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Reflections from the MD-80 cockpit with American Airlines

It has been more than thirty years since the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 made its debut in the commercial aviation industry. Over the course of its time with American Airlines, the aircraft transported millions of the airline's customers to destinations across North America - and as the aircraft covered a lot of ground, it played a major part in propelling the culture, growth and performance of American.

Above: Captain Tom Senning preparing for the inaugural departure at Santa Barbara

In the early 1980s, former American Airlines President Robert Crandall struck a creative deal to help McDonnell Douglas rise above what had been a lacklustre sales performance. It was essentially the turning point for both manufacturer and American Airlines, as the deal laid the initial groundwork for where the carrier is today. At the time, American was adjusting to its new model with Dallas-Fort Worth being a central hub and needed to reprioritise ideas concerning its immediate growth.

While American had already reviewed the MD-80 and wasn't interested, the aircraft maker needed a deal. The McDonnell Douglas sales team and Crandall met to devise a plan that could benefit both companies. The deal was unique and allowed the airline to grow very quickly, hire more team members and expand its domestic operations — and at the same time providing the initial interest needed to encourage other airlines to also reconsider the aircraft — thus launching the beginning of MD-80 sales.

The introduction of the new fleet eventually energised the airline's pilots and with the aircraft, they logged a successful track record of navigating the skies and making lasting memories along the way. American's fleet grew to 362 active aircraft, at one point making up 40% of the airline's fleet. With that growth, the number of pilots at American Airlines also grew.

The inaugural flight

On May 2, 1984, Captain Tom Senning and First Officer Doug Ebersole, both from Santa Barbara, California, flew the inaugural passenger flight from Santa Barbara Municipal Airport to Dallas Fort Worth International. Doug admits that he had to pull some strings to obtain the honour to be included on that first flight, as staffing is based on seniority. At the time, he was a relatively new pilot and Tom was No. 23 among the 30 licensed MD-80 pilots, having more than 18 years of experience.

"I'll never forget that day, Captain Tom offered me the take off," Doug said. "It was so clear and beautiful. I wanted to impress the crowds and allow the cameras to capture the perfect takeoff. In the midst of the excitement, I forgot one of my audible commands —'gear up' — until Tom reminded me after I was in the air and well into the turn. At that point, what would have been perfect photo, was a photo of the plane ascending with the landing gear still in its extended position."

Though it wasn't a picture perfect takeoff, the day's festivities marked an important moment, in a new chapter of the American Airlines growth story, and at the same time spiked interest in an aircraft that had initially struggled to secure any co