Pilot Report: Boeing 737 vs. McDonnell-Douglas MD-80

Now that I have nearly a thousand hours in the left seat of the Boeing 737-800, and having as well over 15,000 in the MD-80, I feel qualified to make some judgments about how the two stack up against each other.

For me, there’s one hands-down winner. I’ll get to that.

But first, looking at it from a hands-on pilot perspective, let me say what I think are the crucial factors in both jets, then compare them. And I’ll do it in order of importance from my line-swine pilot view:

1. Power: never mind the technology difference between the General Electric JT8D turbo fans on the Maddog and the CFM-56 high-bypass fans on the 737. It’s the thrust difference I want in my right hand when I’m trying to lift 170,000 pounds off a runway. And technology aside (I’ll get to that), the three full power options (22,000, 24,000, and 26,000 pounds of thrust) plus the bonus kick up to 27,000 pounds per engine on the 737 for special use beats the snot out of the 19,000 flat rated and standard de-rated engines on the MD-80. Yes, the -80 weighs less than the 737 (max of 150,000 vs. 174,000 pounds), and no, I don’t have each plane makers’ specs, but the thrust-to-weight performance from the left seat feels substantially more secure and significant from the 737.

You notice that right away when you do a static takeoff with the 737 at all weights: you’ve got buttloads of giddyup (I think engineers call it “acceleration,” but then they don’t actually feel it on paper versus in the cockpit blasting forward–that’s “a buttload of giddyup”) shortening  those critical moments of vulnerability between brake release and V1.

I have no idea what engineers think of when they look at thrust and take-off advantages, but any pilot with experience knows that those seconds before reaching flying speed are the most vulnerable, particularly close to max abort speed, because I’d rather take any problems into the air than have to wrestle them to a stop on a runway. The MD-80 has good smash at mid to light weights, but in crucial situations (Mexico City, for example, or on a short runway on a hot day) the 737’s CFM56’s rule. I need the shortest possible period of on-runway vulnerability; I know engine hot-section limits and longterm life are important too, but the CFM56 achieves better on-wing engine endurance in operation than the JT8Ds, year over year.

Ditto for a go-around or windshear options: the MD-80 is famous for it’s slow acceleration–I’ve been there MANY times–and when you’re escaping from windshear or terrain, I can promise you the pucker factor of the “one, Mississippi, two Mississippi” on up to six to eight seconds will have your butt chewing up the seat cushion like horse’s lips. Not sure if that’s due to the neanderthal 1970’s vintage hydro-mechanical fuel control (reliably simple–but painstakingly slow to spool) or the natural limitation of so many rotor stages. But the 737’s solid state EICAS computers reading seventy-teen parameters and trimming the CFMs accordingly seem to give the performance a clear edge. And a fistful of 737-800 throttles beats the same deal on the Maddog, period. Advantage, Boeing.

2. Wing: let me go back in time. I also flew the F-100 for a couple years as captain. That was a great jet, with a simple wing: no leading edge devices. Coming from jets with slats the feel was clearly different on take-off, where there was a distinct (if you’re a seat-of-the-pants guy, and that’s all I’ve ever been) translational period between rotate and lift-off due to the hard wing. Ditto in the flare and in some reversals in flight like on a go-around. Not a bad thing, just something you had to anticipate, but not a warm-fuzzy in the seat of your aerodynamic pants.

Stretched jet, stretched wing.

That’s a good analogy between the Boeing versus the Douglas wing: you feel the generous lift margin in the 737. That’s because when Boeing stretched the jet to the -800 length, they expanded the wing as well. That wing was already loaded much lighter than the DC-9 wing which Douglas didn’t enlarge when they added to two fuselage plugs plus about 15,000 pounds to the MD-80. Longer and with better cambered  (look at the DC-10, and no dihedral) airfoil is the Boeing design and I’m grateful for their foresight and superior engineering–especially at the top end of the performance envelope: you need anti-ice? No problem–turn it on. The Maddog? Better be 2,000 feet below optimum, or prepare for stall recovery–and anyone on the -80 fleet knows I’m not exagerating. Wing performance? No contest: Boeing.

3. Handling: again let me go back in time. Flew the T-37 like every new Air Force pilot up until recently–then moved on to the T-38. Using standard Tweet inputs on The Rocket would bang your helmet off the canopy because of the boosted flight controls, giving you 720 degrees of roll in a second at full deflection.

That’s the 737 compared to the MD-80: no aileron boost on the -80, and little help from the powered rudder–because of the long fuselage length and relatively short moment arm between the vertical fin and the MAC (Mean Aerodynamic Chord), the rudder seems to only impart a twisting moment that’s pretty useless. So it’s a wrestling match for roll control, in and out of turns with the -80.

I still tend to over control the 737 in acute roll situations (e.g., the 30 degree offset final at 300′ AGL required in and out of DCA) due to previous brain damage caused by years of arm wrestling the MD-80 around tight corners. But with the 737, the seat-of-the-pants security of that generous wing is apparent at all speed and altitudes and the hydraulic aileron boost gives you the muscle to command a smooth and prompt response. Handling? It’s all 737 for me, including on the ground: new MD-80 captains will need Ibuprofen to counter the wrist strain of the nosewheel steering, two-handed in tight spots. I don’t miss that at all.

4. Cockpit layout: okay, give the -80 its due–that was one comfortable nest once you got settled. But that’s as far as it goes for me. Yes, I know the 737 kitbag position is inaccessible. But American Airlines is the first airline certified by the FAA for iPad use from the ground to altitude. Kitbag, what’s a kitbag?

MD-80 left seat–HSI? Where is it?

Trade-off? The MD-80 HSI is obscured by the control yoke. Are you kidding me? Like you might need lateral situational awareness for trivia like, navigating? Flying an approach? I spent 20+ years working around that human factors engineering failure–I’m grateful for the Boeing engineers who gave me seven 9″ CRT flat plate displays with every parameter I could want displayed digitally and God bless them all–a Heads Up Display! Lord have mercy, even a simpleton has a crosscheck in that jet thanks to the God of HUD.

The 737 doesn’t have the elbow room you might like and everyone who I fly with who has come off the big Boeings (757, 767, 777) gripes about that. Fine. I’m all about performance and the flight displays, computers, communications and advanced Flight Management Systems in the 737 avionics suite beat the pants off of the 75 and 76–and the HUD tops the 777 as well. Nuff said: gimme the Guppy cockpit over the Maddog. Boeing put everything I need at my fingertips, and it’s all state-of-the-art, whereas Douglas engineers threw everything they could everywhere in the cockpit and slammed the door.

My 737 home.

So there you have it: power, wing, handling and even by a narrow margin, the cockpit too. I’m a Boeing guy, back from wayward days flying Douglas metal from the DC-10 to the MD-80. In my experience as a pilot, in my hours in both Boeing and Douglas jets, I’m grateful to be flying the best jets in the sky. Now you know which are which.

101 Responses to “Pilot Report: Boeing 737 vs. McDonnell-Douglas MD-80”

  1. Great discussion. Many of us extreme amateurs nevertheless suck up tecnhical discussions of this nature (i.e. written in an understandable manner). This is at least the fourth time I have heard this preference expressed by pilots, so I must ask the question–why so many MD-80’s in the fleets? Price, life expectancy, payload, fuel efficiency, what is it? Any company that produced the DC-10 is just WRONG.

    • The MD-80 was an efficient competitor with the 727, the other main narrow body jet in the late 70s, as well as the early versions of the 737 which also used the General Electric JT8D engines. With 2 engines rather than 3 like the 727, the -80 was quieter and more fuel efficient, comparatively, despite the other drawbacks I mentioned.

      But that all changed when Boeing engineered the next generations of the 737, plus Airbus entered the narrowbody market with more efficient and advanced jets, as did Fokker.

      AA ordered over 250 MD80s, making it the Ford Escort of the jet age. But time has passed it by, as has better aeronautical engineering. The last AA -80s were built in 1991, so they’re largely paid for, helping to offset their operating costs in the short term. But they’re past their usefulness in almost every other criteria.

      Plus, as far as avionics, they’re completely a bastardized patchwork barely capable of maintaining nav and RVSM standards.

      I’d say the MD-80 had a good run. But its time has passed, which is why AA is refleeting with new Boeing and Airbus jets.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

      • …and of course, as expected, the answer is economics. Too bad we sheep can’t pick the aircraft we want to fly on. In regard to MCD, I’ve flown on several DC-3s in relatively remote areas, and they’re still cutting the mustard. I think things went downhill from there though.

        Thanks, Chris!

      • I really liked the DC-10 from a hands-on flying standpoint: lots of power, great flight control boost. Handled great even in and out of LaGuardia, actually easier than the MD-80 in the same circumstances.

        But the design was flawed: the #2 engine required fuel boost pumps to function–in an electrical failure, you were guaranteed to enjoy an engine failure as well.

         Chris

        Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

      • Well, YOU, would know. That tail engine looked like something of an afterthought to me. As a passenger, I always hoped there was an ample supply of duct tape onboard.

      • Paul Michalski Says:

        AA’s MD-80s now include TWA’s MD-80s which were purchased in the 1990s and a final batch of 26 MD-83s in 1999. So they have some “newer” MD-80s, which I’m sure they will retire last and probably sell to Allegiant or another operator as they will still have some life left when AA ends flying of MD-80s in 2018 or so.

      • Yeah, I flew out MD80s, and the ones we got from TWA, for over 20 years. They’ll all be gone soon, and “newer” when they’re 20+ years old, doesn’t matter much.

  2. Another great post and thanks. I guess Boeing kept the B73 in the game by updating it, where MD just quit. (Well, there were later versions, but nothing to write home about…) From the perespective of a regular SLC, I too am a B73 fan as it is FAR more comfortable than the MD-80. Ive been known to change flights to avoid the MD-80+ series. I think Bill Boeing would like you. Yup, I knew that you had a lot of MD-80 time on your personal clock, but 15K hours is truly sad and I;m glad that you finally enjoying your current office. Happy Holidays to ‘ya. -Craig

    • That’s the key: Boeing redesigned, Douglas just stretched the fuselage and ignored the wing. Not a longterm way to think.

      Plus the difference between the computing components are reflected in the operation–737 autothrottles are much more advanced than the 70’s tech 80 system, reliable all the way to touchdown. And you can feel it in back–when the MD80 levels off, if it’s a couple knots slow it’ll plaster everyone to their seats overcompensating.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

      • Old Bessy flyer Says:

        S-80 best for marketing- only one side of middle seats.
        But, it seems, marketing developed the cockpit.
        Also, best in turbulence. No wind engines swinging around

      • I don’t agree that it’s “best in turbulence;” the MD80 has higher wing loading and as such can be pushed toward stall speed much more easily.

  3. Tony Dominguez Says:

    Can’t wait to hear your Airbus vs Boeing comparison in a couple years hehe

    As always a great blog read!

    • Not me–sticking with Boeing: 777 is my next captain’s job, maybe late next year. And we’re getting 787s too.

      I’m sure the new Airbus jets will be fun to fly, but I’m going with Boeing.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  4. Haha, if it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going! Great post Captain, loved to read that comparison. So because the DC-10 (And later on the MD-11) has an engine that is ‘up’ on the tail it needs boost bumps? Never thought of that but it makes sense. It would be awesome to hear a 737 Vs. 777 (or 787!) from you in a couple of years.

    It’s fun to read all those little details you don’t find in books or other websites…just a real ‘pilot’s report’.


    • Yes, the center engine on the DC-10 was up so high that fuel would not gravity feed. The 727 and L-1011 both had center engines mounted low enough to gravity feed; the DC-10 supposedly was a rushed design intended to be ready to compete with the L-1011 which from what I hear from those who flew it was the better aircraft.

      The DC-10 had a lot of weird electronic gremlins too. The standard fix was “turn it off, pull and reset the circuit breakers, see what it does.” something you’d never do nowadays.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  5. I just made the switch from the MD-80 to 737 this summer and the difference is amazing. It’s as if you’ve been on a desert island making do while the rest of the airline industry moved into 21st century jet technology. Now I see why the MD80 flying was a bad idea–there are so many state of the art things in vertical nav and even point to point that the controllers expect from a flight that the MD-80 really can’t legitiamtely do with its half-assed single GFMS and ancient autopilot (for example, the > 90 intercepts in Mexico, or extensions off a waypoint behind you). Glad I’ve finally gotten off of that fleet. Good blog entry.

    • Agreed–the MD-80 is barely making do in many ATC situations. I recall it being standard to consider crosswinds carefully on RNAV departures in the MD-80: if the crosswind was > 20 or 25, you’d have to seriously consider requesting the non-RNAV departure because if the Jurassic Jet autopilot and first generation flight guidance strayed, you were on the hook for a violation.

      I also wanted to be sure to bid off of the MD-80 fleet before it shrank to the point where displaced -80 pilots would take up all of the training slots on the new jets. Then, like the 727 and F-100, the senior pilots will be stuck with a dwindling, crappy bidsheet until the fleet eventually vanishes. Poor quality of life and a smaller paycheck. You’re wise to “git” while there are more 737 vacancies than MD-80 replacements. There will be plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth of MD-80 pilots soon when that ratio flip flops due to MD-80 aircraft retirements and they’ll wish they’d transferred when they had the opportunity. Who saw that coming?

  6. Napalm in the Morning Says:

    Captain …

    Now at the risk of sounding like an A** kisser … another literary masterpiece!

    I think your posts should be mandatory reading at Embry-Riddle, UND and the undergraduate pilot training programs of the Military etc. They would without a doubt help “swing the compasses” so-to-speak of aspiring aviators trying to break the code of “pilot think” into something they can grasp and hold onto. Your communication of “seat of the pants” stuff into “yeah … thats it” is out of the ordinary to say the least. Sort of like one peek is worth a thousand crosschecks.

    Reminds me of a time long ago when I was seat-filling in the left seat of a Braniff B-727 simulator with one of the finest training Captains I have ever shared a cockpit with who was earning his pay attempting to transition a 17 year F/E into a co-pilot. It was WTFO from the moment I let go of the tiller on the centerline and the hapless trainee touched the controls. It was what I imagine first-time bull riding must be like until the steady reassuring voice of the Captain took over. For example, after a 30 to 40 minute period of air work the Blue Angels couldn’t hang onto, one ILS approach brought us to minimums on the centerline. Not a bad place to be except we were in a 90 degree bank. What did the instructor quietly say after freezing the sim and bringing the visibility to VFR to help illustrate his point? “Son, there’s something you don’t ever want to see.”

    Well said!

    • Excellent story! As a Check Airman, watching some crews get themselves all tangled up in faulty recognition and incorrect procedures, even during a check more than once I’d freeze the sim and say, “Now, just take a minute to think about this: where are you, what are you doing, and why?” Usually, when they stopped fighting their own perception, ignoring the seat of their pants in favor of what they thought was supposed to happen or what they thought they were supposed to do, they could finally get back to the reality of what’s going on and what actually must be done. “Okay, got an idea of what’s going on here? We’re coming off freeze . . .” Of course, a pilot has to figure that out in the sim: get your head in the game, fly the jet–never mind what’s “supposed” to be happening, because there ain’t no “freeze” in flight.

      • Heck Yes! Some poor soul once said something like, ‘… above all else, fly the damn airplane…’ As for the 17-year B727 FE upgrading, FO, oh so long ago, I guess I know that FEs were not required to be ‘pilots.’ Was there some requirement that they have at least a few hours and maybe a commercial ticket before they moved up to FO? I cannot believe that the ‘airline’ became responsible for their basic stick and rudder training. What am I missing? As for the sim training, it sounds a lot like comments from junior A320 pilots, “…what’s it doing now…? The answer is: “Know what it’s doing and why – and before your fly the sob. Lastly, (and please comment on this…) I know a semi-senior B767 FO at AA, one whose seniority has been abused for 8-9 years. He’s thinking about an upgrade to MD-80 Captain in late 2012. With the MD-80 almost gone, is this a smart move or… For this fellow, Quality of Life is important. Is he shooting himself in the foot? Regards, – C.

  7. Napalm in the Morning Says:

    As for the 17 year F/E I described, I never got to know him personally but was briefed beforehand that he was struggling and I needed to assist when a checklist called for it but to otherwise sit on my hands. I recall he was once a pilot at NAS Dallas before coming to BN. As was expected, his new-hire seniority dictated that he begin in the F/E seat and work his to a window seat which was pretty much standard with all carriers who flew three pilot cockpits. His problem, by his own admission, was that he spent way too many years eating the chicken and otherwise enjoying his 727 & DC-8 F/E seniority without ever touching the flight controls of anything for that period of time. His skills deteriorated badly and he was paying the price. I am not sure he completed the upgrade which incidentally, he bid.

    My first point in telling this particular story was not to criticize another aviator. It was to illustrate my feeling that Captain Manno’s comparison/contrast of the MD-80 (which I have 12,000 hours in) vs. the 737-800 evoked meaningful memories of the demeanor and steady as you go educational value I appreciated so much from my long-ago experience with Braniff Captain John Key.

    My second point was simply that young aspiring aviators should be exposed to the skillful educators in our midst early and often.

    Make sense?

    BTW, in my opinion, an MD-80 left seat upgrade for a long-term 767 right seater who may have been avoiding it is not the ideal scenario unless (as Strother Martin would say) his/her “mind is right.”

    • Makes a lot of sense. We have an “up or out” policy here as you know: upgrade to captain successfully–or termination. After successful upgrade, you can move backwards (why would you?) if you like (even the worst day as captain is better than the best day as F/O) and some do.

      But I too can recall the case of a former F-16 pilot who had been cruising too long in the right seat of a 767; never learned how to lead a crew. He had the world’s longest captain upgrade program, the company bent over backwards giving him extra training, but the FAA eventually pulled the plug on him.

      To your point about the MD-80 high workload, I remember when I checked out as MD-80 captain (1991) looking over at the F/O in a flurry of activity. I thought at the time, “Huh–guess that’s all the stuff I should have been doing when I was an F/O.” You’re right: that’s one hopelessly, needlessly busy cockpit.

  8. As a passenger usually flying AA, I have a different view. The MD80 has some advantages. Every MD80 flight has taken me safely without diversion to my destination even if it is not as powerful and has outdated avionics. Thanks to the crew. I chose my most recent flight on AA from DFW partly because it was the MD80.

    Seating in economy is 2 and 3 so I have less chance to get a not so desirable middle seat. Seats in economy seem wider on the MD80 than 737. It is easier to get a seat in front of the wing to see the ground better. If one sits in front of the wing on the MD80, engine noise is lower than on the 737.

    But I agree with safety, economy, and ease of use. AA will inevitably retire the MD80.

    On another note, is bidding for a 757 or 767 a good idea for an AA 737 Captain? Does a bigger plane pay better than a 737? Or does the age of the 757 and 767 mean they will be phased out too soon and make the change too short to make the switch?
    Or does a Captain only change to another aircraft because his seniority makes him eligible for that aircraft.

    • I get your point about less middle seats. But the cabin is smaller all around and their is no passenger entertainment on MD-80s. Plus, the air conditioning, a major comfort item, is ancient and doesn’t work very well, especially in temps over 80 degrees.

      Diversions I believe have more to do with situations than aircraft types or crews. I flew the MD-80 for 20+ years and did my fair share of diversions for the right reasons.

      Widebodies? Well yes, slightly higher pay rates, but less flying hours per month so actually less pay. I’m senior enough to hold a decent 757-767 schedule, but there’s less flying available and their fleet is shrinking while our 737 fleet gets a brand new jet every other week.

  9. Hank Hoffman Says:

    Well said, Captain. The MD-80 has always been merely a DC-9 in disguise. Same systems, same problems, just a little quieter and definitely awkward to fly after they lengthened it. No real increase in technology, just added some band aids and changed the name.

    I told that to American management when they started to buy them (but after the initial very large order) and I was a test pilot for McDonnell Douglas. I was an AA pilot when they started to buy the new 737s but didn’t get to say I told you so. Perhaps MD did not appreciate my candor.

    On the other hand, the DC-10 was a fine piece of equipment. Maybe DC built better than MD. It doesn’t matter, it’s all Boeing now.

    While I’m at it, Airbus is trying to engineer the pilot out of the aircraft with automatic systems. I objected to that before the A-320 was rolled out, and it hasn’t worked out well for them. Does that make me old fashioned or just right? Bottom line: if it ain’t Boing, I ain’t going…

    • I agree–I always thought the DC-10 was a great hand-flying jet, probably the best handling large jet I ever flew. That’s until the 737, which truly is easily the best hand-flying jet I’ve ever flown.

      The MD-80 had its day back in the 80s when it was new, 20-30% more fuel efficient than the reigning narrow-body (727), “quieter” too. Now the 737 design and engineering has so greatly surpassed the MD-80 that it makes sense to phase them out and replace them with 737s, IMO.

      I’m sure Airbus has its pluses, but like you, I plan to stick with Boeing myself.

      • Hank Hoffman Says:

        Airbus has better systems displays, and that’s about it.

        The DC-10 is, of course, a heavy jet, not just a large one, and I could agree that it is the best handling heavy. But I think some of the B-767s are heavy now, and they fly just fine too. My other heavies include the B-52, KC-135, and the A-300. The B-52 is easily the worst to handle.

      • I never flew the 757/767–my widebody F/O time was on the DC-10, then I went to the left seat of the MD80 for over 20 years, with 2 years off for good behavior to fly the F-100, then back to the MD-80 till 2009 when I went to the 737.

        But the story of improvement is the story of Boeing: the 707 was the transition from props to the jet age. The flight controls being “flying” flight control surfaces positioned by tabs and counter-balances was the theory of the prop era and it worked for the early jets too, albeit less responsively that today’s powered ailerons. But that’s where MD stopped–the MD80 is that old reliable but sluggish tab and balance system even though the MD-80 is so much larger and heavier than the original DC9-10 from which it’s derived.

        But Boeing improved the wing and powered the flight controls on the Next Gen 737s. All the difference in the world in engineering and flying.

    • Brad Huffman Says:

      I’m sorry to butt in, but I have a quick ?/point to make/ask. Didn’t MDD decide not to rewing the MD-80 because they were running low on $ ? They knew it needed it. Speaking of which, the 727 is my fav, I bet there were times Boeing kicked themselves in the ass about the 727’s small waing…but…one thing leads to another, the 727-300 didn’t get built, and we got the fantastic 757/767 twins instead. I heard the 747-8 pgm is barely hanging on. *Sadly….the end of the iconic 747…unthinkable but prob inevitable.) Airbus, and Europe to an extent had/has this ego thing vs US and the 747. Big deal. A double decker. Boeing thought of that back in the f’n 70s! Great reading from yall! I totally agree with yall about preferring Boeing for safety’s sake….and man, you hit the nail on the head with Airbus designing the pilot out of the cockpit….it’ll be pretty soon we’ll see/have another unfortunate/tragic crash like the Air France A320 in ’88 I think it was that flew nose up into the forest. I’m afraid thats whats gonna happen again if Airbus keeps their current trend/thinking. They just don’t get it. They don’t get the obvious, no BS, inarguable pluses/benefits of HARD cables,pulleys to control surfaces, as a backup! I’d like to see the same to engs. I know it adds weight, but GD! Safety! Safety comes over profits! Damn. How greedy can they get? There’s nothng like that assurance of having REAL cables, not wires, going to your control sfcs. On Douglas, one more time, they sure did build strong airplanes…and yep, like has been said, McDonnell ruined the company, rushed the DC-10 to beat Lockheed against Mr.Douglas Sr’s wishes and the Douglsa establishment’s wishes…unfortunately we saw the results of the rush with the design flaws that came out, the cargo door pin flaws, the routing of the HYD lines (UA/Sioux City), but eventualy MDD did get the fixes in place and the DC-10 turned into a fine machine…it wasn’t the Dc-10’s fault…it was McDonnell’s.

  10. Nate O'Brien Says:

    As a passenger, I have another perspective to offer. I very much prefer MD-80 over 7x7s as I *swear* they handle turbulence better and just seem to be smoother flying aircraft. All technical specifications aside, I’d rather fly on an MD-80 than a Boeing 7×7. To me, its the difference between taking a road trip in a Ferrari vs. a 1987 Chrysler New Yorker. Sure the Ferrari is sexier and more powerful than the New Yorker…But I’ll take the plush smooth ride over the power and beauty when my ass has to be cramped next to some 250 pound guy who smells like crisco and stale cigarettes for three hours. JMO….then again, maybe that’s the smell of a plane as old as most MD-80’s are…Either way, I like the MD-80… Or the CRJ700. That little plane kicks butt. It’s also smoother than a 7×7. Ok, I just hate Boeing. Yes their products will get you there in one piece…they just leave you with the impression that you were lucky to do so.

    • That’s actually pretty funny, “all technical aspects aside,” which essentially overlooks all things aerodynamic. Like the wing loading, so no, the MD80 doesn’t handle turbulence better; and no, the MD80’s thrust-to-weight ratio isn’t even close to the 737’s–and the MD80 cabin size, headroom and environmental controls and pressurization systems aren’t nearly as good or effective as the Boeing. Plus, it’s low-function, high load wing and old JT8D-219 engines confines it to lower altitudes, so instead of going over the nasty weather by climbing to 41,000′, you have to pick your way and bump your way around or through it in the low 30,000s.

      And the navigation, engine controls and unpowered flight controls are thirty years out of date, make it handle like a dumptruck and have slowly degraded the reliability of the aircraft.

      But hey, glad the old Long Beach Sewer Pipe still has fans, even though they’re slowly making their way to the boneyard for a well-deserved retirement.

      • In general, a higher wing loading will yield better gust response, and having the engines mounted on the fuselage should also result in yaw in turbulence. So, the poster might actually be right about the MD-80 being better (from a passenger perspective) in turbulence.

        Frankly, I’d rather fly on an airplane that makes the pilot’s job easier, but I do agree with the people who say the MD-8x is a great plane for passengers, especially the updated ones. One thing nobody mentioned is the fact that when you’re in the first few rows, no airplane in the world compares in terms of lack of noise and vibration. It’s almost scary if you’re used to wing mounted aircraft; it’s like getting pushed into the air on a magic carpet. You don’t hear anything but the sound of the wind building in volume.

        I wish Boeing had continued at least one line of AC with fuselage mounted engines. It really is MUCH nicer for most of the passengers. (Except those in the back, of course, in which case it’s bloody terrible.)

      • Gust response? When? And what’s a better gust response?

        The wing mounted engines, particularly CFMs or Rolls, even mounted on the wing, are much quieter than the old -219s on the MD80 tails. There’s a generation of hearing-impaired flight attendants because of those tail-mounted engines from both takeoff and cruise power, not to mention reverse.

        The MD80 series is difficult to handle in yaw situations such as crosswind or engine out because of the moment arm created by the stretched fuselage but unchanged rudder size or throw. In flight, the rudder seems to just induce drag and do little to counter adverse yaw. The Boeing rudder handles adverse yaw easily and you can actually make minor heading corrections on final with the rudder alone.

        Judging by several thousand hours at the controls of each, I’ll confirm what the industry has decided: the 737 is the better jet.

      • … I’m not sure why deaf FAs sitting in the back is germaine, nor the handling …

      • Because this is a pilot’s blog and we think the way an aircraft handles is important.

        Also, the F/A hearing loss underscores the painfully high noise levels associated with tail-mounted -219s on jets like the MD80 and 727.

        A blog differs from a forum in that the former is one person’s viewpoint, while the latter is a threaded discussion of the topic. I’m not inclined to debate your opinion where it differs from mine, but that would be a good option for you on your blog.

  11. An excellent and fascinating read. I agree with all of the readers’ comments about a tech discussion being accessible for those of us who are big aviation fans w/o the benefit of experience.

    My home airport is KPWM which sees daily DAL MD88s. I had my first flight on one last year… From the perspective of an aviation fan, I enjoyed the sounds, the thrown against the seat feeling… The MD88 fully loaded uses the majority of the runway with the JT8D buzz saws roaring. I was flying with my family, none of whom are aviation buffs, and I did echo their sentiments from a passenger’s perspective- loud, old, worn down, and fully loaded you felt completely packed in… AC was subpar… I was happy to switch to the 752 when we got at KATL.

    I would be interested in hearing your perspective on the E-Jets… My most recent flight was on a Republic operated E170 and it was night and day as a passenger (not surprisingly), my biggest complaint with the 170 being the offset windows…

    Your input from the inside is appreciated!!!

  12. Let me be the first to disagree with you. You’re comparing 70’s engineering against 90’s engineering. Even so, the MD80’s warning systems for example are far more complex than even the 737NG. Of course you can’t compare the wing, engines and the like. Those were designed prior to the computerage. Furthermore MD-80’s we fly have later model Honeywell FMC’s and full LNAV, VNAV functions. I know the Mad Dog doesn’t compare to an -800. But the -800 won’t compare in many ways to what will be built in 15 years’ time either.

    • That’s my whole point: Douglas DIDN’T re-engineer the MD-80 series–they just took the same old wing, which was comparatively high-loaded as it was–and the same old series engine and added length and weight to the aircraft.

      Douglas DID re-engineer the DC-10 with an improved wing and wholly re-designed cockpit for the MD-11. But in their narrow-body market, they lagged behind Boeing which designed a larger wing and a new, more powerful engine series for the 737.

      Flying the MD-80, if the charts show max altitude as 370, smart cruisers stay at 350 or below because of the high wing loading and marginal engine performance. But on the 737 Next Gen, besides the fact that the top is 410–really helpful when there’s weather ahead–you can easily get there and stay there.

      The MD-80s are slugging it out down in the 30s, hoping they don’t have to turn on the wing and engine anti-ice at the top of the envelope and risk a stall recovery exercise.

      I also disagree on the warning systems–there are more nuisance and useless warnings on that jet than on any I’ve ever flown, making pilots filter all information all the time. The 737-800 has a capture and consolidation system for warnings and filters out many of the nuisance lights and audio that simply add to the pilots’ workload.

      That’s not 70’s versus 90’s engineering–that’s Douglas saving bucks by not doing any re-engineering to save $$ on the Ford Escort of the jet age, which is the essence of the MD-80.

  13. Actually I would have found more appropriate if you had chosen the MD-90 to compare to the -800. Or compare the -80 to the -400 series. It would have been more fair. You may find the MD-80 warnings a nuisance, but remember that several crashes of the 737 have been attributed to crews failing to properly identify buzzer warnings. The MD-80’s supercritical wing is indeed not much more than a slightly stretched DC-9 wing with some aerodynamic improvements. In many aspects the MD-80 is indeed a derivative of the -9 and Douglas (for reasons known to them) did not develop a completely redesigned wing. I won’t mention engines because I think for it’s design, Douglas couldn’t do much better than a -219 engine at the time. But Boeing also decided (for their own reasons) to migrate most of the cockpit systems from the classic 737 to the NG. That is why e.g. the A320 can be considered superior in areas where Boeing decided to economize. But again I must say that it is an unfair comparison. I bet that the 80’s MD is also superior to the 60’s 737-200 with it’s smaller wings, slower cruise speed and such. If you compared the MD-90 to the -800 and concluded that was superior I couldn’t have agreed more. There is where Douglas made the mistake of not giving it a new wing. If you don’t think it’s about 70’s versus 90’s engineering I would like to see a 70’s era jet that had warning consolidation systems, a computer designed airfoil and rear mount high bypass turbofan engines using FADEC technologies.
    Hope you don’t find my posts offensive or disrespectful 🙂 I’m merely trying to convey my point of view on the subject as a fellow aviator.

    • You’re still arguing the chicken and the egg

      I see the reason for the MD80’s limited and ever-declining capability as a direct result of Douglass’s decision not to invest in new engineering for the MD80.

      You see it as a question of 70s versus 90s technology, irrespective of Douglass’s deliberate decision to forgo the latter in favor of the former.

      BTW, you should listen to the JetHead Live interview with Bill Flanagan as he discusses the redesigned digital flight control system he test flew on the SR-71 in the early 80s. That 70s technology wasn’t quite as impotent as you imply in excusing the lopsided comparison of the two jets, both of which I’ve flown fairly extensively.

      And don’t get me wrong–I’m not dissing MD jets: like most pilots who flew the DC-10, I loved it. The MD-80? After about 14,000 hours flying it, I’d sooner shave my head with a cheese grater than get back into that jet.

  14. The DC-10 was deemed an engineering disaster that almost caused Douglas to go bust. Many initial flaws had to be corrected after many people died. Still you and many pilots I know liked the way she flew. Now that is what I mean. Doesn’t matter about specs or facts about the plane, just seat of the pants and personal feel for an otherwise plagued jetliner.

    Regarding the SR-71, I don’t really understand your point. Do remember though that the MD-80 was the first jetliner featuring a digital flight control system. Also, the SR-71 was a very expensive, top secret military aircraft.
    Also, all personal opinions aside, a highly loaded wing will theoretically handle turbulence better than a wing with low wing loading. This was also the opinion of a friend of mine flying 737’s in Europe currently. So the opinion of the fellow poster does make quite some sense.

    When power, wing and aerodynamics between planes are compared, it should be between peers. In 1980 there was the -200Adv and the MD-80. Technologywise there really was no comparison between the two. Of course the -200 was already showing it’s age by then. Fact remains that all jetliners start to phase out at roughly the same age. Currently it is the time of the Mad Dog to slowly slip away I’m affraid. I personally love her. In about 10 years’ time, it will be the turn of the -400 I’m sure. In 20 years it’ll be the -800’s time. Doesn’t matter if 40 years ago Douglas decided to stretch a wing instead of designing a new one, or by not investing in futuristic engine technology, or if 15 years ago Boeing decided to retain the old cockpit design of the 737 and slap in some CRT screens, nor that they decided to compromise on engine, wing and pylon design rather than designing a new landing gear for example. 

    • You really don’t know what you’re talking about with the DC-10. The ORD fatality had nothing to do with design flaws or engineering.

      In reality, high wing loading means decreased stall margin in turbulence–the exact opposite of your point. That’s why MD-80s have a history of high-altitude stalls, particularly in turbulence where the AOA can vary widely and rapidly.

      And actually, the MD-80 never has had and never will have a digital flight control system. And that’s another drawback of the MD-80: the flight controls are ancient counter-tab systems, slow, sluggish and slow to respond. No hydraulic boost in the ailerons–even the control wheel is outsized because you really need leverage to bank the jet.

      All I know is this: I’ve flown a lot of jets as a pilot in the past 34 years. In my experience, the 737-800 is the best engineered, best hand-flying jet I’ve had the pleasure to fly. Ever.

  15. I see you tried doing some research but failed. The DC10 in fact did not only crash in ORD. One example of lack in engineering is the hydraulic system design which contributed to the United accident in Sioux City. There are more.

    The MD80 has a higher degree swept wing and higher wing loading, both of which contribute to better resistance to turbulence. Your question about high altitude stalls was never disputed by me. We were talking about turnulence, right? And your claim of wild variations in AoA supports the theory that instead of taking the upset in the wing, the MD80 remains stable thus conducing to AoA variation. In other words the MD is more stable in turbulence. You will also find sources all over the internet that confirm that an aicraft with a high wing loading is less prone to upset than its lower wing loaded counterpart.

    The MD80’s flight guidance i.e. the autopilot and other systems that automatically control the aircraft IS the first of its kind. No, the MD80 does not have fly by wire, neither does the -800 designed 20 years later. So I doubt you are dissing the MD for not having digital fly by wire as in an SR-71. And yes, the MD80 has control tabs that are slow to respond. That was how they designed it and it did its job perfectly. You could get accustomed to its feel, however having a hydraulic flight control throw you upside down without any means to remedy the situation is beyond words.

    You seem to think that I’m not agreeing that the -800 is a better airplane. That it doesn’t handle better or is engineered better. I’m disagreeing with your notion that an MD80 is supposed to compare to an -800. And that the -80 is a poor plane given some of its characteristics. And that the age difference has absolutely nothing to do with it. If that is the case why did the 737-200 not fly Mach .79 at FL410 in 1980?

    • I see where you’re coming from now–that became clear from your mistaking “digital flight guidance” with digital flight controls; you’re backtracking in your last comment but not doing a very good job of even that.  

      You’re wrong too about a DC10 hydraulic design defect in the Sioux City crash, which was actually caused by an uncontained rotor failure due to defective casting of an engine part.  

      And you’re really way out in left field regarding high altitude stalls in general and those plaguing the MD80 in particular, a constant worry among pilots who fly it. 

      What’s obvious is this: you’re a person with Google search access and way too little actual aviation knowledge. 

      Clearly, you don’t know what you’re talking about, but I have the feeling you’ve said about all you’re going to say on this aviation blog.

  16. P.G. Pharr Says:

    Good call, Cap’n.
    And thanks for a great comparison on the two aircraft.
    Wish you and all the fine flight crews at AA the best as the company goes forward!

  17. Great article Chris. Enjoyable read and nice when the people in the front office share their insights, knowledge and stories.

    Look forward to hearing what you think of flying the 777-300ER in a few years. Can’t wait to see the first copy in AA livery.

    Have you done any blogs on thunderstorm flying? I would imagine DFW has provided you with a bunch of stories! I Find every spring it is a wild ride in and out of there.

  18. Interesting. Several pilots I speak to dislike the 737-800 saying while it does have nice displays, the overhead layout, the switches and systems still strongly reflect its 1960s/1970s design. Those that have flown both the A320 and the 737ng say the A320 is generations ahead ot the new 737s. Very good reading here capt Manno!

    • I don’t really see a downside to Boeing’s design connection to what worked in earlier models like the 727 and 707.

      Can’t really speak to the Airbus, never having flown it, but the pilots who do fly it seem really positive about it.

      Although we’re getting new Airbus A-319s and A-320s, we’re also getting 777-300s and 787s, so I’m sticking with the Boeing fleet going forward.

  19. Used_To_Fly_Alot Says:

    BTW I also like the way you see the manufacture date on the door jam of any dc-9 or MD-8x…..

    • Ah, nostalgia: we now have more 737s than MD80s. Hasn’t been a powerback from a gate at DFW in at least 10 years either.

      From a pilot standpoint, the new B-737-800s are more reliable, more efficient and all around better to fly than the MD-80. It had its time, but those days are past.

  20. frequent flyer Says:

    I’m just a passenger that has been on both the 737 and MD-80 many times, and like that other passenger here, I STILL much prefer the MD-80. The 737 is boring compared to the MD-80. And the MD-80 IS smoother in turbulence, whatever some wing theory is supposed to say. The MD-80 is quiet and feels comfortable and personal. Those engines pushing at your back feel great, but engines pulling on your feet don’t feel so good. And who wants to look out any window and see those big things hanging off the wings? (If I was a wing, I SURE wouldn’t want one of those things hanging off me). I mean I don’t doubt that the captain is right about most of what he is talking about, especially if both the 737 and the MD-80 were only “cargo” planes and not “passenger” planes. But what is a passenger plane supposed to be about anyway?

    BTW, I love flying to Vegas and Honolulu from Stockton California on the Allegiant MD-80. And those are new routes, so I doubt they’ll be changing that plane any time soon. Also that plane is famous for safety and what passengers love to fly on. I’ll bet if they built a new modern MD-80 type passenger plane, even more people would want to fly on it. (Not stretch it too much). Imagine rich people buying large corporate type jets with two big ugly engines hanging under each wing.

    And BTW again, that DC-10 started off with a horrible safety record and quickly got grounded permanently as a passenger plane. Everybody knows that. Sure it became a good airplane eventually, and made a good Air Force tanker, but it never would have been a good passenger plane IMO.

    Flying the MD-80 for twenty years or whatever, might want to cherish those memories, that’s when passengers were proud to get on your airplane. Counter-tab or not.

    • You have a vivid imagination. Where to start? The DC-10 never got grounded as a passenger plane due to safety. It was a fine passenger plane, lots of power, best hand-flying jet I’ve ever flown–and I’ve flown many. It didn’t make a very good USAF tanker, actually: the number two, tail-mounted engine burned the antennas off the C-5 T-tail during refueling, and so had to have the second engine at idle during refueling with its biggest customer.

      “Imagine rich people buying large corporate type jets with two big ugly engines hanging under each wing?” That’s exactly what they’re doing: the 737-700 is the most popular new biz jet, called the BBJ: “Boeing Business Jet” and yes, the elite corporations fly or charter the BBJ for their best and most important flights.

      Most passengers prefer a “boring” flight and really are interested in safe, efficient transportation–which is what a passenger plane is supposed to be about. No, Allegiant won’t be changing aircraft soon–they’re a bargain-basement airline flying the cheapest airframes they could find. As a passenger, much less as a pilot, I’m not a big fan of “the cheapest airframe” I could find.

      Other than a conspiracy among airline executives, why do you suppose the MD-80s are being parked, besides the fact that they’re inefficient, burn too much fuel, are altitude and range limited and, at their advanced age, a maintenance nightmare? Like the DC-10–and the DC-3, for that matter, the MD-80 had its time. But now, for so many good reasons, it’s mostly obsolete.

      • Loves to Fly Says:

        “why do you suppose the MD-80s are being parked”?

        Because it turns out that the conventional way of building a passenger aircraft is the most practical, (albeit less fun to fly). A pilot once remarked that he enjoyed flying the 727 because it felt like a “fighter” plane. Those days are gone.

        And the DC-10 would have been a big winner with only two large engines, available yet or not, along with a modern ground maintenance program. What a shame.

      • So now “Frequent Flyer” is reborn as “Loves to Fly,” but makes even less sense: the 727 had unpowered ailerons and flew more like a dump truck than a fighter jet.

        The 737 has hydraulically boosted flight controls and is smooth, nimble and has an excess of power.

        Both are Boeing designs, with the 737 being the newer, “more fun to fly” model. In my experience, those days aren’t over–the 777 and 787 promise that they’re just beginning.

        And the DC-10 as a two-engine jet? Why? Never mind–that makes no sense either.

      • Hank Hoffman Says:

        Chris, the guy is a passenger. He doesn’t understand what you are talking about. He doesn’t understand why you should have a certain number of engines and he certainly doesn’t understand handling qualities. Let it go.

  21. […] compares two classic airliners: the Boeing 737 and the McDonnell-Douglas […]

  22. Good afternoon, Captain. I greatly enjoyed your comparison between the 737-800 and the MD-80 Series. I only have one minor nitpick: twice on this page you referred to the MD-80 Series engines as “General Electric JT8D.” I’m not sure which company would take more umbrage at that: Pratt & Whitney (manufacturer of the JT8D), or General Electric (who probably wishes they manufactured it but would never admit that in public)! 😉

    Thanks again for the enjoyable read. Cheers.

    • Very alert reader: you are absolutely correct!

      I am too lazy to go back through the whole article right now, but I will eventually. Till then, duly noted.

  23. boeing hater Says:

    737 is a piece of .rap compared to MD-80, the ONLY benefit are the stronger engines . . .

    • Dude, get your own blog. This one’s taken.

    • Michael Cahoon Says:

      Captain I stumbled upon your blog looking up MD 88. I am a passenger and use to be afraid of flying. When i was a younger man I tried to learn how to fly having made friends with airline pilot who talked me into buying a Cessna 340A back in early 1980’s. The education was priceless and it was a happy day when I sold my plane lol. In any case I really enjoyed reading your blog and don’t understand how some folks can be disrespectful of a man who has safely flown thousands of people to where they needed to go. I wonder what they would say on a heart surgeons blog? I sincerely appreciate your experience and willingness to share it. Thank you.

  24. A great article Chris.
    An interesting comparison would be anyone who’s flown the NG 737 and the MD90 or 95 (B717). I guess either of the latter two would be comparable to the NG 737 as far as vintage would be concerned; do you know of anyone who has ‘crossed over’ between those two?

    • I don’t. But the big difference is the wing: MacDoug left the wing unimproved through the DC-9 series, including the -95 and 717, while Boeing stretched and enlarged the 737 wing, plus added state-of-the art hi-bypass fans.

      Glass cockpits compare somewhat, but Boeing systems and the bigger wing matter most in flight.

  25. Captain Chris,

    I am sure you are correct regarding how the newer 737’s are better in turbulence over the MD 80’s. However, I have never had a smooth flight on the newer 737’s. Just wondering if the new composite material make the 37’s feel less stable in turbulence then the mad dogs?

    • One thing I have heard, but can’t verify, is that the winglets on the next-gen (700, 800, 900) make the wing more rigid and therefore, the ride rougher. I’ve only flown the -800 with winglets, so I can’t compare to the slick wing. Also, I know the ride is much worse near the back, at least as far as pitching motion, which is likely due to the stretched fuselage.

      Not sure about the composites–could be.

      • usmcTOWgunner Says:

        I recall that there was/is a company that made parts for the 737 NG. Parts that are critical to the integrity of the fuselage that were so poorly made that Boeing’s own Q&A inspectors were shocked and frightened by the lack of quality? I’m not slamming the Boeing company. I’m interested in having safe aircraft to fly on. What’s the scoop on that situation?

      • I don’t know anything about that. But I have 100% confidence in the Boeing I fly–it has proven itself to be reliable and durable time and again in the 3,000+ hours I’ve flown it.

  26. Perhaps a comparison between the 737classics, the 300/400500 series and the NG would be in order.

    Glad I found this blog. Love reading it.

  27. Hello, thank you for your nice blog; I enjoy reading it. I have some family that work in the airospace industry so I’ve always been really interested planes. I recently flew on American Airlines from the West Coast to Costa Rica; with a lay over in Ft. Worth/Dallas. On both trips (going and returning) one leg was on an MD and the other was on a Boeing; is that common for American? I did notice, both times, a bit more rough ride when on the MD; though we still made it back safely.

    Could you explain the difference between having the engines in the rear for MD and the engines under the wings for Boeing? I know that there was a bit more noise in the back of the MD; but of-course the engines were much closer then out on the wing. I personally think that planes look cooler with the engines in the back (purely my opinion on aesthetics). The Bombardier CRJ series and the Fokker 100 series use engines in the back.

    I know that different engineers think up different solutions, but what are the pros and cons of having engines in the back rather then under the wing? Is there a reason why smaller planes have engines in the back; ground clearance? Is one method cheaper to build then the other, or are the aerodynamic issues with engine placement? Would the engines placement affect the thrust or speed?

  28. Tristar500 Says:

    Xander hit the nail on the head… Chris Manno – you are comparing apples to oranges. It would be like me describing how poorly the 737-200 compares with the MD-95 (717).

    You made some good points on the 737-800s features, but this really comes across as personal bitterness towards the MD-80 more than anything else. Sour grapes for the extraordinary amount of time it took to hold a more senior fleet type, perhaps?

    What’s ironic about all the MD-80 bashing by current AA pilots is that without the MD-80 many of them would not have jobs. The MD-80 was critical to Crandall’s domestic expansion of AA during the 1980’s, growing the carrier more than twofold. That’s 260 deliveries between 1983-1992. Very few of those planes were replacements, but budgeted adds, building the airline to one of the largest operators in the world. It’s an insult to ignore history and contributions for this aircraft type.

    And for what? Because it didn’t have the latest and greatest glass-cockpit, RNAV, FMS, etc.? Tell that to the guys flying left-seat 727 for all those years… Better yet, how about the Delta DC-9 pilots today! You won’t see a 737NG flying at 40+ years of age, no sir.

    I get it, you like the 737-800. That’s great for you. But describing the S80 as if it’s a piece of trash from the ’60s .. (note: the MD-83’s first flight was 1985), is an insult to anyone who was ever involved in the project. The type sold 1200 copies. It may not be your favorite but give it its due.

    • I gave the MD80 its due–that’s what the whole post is about. After flying the jet myself for 21 years (14,000+ hours), I think I’m qualified to do that.

      Anyone who is “insulted” because my opinion doesn’t match theirs is going to have a difficult time reading the paper or watching the news, much less surfing blogs.

      Good luck with that.

  29. Finn Hovgaard Says:

    Chis Mannon… I do not understand how you came up with the idea of comparing a 33 year old MD80 construction with a new B737. At least it would have been more fair to compare the B737 with the MD90 with the 25000 pounds IAE fadec engines. Anyway, when you are comparing the two planes, why are you not mentioning the much stronger construction of the MD which is expressed in much higher configuration speeds, which you must admit is a great advantage from a pilots point of view. Furthermore you should also compare the function of the autopilot during engine out conditions after takeoff and in go around mode.

    • In my view, that’s the point of a comparison of dissimilar aircraft: can’t really compare the MD80 to the MD80.

      I also disagree that the MD80 has “stronger construction.” Flap limit speeds aren’t an indicator of strength, and the more variable 737 flap options are more useful from a pilot standpoint. Besides, flaps aren’t for drag–speed brakes are–and both jets allow speed brakes at all speeds. Versatility? Not: the MD80 slats at 280 (vs. 250 on the 737) won’t slow you down anyway.

      Solid construction? Based on thousands of pilot hours flying both, the Boeing wins the solid construction vote from me.

      The MD80 autopilot must be disconnected by 1,000 feet on final, whereas the 737 autopilot can be used to minimums. So, the MD80 autopilot will not be used on go-around or on engine failure take-offs until after cleanup. So you basically have that wrong as well.

      Anyway, most of the MD80s are headed for the boneyard, largely due to fuel flow: they just can’t compete with the Boeing and Airbus competition. It was a fun jet to fly in its day–I flew it for 21 years–but that day is long past.

      • Stjepan Bedic Says:

        It’s not true that MD-80 autopilot must be disconnected by 1000 ft.
        Normal ILS approach can be flown with autopilot ON until 50 ft, it’s the AFM limitation, and also the regulations require the airplane to be able to fly with autopilot on to 80% of the certified DH.
        In addition, MD-80 has CAT IIIA autoland capability, and some of them even CAT IIIB, dependinh on the HUD or roll out guidance capability. It also has one more mode on autoland – ALIGN which aligns the airplane with the runway.
        737 autopilot is off for any go around except dual channel and it is incapable of flying during engine failure on takeoff, both of which MD-80 autopilot is capable of.
        This is the realistic story – B737 has better wings, engines and navigation, MD-80 has everything else better. THe reason for that is the fact that Boeing refuses to create a new airplane, but produces this converted ww2 bomber, as I like to call it.

        Here are a few simple things that shocked me when I went to 737NG from MD-80:

        – MD-80 has aural warnings for major failures. 737 has a horn. MD-80 actually tells you “CABIN ALTITUDE! FIRE FIGHT ENGINE! SPEEDBRAKES” etc.
        – I was sorry to realize that 737 does not have EICAS. MD-80 also doesnt have EICAS, but at least all the fault indications are at one place – the announciator panel. Each panel on 737 has it’s own lights and annunciations. MD-80 is an old concept, but 737 overhead panel is even older.
        – MD-80 has generator priority. You shut down the engines, the APU takes over automatically. On 737, it doesnt.
        – MD-80 has automatic timer for APU AIR. on 737 you have to count to 60.
        – MD-80 has fuelling preselect. You preselect how much fuel you want and it closes valves automatically. On most 737NGs you have to stand there like an idiot.
        – MD-80 has a heading hold function on the autopilot. Just push and it holds the heading. On 737 you have to play with the heading bug after every turn.
        – MD-80 has two hydraulic systems which can power each other completelly, plus each system has its own backups. On 737 each system has it’s own backups, but for example, if you loose hydraulic A and make a go around you cannot retract the landing gear. So if the runway gets blocked and you already have the gear down, you cannot reach the alternate airport anymore, UNLESS you switch off one engine, because then you can retract via PTU. It’s like the French designed this aircraft.
        – MD-80 fuel pumps are immersed in unusable fuel. ON 737 if you forget to switch off the pumps when the center tank is empty, you blow up. If you are lucky to fly those without modification, you have the following limitation:
        if it’s less than 2300 you have to switch them off on takeoff, but on after takeoff (which is not in the checklist). If it’s less than 1400 on descent they must be off, but if it’s more than 453 in level flight they must be on, but if it’s less than 900 one must be off, one must be on and xfeed has to be on. It’s true, check the AFM of older NGs. You need a fuel pump operator for this airplane!
        – On MD-80 I have a place to put my bag and I have a folding table.
        It’s nice and silent in the cockpit.
        – On MD-80 you can taxi backwards with reversers.
        – On MD-80 BOTH hydraulic systems are powering the flaps and slats, so no need for alternate improvisations
        – On MD-80 the entire leading edge of the wing is de-iced, and you also have a tail de icing system

        Of course, if I had my own company, I would buy 737NG or A320, but I am very sorry why 737NG doesn’t have things like EICAS, aural warning, overhead panel with AUTO pushbutton switches etc.

      • Depends on what AFM you’re looking at. At AA, the largest user of the MD80, the autopilot must be off by 1,000′ afl on a single engine approach.

        Also, you pretty much lost credibility when you said on the 737, “if you forget to turn off a boost pump, you blow up.”Really? I’d expect the countryside to be littered with 737 wreckage if that was true.

        I guess that makes for good drama, but poor credibility. Ditto most of your other points (counting to sixty is a deal breaker?).

        Regardless, as I said earlier, the MD80s are heading for the desert, which is the ultimate judgment of the airline industry, with good reason.

  30. Finn N. Hovgaard Says:

    Dear Chris. I think you have to consider what you want to achieve with your blogging. I can see you have a nerve for words and “one-liners”, but it is really hard to believe you are a skilled captain who want to bring facts up front to your readers. Chris, one of the most important things about a pilots personality is that he is able to admit when he has made a fault or a wrong decision. With that in mind, will you excuse your statement, saying that I was wrong about the MD80 autopilot? Yes or no?

    • Gosh, I guess I’m busted: I’m really a tire salesman in Duluth rather than an airline captain with 22 years in the left seat and over 15,000 hours of flying time. What did I hope to accomplish? Well, I heard that airline pilots were more likely to live longer because they had so much time off. Is that not true?

      That confession out of the way, let me just ask: will you be needing snow tires? I’ll make you a deal on steel belted radials.

      And no, contrary to the “pilots personality” stuff, I won’t agree that the autopilot on the 250 MD80s in our fleet can be used as you said–because you’re wrong.

      That is, according to those guys who actually fly them. Now, how about at least a tire rotation, maybe even a new set of treads?

  31. I used to fly in the back of DC9s/MD80s all the time on flights from MSP (Minneapolis), to BTM (Butte), RAP (Rapid City), SUX (Sioux City), MSO (Missoula). It seemed the Northwest pilots would take off and land these planes in winds and weather I would never see a 737 operate in. Was this a function of the equipment or brave, experienced pilots?

    Also, a person who conducted fuselage integrity tests on DC9s and 737s at the TWA overhaul base in Kansas City used to comment to me that he thought the MD aircraft seemed to hold up much better after 20 years than the Boeing models. Can anyone verify that, or explain why he might have felt this way?

    • I’m not sure about the relative fuselage strength, not being an engineer. That must be based on someone’s firsthand experience.

      The weather and wind limitations for the MD-80 and 737 are much the same, and those limits are what determines whether a crew lands or not. I give the edge to the 737 though, because of the HUD, making low visibility approaches easier to accomplish. But again, both jets can go to the same weather and wind minimums.

      • Regarding fuselage strength: I haven’t heard of any MD-80s with holes blown out the top of the fuselage due to failed skin joints. Seems to have happened to at least a few 737s.

      • Hard to say whether that’s a design weakness or a maintenance problem. There are many, many more 737s flying than MD80s over a significantly higher number of years. I’m not sure the handful of fuselage breaches as a percentage is significant, or comparable to the -80 with so many less ever manufactured compared to the 737.

  32. As a, um, NERVOUS flyer, the first leg of an upcoming trip home is on an AA MD80 from Los Cabo to LAX. I shouldn’t feel as ridiculously terrified as I do, correct?

  33. Douglas A. Says:

    Comparing technology from the 70’s to technology from today? Might as well right an article comparing today’s vehicles to the Model-T. I want the 3 minutes it took me to read that article back!

  34. Before you feel like the Lone Ranger with the MD-80 (and DC-9) elevator system, bear in mind that essentially the same system was used on the DC-8 . . . and until the 747 came along, the 355,000 lb DC-8-63 was the biggest commercial jet . . . with control tabs and geared tabs, but no power boost, on the elevators. It took some getting used to. But speaking of 747s, whatta difference. Fabulous handling qualities (if you did what Mother Boeing said), fabulous systems, and (I think) the SAFEST transport airplane ever built.

  35. Great to see the comments section still alive after 4 years!

    I’ve flown in countless aircraft types over the years, but the most frequent was probably the MD-80. These days I fly mostly on 737-800 (AA), but last couple of flights were on MD-80, so this discussion is very familiar. Agreed that comparing the two planes is like comparing apples and oranges – the 737-800 is 18 years ahead in design technology w.r.t. the MD-80. A better comparison would be with an earlier generation of 737.

    I actually like hearing the engines powerup – one of the best parts of a flight. On that score, if I am seated close to the engines, the MD-80 wins hands down. Really sweet powerup. On the original 737, the engines sounded like coal-burning furnaces. On newer ones, it’s hard to tell what the engines are doing as they ramp up.

    Ah well, everyone experiences flying differently

    • It’s odd that people think you can’t compare apples and oranges, but of course you can. And as a pilot who flew both jets, like many, we compare them. I didn’t fly the old 737.

      It seems a little weird to me as an aviator that there’s a “winning” engine sound, because what matters in flight at all is thrust, not sound. In fact, more thrust with less sound is a win, especially in noise sensitive areas.

      Oh well–enjoy the noise (“sweet spool up?”) or whatever in the obsolete jets. The CFM-56s put out over twice the thrust with less fuel and quietly. That’s leading edge aviation.

  36. VIP MD87 driver Says:

    Are we done with MD80 bashing?

  37. Captain Chris,

    What is your opinion of the 737s wing? Specifically during descent and flares. One constant that I’ve heard from NG pilots is that during descents is that its hard to get down/slow down because of how efficient the wing is. Also that when flaring that the wing doesn’t want to stop flying.

    Just curious of you experience with the NG to date.

    • No aircraft will “float” if the correct threshold speed is held in the flare and every aircraft will float until that speed is reached. And all aircraft have a standard descent rate and angle–if you plan correctly, you can, will, and must make all of the altitude restrictions on published arrivals. I don’t see a competent pilot complaining that it’s “hard to get down and slow” when the aircraft’s descent characteristics are clearly known. I guarantee that excuse won’t overturn a violation for not complying with a clearance.

  38. Chris,

    I was wondering what is you opinion of the NG wing, specifically during descents and landing. One constant complaint I’ve heard from NG pilots is that it is hard to get the aircraft to get down and slow down when descending because of how efficient the wing is. Also that it will float during landing because the wing doesn’t want to stop flying.

    Just wanted to say I just found the blog and enjoy it immensely.

    Fair skies!

  39. Joseph M. Dicioilla Says:

    Captain, I’m getting into this forum very late but agree with almost everything you’ve said about 737 over MD80..however.. has there been any thoughts/discussion about what happens to an electric airplane when confronted by a huge solar flare? Flight control computers aside..what about the EEC’s? A scary thought.. one event the dinosaur won’t even notice.. well maybe a little for EFIS stuff up front. Has this ever come up in your training?

  40. greg thibodeaux Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I’m just a novice but I love airplanes… Actually right now I’m sitting at the San Francisco Airport watching them come and go. You gave me a good insight. I’ve heard Pilots talk about different models of plane, and how some ‘go up like a kite’….. and how others were ‘ hard to get off the ground and stay up’.
    ( egad , what a thought from my passenger view). Thanks for posting Greg T Danville California

  41. Daniel Patten Says:

    matches my impressions from the back seats. I have always stayed up on aviation reading alot, grew up with cessnas. to me the 737 became a wonderful plane when it went from jt8d cough cough, to the fantastic cfm56. some of that large fan technology from 56 went into the amazing ge-90. the jt8d is a fan in name only. as a passenger i love that your average run of the mill southwest flight , every seat full, hot day still gets me off at takeoff. that acceleration just keeps coming. thanks so much. Dan

  42. Very interesting article, Chris. I’m not even sure if you even look at this article anymore in 2018 but I enjoyed reading it. I personally really love the MD-80. I think it’s such a slick looking jet and to me it is far more interesting than the 737. I love the old fashioned cockpit and the unusual engineering McDonnell Douglas used for some of the systems. From what I’ve heard though it seems like it’s kind of a goofy plane to fly and it has a lot of character, good and bad. I’m not a real pilot myself though so I can’t argue with you about your thoughts on both the 737 and MD-80 from a pilot’s standpoint. It sounds like some of your resentment for the MD-80 is definitely justified. You’re the one who flew it for all of those years so I’ll take your word for it even though to me the MD-80 is one hell of cool jet.

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