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The Maddog Experience

I hope I do a good job explaining why this makes me so happy.

What can I say? I am a certified “plane nerd.” I used to fight back, but now there is no way of denying it. Growing up, I would sit behind a computer for hours, sifting through I had no other choice – the airport I lived next to until about a decade ago had intermittent commercial air service, which limited my exposure to the world of aviation. At one point, there was such a long period without air service that, had I been born a few years later, I may not have ever been interested in aviation. As I would scroll through pages and pages, each aircraft seemed to draw me in its way – the Boeing 737 looked (still looks) badass, the Boeing 757 like an overpowered flying pencil, but one airplane stood out the most – the McDonnell Douglas MD-80.

Everything about it was captivating. With most airplanes, even between rival manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus, you can pick out several similarities between each other. That is just not the case with the MD-80 – their climb-outs rival that of rockets, how the nickname “Maddog” perfectly encapsulates the way the aircraft looks when viewed head-on, even extraordinary little nuances like the splash guards installed on the landing gear (the MD-80 sits so low to the ground that when raining, there is a splash hazard that poses a threat to flight surfaces). Personally, aircraft powerplants are their most fascinating component, and it does not get better than the JT8Ds worn by several older aircraft - including the MD-80.

I'm not good with words, so I'll let this video do the talking.

You can imagine my delight when low-cost carrier Allegiant Air announced service to Worcester in 2005. At the time, I had been about 13-14 years old and had never seen an MD-80, and now they were finally coming to me. Most Sunday mornings around 11 AM, my mom would bring me to the airport to catch the MD-87 (they mainly operated the shortest variant to ORH) come and go. If we didn't, the aircraft would surely shake our house on the way out. Unfortunately, the service was short-lived - only operating three times a week to Orlando-Sanford, service was never extended past the one-year contract, and Allegiant left town for good. In 2010, virtual airline Direct Air came into the picture operating a fleet of wet-leased aircraft on a contracted basis. The mix included everything from 737s to 757s, plus a handful of MD-80 operators, such as Falcon Air Express and World Atlantic. However, it was sporadic and sometimes hard to predict.

N807TR of World Atlantic in 2022.

Fast Forward

For a while, I would only see Maddogs in passing. I might spot one or two if I flew out of an airport. For college, I attended an aviation school in the New York City area with no Maddog shortage, but I could only appreciate them from afar. Eventually, I took a line service job to gain entry-level experience, and Worcester is suitable for a handful of large air carrier charters per year. Like that, Allegiant Air returned to my life, operating a one-off sports charter into ORH (which I happily sacrificed a day off for). I wanted to do everything and anything – I parked the plane, fueled it, loaded cargo in all three bins, and whatever else I could get my hands on. For some reason, I thought it might be the last time I see one up close. Thankfully, I shifted my career to Bedford-Hanscom Field, where I could work a handful more, enough to say I can comfortably service one.

Despite the previous experiences, one thing had always bothered me - I had not flown on one, which only mildly pestered me until recently when it bothered me (maybe that makes me selfish?). I think it was also the challenge that pulled me in. For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, I had wanted to fly a Boeing 747 before they retired, but ample opportunity still exists to fly on one. Booking a Queen on Lufthansa was not tricky, but the same cannot be said about the Maddog.

Only one commercial air carrier currently offers scheduled Maddog service to the United States. RED Air, a Dominican carrier you may have heard of, operates two daily flights between Miami and the Dominican Republic. Determined, I searched the calendar for off-peak fares and made the rest work. And today, here we are – I am finally flying on an MD-80.

Flight Day

When planning, I try to incorporate as many enjoyable components into my trips - whether the aircraft, the route, or anything in between. The airport I work launched a seasonal service with an American regional affiliate to Miami this winter. I decided that was the ideal way to deliver me to my 36-hour base. I must have found one of the slowest days of the year as the lowest fare on RED Air matched with the lowest fare on American. I got down the day before, found a cheap room by the airport with a gym, and told precisely zero people. At some point in my life, I became a morning person, so I arrived at the airport at 5 AM Friday full of energy.

The 35-year-old aircraft HI1069, an MD-82 variant, was first delivered to American Airlines in 1988 as N461AA, with whom it flew for over two decades. In 2013, as American was phasing out the aging Maddogs, the aircraft was acquired by Venezuelan carrier LASER. In 2019, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) banned air service of all variations to and from Venezuela as part of a political move to pressure President Nicolás Maduro out of power.

Although administrations have since changed, the sanctions remain in place today. To counter the disruption to their Miami service, LASER launched its subsidiary RED Air to compete on the route between the United States and the Dominican Republic and connect with parent company LASER flights, thus providing indirect service to Venezuela from the United States. They shifted four MD-82s from the LASER fleet to RED Air, one of which became HI1069.

At the time of booking, the flights were scheduled to operate out of Las Americas (SDQ) in Santo Domingo; however, two weeks before my departure, I was informed they would instead work out of La Romana (LRM) - a single-runway airport down the road, approximately 75 miles east. Not that I asked, but I was told by customer service the reason was to “provide a better overall experience for passengers.” Considering almost everyone except myself transferred to Venezuela, plus the complete absence of lines, this was a tremendous business decision. From those I have spoken to who have flown through Las Americas, it can be a challenging airport to navigate, complete with long customs lines and lost luggage.

Regarding customer service, I did not know what to expect. However, the customer service was phenomenal from the moment I booked the flight. I changed flights due to a user error (me being me) during the initial booking, which was quickly corrected. I explained why I was booking separate tickets on the same day, to which they were highly receptive and helpful.

Seating assignments are done during check-in, so they put a comment under my reservation to assign a window seat towards the back. Upon check-in, without even having to follow up, I was given the perfect seat and passed through security to my gate without an issue. Side note - Miami is such a fascinating airport. The diverse range of aircraft is unmatched by anywhere else in the country. The north side of the airfield has a hangar filled with aircraft living out their final years with small charter or cargo operators. I even saw a DC-8!

I will not get too in-depth with the actual flight experience to keep you awake, but I will share that it was everything I had hoped for. My favorite part was hearing the raw power of the engines and their distinct whine, particularly during takeoff. Towards the front, the notoriously-noisy Maddog can be a pretty quiet experience for passengers, but as you move towards the aft, the convenience diminishes. My return flight was supposed to be on RED’s other MD-82, but with some research, it appears the aircraft is currently in the shop.

To compensate for the lost leg, Global Crossing Airlines (stylized as Global X) was called on to operate the return flight as Gemini 203. A relatively new charter airline, Global X is based out of Miami with an all-Airbus fleet doing several beautiful things in the world of scheduled and unscheduled service. Instead of being upset, this was a very welcome surprise. Like booking a Maddog without going through costly public charter brokers, getting on one of their aircraft without chartering is not currently possible.

N279GX, the aircraft that took me back to Miami.

Feel Good Again

I said from the start I would share that which brings me joy. Today, I felt a little closer to the young version of myself that fell in love with aviation in the first place. Think about this - what were some of your first memories in aviation? For example, are there any aircraft that bring back similar memories of your early days? I have heard arguments that nostalgia is dangerous as memories exaggerate the excellent aspects and neglect the bad. I would argue in only certain situations is that true - maybe when thinking about an ex-girlfriend, sure, but in an industry where there can be so much harm, we need a dash of our younger selves to remind us why we started.

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