Hello and welcome to a very special flight report! This report will cover my experience being on the second-to-last scheduled flight of the DC-9 in North America during one of the worst stretches of winter weather I can remember.
Background: This whole saga begins in August, 2013. I was traveling to Kansas City to visit family and flew Delta on an ELM-DTW-MCI routing. The DTW-MCI leg would be operated by a DC-9-50, a variant of the -9 on which I had not yet flown. I had only ever flown on the DC-9 once before, a -30, when I was very young flying ITH-ELM-PIT on US Air. I remember practically nothing from that first flight, but I do know that the DC-9 became my favorite aircraft over the years since. I was very much looking forward to flying the DC-9 again, and in a (middle) seat right between the engines in row 23 no less. The sound was fantastic, and made my middle seat less annoying.
N787NC resting at MCI before heading back to DTW.
With their retirement imminent, I knew I had to try my best to get on the DC-9 one last time. In October 2013, I was looking to book a December day trip to somewhere in the southeast, like South Carolina, to catch the DC-9 out of Atlanta – by late 2013, Delta had relegated the small and shrinking-in-number DC-9 fleet there. However, while browsing a certain civil aviation forum, I saw a thread detailing Delta's retirement plans for the DC-9. On January 6, 2014, a single DC-9 would fly a special, circular route starting in Atlanta, then Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis and back to Atlanta. The final two legs would have special flight numbers - DTW-MSP would be DL1965, the year that the DC-9 entered service for Delta, and MSP-ATL would be flight DL2014, the year the DC-9 exited service. I immediately started looking at ticket prices, and as expected, they were already very high for the individual legs. Only one leg of the special routing was reasonable for me to try and catch due to geography, DTW-MSP. I tried looking for a destination beyond MSP, hoping to get the price down and found that ELM-DTW-MSP-DEN would have a reasonable one-way fare, with the middle leg on DL1965. Another bonus would be that I could use a $250 United voucher I had to get home (the story behind that voucher is interesting in itself: two mechanical delays forced me to spend more than 12 hours, an entire day, in EWR) on a red-eye routing, DEN-EWR-ITH. I immediately went ahead and booked the trip before the prices could go up.
I will add that it was extremely satisfying to pay so little for a United ticket.
Trouble? We're a month out… The first snag hit with regards to this flight occurred in late November 2013. The flight times of DL1965 had changed, and Delta had changed my DTW-MSP leg to an MD-90-operated flight. During that time of the year, I was on a very late sleep schedule because of school, so when I noticed the flight changes at 3:00am, I gave the Delta customer service department a call. Much to my surprise, my call was answered right away by a very friendly agent. I explained my situation with the retirement flight, and she happily waived any change fees putting me back on flight 1965 and shifting me to an earlier flight out of Elmira in order to get to Detroit in time. I thanked her profusely, then checked the changes on the Delta iPhone app. I went to view the seat map for flight 1965 and was shocked to see seat 23F was open. Seat 23A/F is the holy grail of seats on the Delta DC-9-50s, the window seats right in front of the engines. I selected it went to sleep very pleased with the current flight situation.
The entire trip is in jeopardy: In early January 2014, the Northeast and Midwest United States experienced what was widely referred to as a Polar Votex which caused extremely cold air from the arctic to come down into the northern United States. From the Wikipedia page for the weather system (yes, this system has its own Wikipedia page), the day of my flight, January 6, Chicago O-Hare airport had a low temperature of -16 F (-27 C), with wind chills plunging far below that, down lower than -50 F (-45 C). Of course, the DC-9 retirement flights were scheduled right through the thick of the system.
However, the vortex had been well predicted, leading airlines to preemptively cancel thousands of flights across the country. One of those cancelled flights was my United DEN-EWR red-eye flight. As soon as I received the cancellation email two days before departure I was on the phone to United's customer service number but due to the incredible number of cancelled flights, I ended up on hold for over five hours. Eventually I gave up on calling the customer service team and simply drove to ITH to speak to someone in person. When I arrived at the check in area in Ithaca, it was clear that the agents were all working to get people rebooked. From what I could see, it looked like every single flight that day was cancelled. When I got to speak to an agent, it went something like this: "Hello there, my flight in two days from Denver to Newark was cancelled and I'm wondering if you can help me rebook."
The agent looked at me like I was crazy. I further explained that I was doing a day trip to Denver for the express purpose of catching the retirement flights for the DC-9. The agent was sympathetic, but also apologized ahead of time because there wasn't much availability left. After just a few minutes, he said he had found a routing on Delta, flying back through Detroit on January 7th. I gladly accepted the routing, but headed home worrying that another flight cancellation or delay would leave me missing the DC-9 flight. As an indicator of how messed up United's system was through all of this, after being changed to a Delta ticket, the United system was showing me as being rebooked on a flight SFO-SEA on January 12th - six days later.
The night before my flights, I stayed up until after midnight to make sure that the aircraft arrived into Elmira. One more check of the weather revealed that it would be around the freezing point with a chance of rain in the morning in Elmira, and a windy frigid tundra in Detroit. I went to sleep not knowing what to expect in the morning.
The big day: The first thing I did when I woke up was check my flight status. Much to my dismay, my first flight of the day, scheduled for 9:45am, had been delayed more than four hours. After calming down a bit and fully waking up, I remembered to check the status of the 6:15am flight as well, and it too was heavily delayed to around 9:00am. I figured it was best to get to Elmira as quickly as possible to try and stand by on the earlier flight. Once in the car, I decided that if I was able to stand-by on the first flight of the day, I'd go ahead and travel. If I couldn't, I would take Delta's rescheduling offer, which would be tricky because of my two one-way tickets, but probably better than missing the DC-9 flight and getting stranded somewhere.
I arrived at ELM airport at about 7:00am, and the agent added me to the stand-by list for the 6:00am flight. He said I would probably be able to make the flight considering I was second on the stand-by list. Feeling a little more hopeful, I went and sat at the small cafe pre-security. In Elmira, there isn't really anything past security except seats and restrooms (at least for now, they just announced a $60 million expansion, which is a bit much in my opinion but I digress), so I didn't clear security until about 40 minutes before departure time. After reaching the gate shortly after, I approached the agent to let her know that I was one of the stand by passengers, and she told me to wait near by. After a few minutes of waiting, she handed me a boarding pass for seat 5B. The CRJ-200 flight into Detroit went off without a hitch, even with the rain/sleet which was falling.
There were actually three Delta CRJs parked at Elmira that morning, instead of the usual two. A CRJ-700 flying RDU-LGA the previous night had diverted to Elmira. Passengers on that flight were clearing security as our CRJ-200 boarded.
The CRJ-900 on which I was originally schedueled to fly waiting out its delay.
Boarding the CRJ-200 to DTW.
We arrived into the A concourse at DTW, near gate A53. There was still about two hours to kill before the DC-9 was scheduled to arrive from Chicago, so I took my time walking down to gate A23. About 40 minutes before scheduled departure, with the DC-9 still missing from our gate, the gate agents began a special announcement highlighting the significance of this flight. They also took the time to announce that the inbound flight from Chicago would be 90 minutes late due to the incredibly cold temperatures and high winds in the Chicago area (see above). I didn't mind this delay as much because I would definitely be flying on one leg of the retirement tour…
…or so I thought. While I was just outside the gate area, the agents paged me. Since I was connecting onward to Denver in Minneapolis, the 90 minute delay would mean a misconnect. Since I did not approach the counter, the agents went ahead and reticketed me on a nonstop DTW-DEN flight which was leaving very shortly. While away from the gate, I too realized the high probability of a misconnect and made my way back to the desk to ask for options. I gave the agent my boarding pass and she immediately directed me to gate A29 for boarding. Taking a deep breath so I could keep my composure, I explained that I would like very much to be put back on flight 1965 due to it's significance. The agent was a bit "huffy" as she needed to walk several gates away to reprint my ticket. When she returned, I was printed another boarding pass for seat 19A. Not quite as good as 23F, but it's still towards the rear of the cabin and a window seat, so I was content.
After all of that excitement I found a seat in the gate area. As boarding time approached, there was a noticeable buzz around the gate. There were several flight attendants and pilots who were standing near the gate area reminiscing about their time on the DC-9. Finally, N773NC approached the gate area, coming to a halt filling the gate area with engine noise. As the inbound passengers were deplaning, I snapped a picture of the departure board.
Boarding began a few minutes later, and was quickly completed. I was surprised at the number of empty seats on the flight - in the three rows surrounding me, 18-20, there were five open seats.
Peeking into the cockpit during boarding.
The view from 19A.
Remember when I said it was extremely cold? Around our departure, the ambient temperature in Detroit was around -7 F (-22 C) with blowing snow drifts everywhere.
Skyteam 737-800 and…
Another DC-9! N767NC was originally supposed to fly to BWI the night before, but had a mechanical issue resulting in a cancellation. I actually watched it depart from A11 two days later to head off to MSP then to be stored (see the end of this report for more pictures of that).
After experiencing the legendary DC-9 startup one last time, we began our long taxi over to runway 22L. During our taxi the drifting snow made for some very dramatic pictures.
Some of the taxiway lights and signs were completely buried in snow.
Since our DC-9 had just arrived from Chicago and it wasn't actively precipitating, we skipped deicing and went straight to runway 22L.
These next few pictures are some of my favorites from the whole trip. Look at all the drifting snow!
Once we had lined up on 22L, the engines were spooled up to full power, and we sat with the brakes applied for around 20 seconds. I'm sure the pilots were having fun on one of their last DC-9 flights and wanted to show off the performance of the 35-year-old bird. The sound in the cabin was just incredible.
Then the brakes were released and we started accelerating incredibly fast. Even though we were carrying a fairly full passenger load N773NC lept off the runway and started to climb like a home-sick angel.
The main deicing ramp, with an RJ A340 at the North Terminal.
Rotating as we pass the deicing ramp. As best as I can tell, we had about a 4,200-foot takeoff run.
Looking down at the now-closed north end of Concourse C.
Two 747s loading for flights to Asia at Concourse A.
A frozen runway 9R-27L.
Our initial climb out was one of the steepest I've ever experienced on a commercial aircraft - we were flaps up before reaching the perimeter fence.
Turning towards the northwest after takeoff.
Cruising above a frozen Michigan.
The cabin of the DC-9s had been refurbished to standard Delta, meaning that the legroom wasn't all that great. There was Wi-Fi, however, which is pretty incredible considering that the internet was barely a research tool when this aircraft was built in 1978.
The DC-9-50 safety card.
There was a thick cloud layer until we crossed Lake Michigan.
My tray table was actually a bit broken, making the right side of it rest on my leg.
Turing off of 30R. The US Airways A320 pictured had one of the smokiest cold starts I've seen, the cloud is still visible.
Concourse D. We'd be parking at gate D6, which of course is the closest gate number to D9.
Parked at gate D6.
The captain then announced that everyone who wanted to could stay on board and visit the cockpit. Naturally, that meant that almost everyone stayed in their seats after the main door had been opened. Since my onward flight to DEN was still an unknown at this point, I started to work my way to the front of the cabin. When I reached the front galley, the pilots were just leaving the cockpit and offered to hold my bags while I sat in the left seat. So, I left my bags in the galley then climbed into the left seat. I was struck by how small the cockpit really is on the DC-9, and, of course, how antiquated the cockpit instruments are.
Not wanting to drool over the experience for too long, I then carefully got up from the captain's seat and left the cockpit with a huge smile on my face. I got my bags from the galley area, then bid adieu to N773NC and headed up the jet bridge into the terminal.
I still get a bit upset at myself for how horribly this picture came out, but I'm going to post it anyways. Walking through the balloon arch at gate D6 and into the celebration.
Looking back at the balloon arch.
Nearby there were tables set up with DC-9 cake and pictures of two Delta DC-9s, one original DC-9-30 in the widget scheme and a DC-9-50 in the current scheme.
The departure board for the final scheduled DC-9 flight, flight 2014 to ATL.
Another cool thing Delta did was print a huge DC-9 retirement sign for people to write on with their experiences or memories of the DC-9.
A few minutes later. My message is on there somewhere.
A crowd formed around the gate as a camera crew interviewed the flight crew for the final flight.
Cutting the cake.
After eating a piece of DC-9 cake, I had to get going to my next gate. At this point, I had been automatically rebooked onto an A320 flight to Denver that evening leaving from gate F7. I printed my boarding pass from a kiosk (I didn't realize at the time, but the kiosk also automatically printed me a food voucher) and took a seat at the gate. I was constantly checking the status of flight 2014, hoping to catch a glimpse of the departure. Unfortunately, due to the timing of my Denver flight, I couldn't be in the gate area for the departure nor in the concourse D observation deck.
Fortunately though, it looked like flight 2014 would depart from runway 30R, not 30L more typical of flights heading southeast. I managed to grab a picture of N773NC climbing out, leaving its signature smoke trail.
And just like that, the final scheduled DC-9 flight in North America was on its way. On my flight to Denver, I grabbed a screen shot of flight 2014 closing in on ATL.
The flight to Denver was uneventful, and I slept through most of it.
While walking towards the shuttle to my hotel, I was still in awe that everything had gone more or less to plan that day. I was able to fly on one of the DC-9 retirement flights and experience the celebrations at MSP before the final flight even with the extremely poor weather.
The journey home: Just as a concluding section, I'll add a bit about my journey home the next day. I was scheduled to fly DEN-DTW-ITH, leaving DEN about 4:00pm. However, I had to check out of my hotel long before that, so I just took the shuttle back to the airport around 9:00am. I then spent the majority of the day walking through every inch of the concourses, and got to see a then brand new United 787 arrive from Houston to operate the Tokyo flight.
Towards 3:00pm, it was announced that the inbound aircraft would be about an hour late. The agent then added that it didn't really matter because all regional flights out of Detroit had been cancelled that night. Apparently, it was too cold to fuel the regional aircraft. I'm not sure if the cold was actually a problem for the fueling equipment or just the ground handlers, but either way I wouldn't be getting home that night. I had been assigned seat 36A on the MD-90 flight to Detroit, probably the best seat on the plane. It is the window seat right in front of the rear exit door, meaning that I had unlimited leg room and a perfect engine view. I also had no seatmate, so I immediately fell asleep after takeoff, a takeoff that was downright silent after being on a DC-9 the previous day.
We arrived into DTW at nearly 10:00pm, and concourse A was nearly empty apart from a few stranded people commandeering seats near power outlets to sleep in the terminal. I was lucky enough to snag a hotel room before leaving Denver, so I headed out of the concourse to the shuttle area.
The next day I was booked on the first flight into Ithaca, which was at 3:00pm. I got to the terminal around 10:00am, again spending the day exploring every single inch of the concourses. In the afternoon, my flight to Ithaca was cancelled, and I was rebooked onto the 9:30pm flight. I went and stood on line at a help-desk while also calling the customer service number. I got through on the phone first, and the agent rebooked me on the 3:30pm flight to Elmira. However, I still needed to get my boarding pass. Since I was still near the back of the line, I went to the help desk near Gate C2. I got a big surprise when I looked at the boarding pass though, as it was showing me on a flight at 9:00am the following morning. I approached an agent and asked if he could explain what had happened in the 5 minutes it took me to walk there. He explained that the 3:30pm flight was cancelled, and put me on the 5:45pm flight. Luckily for me, the 5:45 flight did not get cancelled, and I was able to finally get home.
Some more pictures of N767NC departing DTW while I waited for my flights:
Delta Air Lines
Detroit - DTW
Minneapolis - MSP
And with that, nearly 50 years of DC-9 service in North America came to a close. So, was all of the hassle worth it? Absolutely. I'm sure that when I'm old I will look back at this experience and smile.
Delta did a great job of handling the retirement celebrations, and the every Delta staff member with whom I spoke throughout this ordeal was excellent. DTW and MSP remain some of my favorite airport terminals, offering pleasant spaces and great amenities.
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