Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Urban Flight

Dateline: 12:28 pm October 24, 2007 Filed under:

I love airplanes. I grew up under a glidepath to the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport, so planes have always been in my blood (and ears). I’m a complete geek about it, I freely admit. When a plane goes over, my fellow south Minneapolitans cover their ears and curse, while I gaze up and try to read the plane’s registration number. As a kid playing tee-ball, I spent more time looking up at flying planes than at flying baseballs. I suppose that’s why they put me in the outfield – less chance of getting hurt out there.

I have had good experiences flying. No eight hour delays on tarmacs. No awful turbulence or frights. One aborted takeoff and one go-around. That’s about it. In the last year I have flown enough to gain Silver Elite status on Northwest, the only perks being I can choose a nicer, preferred seat towards the front of the plane and I get the occasional first class upgrade, but I don’t count on it. Mostly I just enjoy flying, and always try for a window seat away from the wing so I get the best view.

Planespotters like me can be a socially awkward bunch. I once spent a Saturday morning at Heathrow Airport in London planespotting from the roof of the Queen’s Building – a legendary spot now closed to the public due to security, which is a real shame. That morning was like being in a club for young men who never got in to the math, science or chess club. I mean that in the nicest possible way. These guys lived for airplanes, and their little club was the only place they were accepted. Every time a plane would appear, rolling down the runway and up in to the London gloom, they’d train their binoculars on it and then record its “sighting” in their extensive fleet log. That day they were waiting for the new United 777 that had just entered service, and of course, for the Concorde. I happily spent the morning drinking tea, listening to them razz eachother in Cockney accents and watching the parade of planes from around the world. It was quite wonderful.

I’d love to tell you about flying business class on British Airways or the fun of Midway Airport, but for now I will be giving a requiem for the DC-9, the venerable aging veteran of the Northwest Airlines fleet. They have plagued airport noise opponents for years, in Minneapolis and no doubt elsewhere. DC-9s are cool and loud – you can feel them take off. The original 747s are gone, as are most 727s, and all the Concordes are in museums. Even Northwest has given recent press to the retirement of their DC-10s in favor of new A330s for international routes. It seems like the DC-9 just won’t die, yet their time is coming too. To me, like an old building about to be torn down, the DC-9 is the last remnant of a bygone era in avaition.

I have flown a dozen times this year on DC-9s. If you can score one, the best seats in coach are 5A and 5F, window seats behind first class with huge amounts of legroom. The worst seat is 21F, with no window because of the engine, which means you not only have to crawl over two people to get out but the engine noise next to your head slowly grows to a dull ache. I have had this seat, and I don’t recommend it.

I like the DC-9. There are several remarkable things about it. The interiors were all redone in the 1990s, and are quite nice and don’t show their age. They even have a handrail under the overhead compartments, making it easier to stand or walk around during flight, rather than hitting air turbulence and falling on to the nearest passenger sitting by the aisle.

I have noticed the cockpit occasionally when I board, and the dash has that same bluegreen color that every appliance and piece of industrial equipment had in the 1960s. The instruments are all analog and toggle switches. Gauges float in fluid. Anything digital has been added more recently. Unlike newer planes, pilots actually have to pilot DC-9s – purely man versus machine. The DC-9 can even back up from the gate on its own. It’s old school, baby!

Northwest at one time had 160 of these DC-9s. They were built between 1966 and 1984. The 100+ that remain are between 26 and 40 years old. As further proof of my airplane geekiness, I once downloaded the entire Northwest fleet, and I can tell you in this past year I have flown on the oldest DC-9 in their fleet. It is 40 years old, delivered to Eastern Airlines in March of 1967 and sold to Northwest in the 1990s after Eastern shut down. I have also flown on the newest DC-9 in the fleet, delivered to Republic Airlines in 1981 and then handed over to Northwest in the 1986 merger.

The kicker is the 40 year old plane! Northwest bought Airbus A320s starting in 1989 and some of them have already been retired. They are half the age of the venerable DC-9, and apparently built to last only that long! In theory, Northwest could have replaced DC-9s with planes that wouldn’t have lasted to the present day. What blows my mind is the history that 40-year old plane has seen. In March 1967 we had yet to walk on the moon. Suburbs were still cool. Sgt. Pepper was still three months away. Air travel was still for the elite, and the 747 had yet to fly. To me this is ancient history, and I very much appreciate the fact that I have the privilege to fly in such a time machine. The Douglas Corporation apparently didn’t understand the meaning of planned obsolesence.

Northwest has kept operating this fleet of aging DC-9s because, while they suck fuel, they are easy to maintain and are owned outright, so there are no leases to pay. They only require two pilots, just like any other plane. And they just keep ticking. If you don’t need them for a while, you just park them at no cost. When I say easy to maintain I mean they are very hands-on. You can troubleshoot. I once watched a Northwest mechanic change a burned out light in the wingtip with just a stepladder and a Phillips screwdriver. You get the picture.

The clincher to me is for the entire 160-plane DC-9 fleet, Northwest Airlines did not buy a single one new. That’s nutty! They aquired most of them from Republic Airlines when they merged in 1986, but since then have picked up used DC-9s from Alitalia, Scandinavian, Eastern and the odd plane from here and there. Couple that with the fact that Republic was formed by combining North Central, Southern and Hughes Airwest together, and Northwest has a fleet of used aircraft cobbled together from over 20 different airlines. Out of curiosity, I searched historical photos on to prove it. Northwest is like the guy at the dinner table that goes around picking up the scraps off everybody’s plate. That’s like shopping at a flea market, only for multimillion dollar airplanes.

I’m in awe, and I suspect I am the only one. Anyway, I will continue to enjoy the DC-9 for as long as it flies, and I will continue to try and book flights on it versus another aircraft type if I’m given the choice. There are worse ways to travel.

Well, I have a flight to catch.

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