, production was solely placed onto the construction of the MD-80 and the larger DC-10. In all, 5 variants of the original MD-80 series were built from when production began in 1979 to when it ceased in 1999, following the company’s buyout by longtime rival Boeing. Each MD-80 version, as mentioned, took its name from the year of its launch, resulting in the MD-81 of 1981, the MD-82, MD-83, MD-87 and MD-88. Each one of these aircraft differed due to length or advancements in their avionics or performance. The MD-80
series was later followed up by a derivative series of aircraft, the MD-90 and, following the merger of McDonnell Douglas into Boeing, the short-lived MD-95, known officially as the Boeing 717.
Upon its launch, the MD-80 was lauded for its sturdy reliability, flexibility, robustness, capacity, efficient nature and stylish design. Airlines that operated the MD-80 included Aerolíneas Argentinas, Aeroméxico, Aeropostal Aerorepublica, Alaska Airlines, Alitalia, Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Aserca, Austral Líneas Aéreas, Austrian Airlines, Avianca, China Eastern Airlines, China Northern Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Air System (JAS), Korean Air, Lion Air, Martinair Holland, Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), Reno Air, Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), Spanair, Insel Air, Swissair, and Trans World Airlines.
American Airlines was the original launch customer for US operations, and initially ordered 20 aircraft in 1982 to replace their earlier Boeing 727’s. This was followed by a firm order of 67 aircraft with an option for 100. Eventually, American would go on to own 360 of these aircraft, the largest customer of the type and representing 30% of the total MD-80 models sold.
The MD-80 however was sadly still a victim of many accidents throughout its working life. As of 2017, the aircraft has been involved in 70 incidents with 35 hull losses and 1,446 fatalities.
The first incident involving an MD-80 was on December 1st, 1981, when Inex-Adria Aviopromet Flight 1308 crashed into Corsica’s Mt. San Pietro during a holding pattern for landing at Campo dell’Oro Airport, Ajaccio, France, killing all 180 passengers and crew.
One notable crash, and only the second in the MD-80’s career, was on August 16th, 1987, when Northwest Airlines Flight 255, a brand new MD-82, crashed shortly after takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport due to flight crew’s failure to use the taxi checklist to ensure the flaps and slats were extended for takeoff. The aircraft crashed down just after departure onto a main highway, killing 2 on the ground and all but one of the 149 passengers and 6 crew aboard. The sole survivor was 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan, who sustained serious injuries while the remainder of her family; her mother, Paula Cichan, her father Michael and her six-year-old brother David, perished in the crash. Following the accident she made a gradual recovery, and was taken into the car of her aunt and uncle to keep her away from public attention.
Another notable crash occurred on January 31st, 2000, when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 spiralled down into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Los Angeles after the horizontal stabiliser became detached mid-flight, killing all 88 aboard. The cause was later found to be due to an Acme nut and jackscrew being worn away due to inadequate maintenance.
On October 8th, 2001, Scandinavian Airlines Flight 686 struck a taxiing Cessna Citation business jet on the runway at Linate Airport, Milan, Italy, after the Cessna misunderstood an order from the radar controllers to cross the runway while the MD-87 was departing. The MD-87 lost its right engine following the crash and attempted to continue its takeoff,
climbing only to 39ft before crashing into a luggage hangar near the end of the runway. In the disaster, all 110 aboard the MD-87 perished, while in the Citation, only one was killed by the initial impact, while the remaining three passengers were unable to escape before the aircraft burned up.
The latest accident to involve an MD-80 was on March 8th, 2017, when a chartered Ameristar aircraft slid off the runway at Willow Run Airport due to high winds. No injuries were reported and passengers exited successfully, though the aircraft itself suffered heavy damage.
Production of the MD-80 and its derivatives continued throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, with peak production being met in 1991 with 12 aircraft being assembled per month. This was against an already preset average of 10 aircraft per month for the past 4 years. Problems arose however for the MD-80 following the global recession of 1992. As demand in air traffic began to decline, and following the less than stellar performance of the MD-90 derivative, production was slowed and costs began to rise. This was further compounded by the failure of the McDonnell Douglas MD-11, a successor to the wide-body DC-10, to hit it big with airlines. It was also noted that the MD-80 series was not as efficient as modern versions of the Boeing 737’s and the brand new Airbus A320 series.
While McDonnell Douglas attempted to make a comeback with the new double-deck MD-12 jet airliner (a design similar to the Airbus A380 ten years later) there was little finance left to keep the company truly afloat. Eventually, McDonnell Douglas was purchased by rivals Boeing for $13 billion in August 1997, and while the company continued to allow production of previous MD products, such as the MD-80 series and MD-11, it became quickly apparent that they were just building internal competition between their own models. As such, the MD-80 Series and its derivatives ceased production in 1999, followed a year later by the MD-11, bringing an end to McDonnell Douglas forever.
So, was the MD-80 any good? Well, apparently it was, seeing as, in all its incarnations, the DC-9/MD-80 series was the 3rd best selling commercial airliner in history. I personally adore the MD-80 and all it had to offer, being a perfect mix of stylish design aesthetic, some great performance, good capacity, comparatively high efficiency, and some very advanced design choices, all wrapped up in a body that dated back to 1960. It’s a shame that now even the later MD-80’s are now facing the end of their reign in frontline commercial service, as those major airlines that continue to operate them have now slated them for replacement my younger rivals such as the 737 MAX and the A320neo. Until that time however, find an airline that operates an MD-80 near you and try to experience what flying was like way back in the early 1960’s, travelling aboard these things really is like a step into the past!