TWA DC-9 on ramp
6 min read

The first DC-9s to come off the production line were the dash ten series, around 1965. TWA’s were officially DC-9-15s. The “little 9” was a real performer, with a max weight of only a little over 90,000 pounds and two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-7s pushing it with a combined thrust of 28,000 pounds. Talking with a Mexicana pilot one day who also flew them, he said that they called it el raton super loco; loosely translated as “crazy mighty mouse.”

TWA DC-9 on ramp

Early DC-9s weighed under 100,000 pounds but had plenty of thrust.

And it really was. But this became another case of growing what was a little rocket into a big hog. Douglas started stretching the plane but not the “horsepower.” Douglas merged with McDonnell in 1967 and it became the McDonnell-Douglas (MD) series, and finally the Boeing 717 after Boeing ate McDonnell-Douglas in 1997. Many of the later models are still in service.

TWA only flew 9s for a few years, then we sold the fleet to Ozark because we felt the Boeing 727 was better suited to the needs of our domestic market. (Ozark’s fleet, by then all later models, came back when TWA purchased Ozark in 1986.)

We operated the 9s mostly on short routes east of Kansas City and they were conventional in most respects. One big difference was a several degree nose-down attitude in the approach configuration. Every other jet I flew approached in a noticeably nose-up attitude. Another thing I remember is that the alternate pressurization system was nothing more than a lever connected directly to the outflow valve. This required the co-pilot’s full attention, which rendered him useless for most other duties. I think this arrangement was found only on the dash tens.

Another anomaly was the magnetic compass, which was mounted on the bulkhead behind and above the co-pilot’s head. The compass card was printed inside out, or as a mirror image, and was read by way of a small rear-view mirror on top of the glare shield. A line that became a classic was when a captain asked a new hire co-pilot what that mirror was for. After the co-pilot answered correctly, the captain would say, “No, that’s so the new co-pilots can check their pimples.”

The DC-9 was the only TWA airplane I ever flew with a two-man crew, which was an interesting experience. It seems there was more camaraderie with the two-man crew. With three, often it would develop into a bit of a two-against-one situation, especially with two new hires and one old WWII vet. A standing joke among new hires was that the purpose of having a flight engineer (F/E) on board was to help the first officer (F/O): if the captain had a heart attack, they could get the old SOB’s body out of “my” seat. The DC-9 operation was fun; two twenty-something guys with two twenty-something girls hopping up and down the Ohio Valley for a month together. Sort of like getting the keys to Dad’s car every night.

But my most vivid memories of flying the 9 have nothing to do with the airplane; they have to do with what I was doing in it. I had only been with TWA for about three years when the first new hires (1963 and 1964 hires) began to be awarded captain bids. Most student captain training was done in the DC-9, as it was the junior equipment at the time. Very few of us had flown the 9 and I had only flown as F/O on the Connie and the CV-880. I did not bid a captain vacancy—I was assigned one! I had recently turned 26 and had just a few more hours than the 1200 required for an ATP at the time.

The whole program took me nine months. What a coincidence as my wife was pregnant with our first born at the same time. Management was scared to death turning us “kid kap’ns” loose with a jet airliner full of people and looked at us through jaundiced eyes. It was an up or out program—no second chances and no reverting to previous status. The failure rate in the DC-9 upgrading program was almost 15%.

DC-9 cockpit

Not a lot of electronics here.

The program called for training and flying the rating ride in Kansas City. Then a minimum of 50 hours in the left seat with a line check airman, a semi-final with another check airman and a final check with the domicile DC-9 flight manager. After my first 50 hours with a great instructor, Captain Jim Morgan, I was amazed at all the good sense he taught me in addition to all the “thou shalt” and the “thou shalt nots” in the company flight and policy manuals. I received a second 50 hours with another check pilot. I had had the carrot and now came the stick. I won’t name him, but he was antithetical to Jim and the next 50 hours was sort of a prolonged hell week.

All a checker need do to make life tough for a checkee on a two-man crew is to just to sit there and do and say nothing at all–let him fly solo until he messes up, then see how good his recovery is. That is how this checker operated. If he didn’t do something that was the F/O’s responsibility and I called him on it he would say that it was the captain’s responsibility to see that the F/O (or F/E) completed theirs.

When the 50 hours were finally over, he recommended me for a semifinal check with a management pilot. The first day of our two day, ten leg trip went well. Beginning our descent on the third leg on the way home, I failed to note that my co-pilot had not started the cabin down–until our altitude got down to the cabin altitude. Well, all I could do was request a slow descent, about 500 ft. per minute, costing the company how much time and money… busted.

I went home to tell my bride of one year and about due to deliver our first born at any minute that my career with TWA was over. After hardly a moment’s pause, she said, “That’s all right, our happiness does not depend on TWA.” No wonder I love her. I was set up for an evaluation ride with one of the DC-9 flight managers and that went OK. A few days later, Jeff Jr. was born, and a couple of days after that I went out for my final check with the head guy.

I thought things went okay, but he never said a word, and well, who knows? We caught the crew bus to our hangar and as we got off the bus he started chatting with another DC-9 check airman who was about to board the bus. In parting, almost as an afterthought, said, “Oh, I want you to shake hands with our newest DC-9 captain.”

Jeff Hill
19 replies
  1. Jim Rosenkranz
    Jim Rosenkranz says:

    I flew the DC-9-30 for 13 wonderful years. It was my first jet, and first Captain position. Hands down my absolute favorite airplane! The 30 series had the same manual pressurization system as the 10 series, and that was a full time job for whoever was operating it. (the older ones had the “lollipop” lever for this….later models had the locking wheel). Manual pitch trim was manipulated by the “suitcase handles”! In the modern day of GPS it’s amazing that we flew all over the country with just 2 VORs, DME, and ADF…..the latter was occasionally used to listen to AM radio stations. We used to brag that we were “radar vector equipped”. I remember flying one actual NDB approach in the weather to LGA. HA!

    Reply
  2. Patrick Clar
    Patrick Clar says:

    What a great story! Those were the days, TWA ran one tuff program. Flying a DC-9 back then in all kinds of weather with two VOR’s and a ADF with so called weather radar could be a real challenge. A new generation of airline pilots have no idea how good they have it.

    Reply
  3. Roger Moore
    Roger Moore says:

    I flew all models of the DC9 with TWA for about 5000 hours and checked out as Captain in them. Great airplane but hot in the cockpit on ground in summer. An interesting note is 1 in 4 of the Series 10 DC9 that was built crashed due to airframe iceing luckily none at TWA

    Reply
  4. Suresh Kumar Bista
    Suresh Kumar Bista says:

    I tell many instructors and examiners that if a pilot fails his check ride, it is a bad moment and he or she will take some days to recover from the shock. If some mistakes are understood by the trainee pilots and post briefing or another hour of extra time can bring him or her to required company standards then it is perfect. As far as possible, do not fail someone on his check-ride unless you find the trainee pilot is not safe,

    Reply
  5. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    Jeff,

    To the best of my knowledge, Dave Bogart and myself were the last two captains to ever upgrade on the TWA certificate, before it disappeared and we became One Great Airline. We upgraded on the MD-80; like you, I had never flown it, having engineered on the 1011 and FE/FO’d on the 727, then flown as FO on the 767 for quite a while. I don’t know how Dave’s IOE went, but mine ended up at something around 100 hours and was almost identical to your experience (although my sons were both born well before!), complete with the carrot-and-stick analogy. Tom Tillett, the STL chief at the time, rescued me, and with the necessary additional flying, I passed. Dave must have had something similar, as we both ended up in Tom Irwin’s office for the wing-pinning ceremony at the same time.

    Having eventually flown the MD-80, 757 and 737 as a captain for several thousand hours, I can’t say that any of them stand out as a favorite…they all became rather like an old pair of shoes, very familiar and very comfortable, reliable friends.

    Reply
  6. christopher Zayac
    christopher Zayac says:

    I flew more than 10,000 hours on the DC -9. From the -10 through the -80’s . I loved the -10, what fun to fly the “Ken and Barbie ” dream jet.

    Reply
  7. Art Danley
    Art Danley says:

    Jeff,
    Great article-brought back fond memories of flying the company light twin up and down the Ohio Valley on a four or five day double date.

    Reply
  8. Steve Cirino
    Steve Cirino says:

    I flew the 9/md80 for many years, enjoyed your article along with the airplane. The” lollipop” was a pain to deal with when the auto pressurization system failed. The crew really needed to be “in Sync”
    Or the flighties would complain

    Reply
  9. John Mooney
    John Mooney says:

    Flew all the DC-9 models for TWA as a line pilot and checkairman, around 4000 hrs from 1984 through 1988 and loved the way it flew. It was a fun bird to fly and you are right about the young crews!

    Reply
  10. Bill Crawford
    Bill Crawford says:

    I flew the “dash-10” as well for TWA. Back when they hadn’t yet split the fleet between the 9s & the MD80s. As an FO, I got to train on both the 9s and the 80s. I remember flying from CID to STL on a -10, then hopping into an 80 for a leg to SEA.
    I think when TWA took delivery of some older DC9-50s, the FAA made them split the fleet; too many models of DC9s for their liking. And there were a few DC9-30s from Swissair, if I remember correctly; maybe the -32 or 34? The photo of the cockpit didn’t look like a DC9-10, as it appears to have a split flap handle. I don’t think the -10 had slats, but it did have 50 degrees of flaps, hence the steeper angle on approaches. It was a little flying sports car! It was as nimble as the Lear 24 that I was flying before my airline career. Another moniker that was give to the DC-9 fleet was “four on the floor.” Figure that out (vbg).
    Also, the captain training program was unique and a bit arduous compared to other airlines. I think the FAA only required 25 hours of line training at the time. If memory serves, we got two-25 hour line training periods, ungraded, then another 25 hours of graded time. Then the “Semi-final” check ride, then the final. As a student captain, you could waive the second ungraded one. Not many did, as the graded time that followed was highly scrutinized.
    Anyway, I have great memories of TWA to this day.

    Reply
  11. David Luddy
    David Luddy says:

    Jeff: Thanks for sharing your qualification events on Trans World Airlines DC-9-10. I knew several F/E’s (707’s L-1011 Connie) from the airline. Your story is reminiscent of my own qualification check rides however never on the DC-9.

    Reply
  12. Ed Fogle
    Ed Fogle says:

    I flew the DC-9-10 as my first jet airliner for Emerald Airlines out of Austin, TX. The airplanes were purchased from a European carrier, as I recall. Very simple. Would have been easier single pilot than a piston twin. One memory that didn’t happen to me, fortunately. We flew a freight contract with a middle of the night hub in Columbus, OH. One night, just after liftoff the big cargo door popped open and stood straight up. Through an incredible amount of skilled airmanship they got the plane back on the ground. I have incredible respect for that crew. Needless to say, the procedure for checking the cargo door latches was improved.

    Reply
  13. Tony Buttacavoli
    Tony Buttacavoli says:

    My brief sojourn in the Baby 9,( only 40 hours or so ) , left a generally positive impression ,,but also made me appreciate the holy 727 ( and Boeing engineering)that much more . Douglas for Props , the old Seattle based Boeing for jets , my humble opinion of course.

    Reply
  14. ghanker
    ghanker says:

    The C9A was the workhorse aircraft for the USAF & the Navy in the 1970’s & 80’s for Aeromedical Evacuation & high profile Defense Department transport. It was a pleasure to fly. We had 4 C9A aircraft stationed at Rhein-Main AB/ Frankfort Flughaven which we flew patient transport throughout Europe, the UK, North Africa & the Middle East. Great mission & great airplane to carry it out. I have nothing but fond memories of my 2000hrs in the C9.

    Reply
    • Gary Hagan
      Gary Hagan says:

      I was stationed at Will Rogers ANG Base during the 90’s..My Dad was ill with terminal cancer in Montana, so I approached the C.O. about a flight to Great Falls via the AeroMed Rotator that cycled thru Tinker. He got me on the next flight. Great flight until I had to leave the AC due to more patients boarding at Fairchild. That’s why they always told us to carry enough $$ for flight back..The Nightingale was a great aircraft. The AF replaced them with the C-17s complete with Medi-Vac equipment.

      Reply
  15. Ian Hollingsworth
    Ian Hollingsworth says:

    Nice article Jeff, especially about the ridiculous check airman attitudes that can exist.
    I flew the EMB-135, -140 and -145. The latter had the same thrust to weight as the -10, but the -135 was a rocketship !
    Glad you survived the upgrade.

    Reply

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