On May 26, 2012, my dream came true.
As adamant as you can be when you’re a child, convincing your family to fly to Hawaii on United Airlines just so you can say goodbye to the last of the narrowbody four-holers is a long shot. Especially when there were fewer-stop options available through Vancouver. I tried, though.
Until February of 2012, I was pretty sure that I’d never get to fly on a DC-8. Then my fortunes changed.
A company called Classic Jet Tours had managed to organize a passenger flight on a DC-8-62CF belonging to Air Transport International. After seeing my friends posting their boarding passes on Facebook, I jumped on it; I paid my fee, booked travel to Sacramento, and began counting the days.
Sacramento McClellan Airfield is predominantly an industrial airport. In 2012, it was still home to the ATI DC-8 fleet, a Coast Guard unit, and a Cal Fire base. Despite its utility role, to gain access to the ramp we had to succumb to the indignity of a private security contractor wanding us for contraband.
The DC-8-62CF itself, N799AL, was delivered to SAS in 1968. It made its way to the Royal Thai Air Force, then hauled auto parts for Zantop, briefly to Air Marshall Islands, and finally to Air Transport International. While with ATI, much of the cargo carried was classified and property of the United States Air Force. The most common route was from Travis Air Force Base to HNL, then continuing on to some USAF facility in the South Pacific. The thirty two seats were usually filled with either Department of Defense staff or contractors. On occasion, the aircraft would head into Afghanistan or Diego Garcia. Once or twice, we were told, it headed to remote listening stations in the Atlantic Ocean.
Boarding was via the rear door, and seat assignments were first-come, first-served. I sat in a middle seat, next to another very accommodating enthusiast who was kind enough to let me take pictures of the wing over him.
Seat pitch was generous (about 34 inches) and the seats themselves felt like something from another era. Even at six-abreast, the seats were well padded and were reminiscent of other classic McDonnell Douglas jets.
There was a distinct odor of Jet-A permeating the cabin upon start-up, which was sadly hushed due to making the JT3D-3B* engines “Stage 3″ compliant. Takeoff was short; so short, in fact that the roll was barely 30 seconds. Due to the lack of cargo and only enough fuel for a round trip to Long Beach, the aircraft actually had to be ballasted with spare tires.
Due to the massive flaps, the aircraft tended to “balloon” upon flap retraction. It wasn’t uncomfortable, just an experience I have only had on a tail-heavy DC-8. Cruise was exceptionally smooth. So smooth that we were allowed to get up and examine the cargo hold.
The door that separates the passenger cabin from the cargo hold is by no means full-size. While it’d be a challenge to hit your head on, it can be a tight squeeze. The hold itself is wonderful. To save weight, it does not have as much insulation (acoustic or thermal) – so it feels like proper flying. It is slightly colder, it’s louder, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll bash your knee on a cargo roller trying to take a photo out the window.
After the first voyage forward; it was time for service. The ATI flight attendant, herself a multi-million miler with American Airlines, was extremely gracious and excited. For this flight, it was her job to serve sandwiches, fruit, soft-drinks, and champagne. Not your ordinary spread for a one-hour flight.
All too soon, it was time to land in Long Beach.
To complicate matters, there was a tailwind on the active runway. Even more cumbersome, noise restrictions prevent the use of the DC-8’s full 50 degrees of flap in all but an extreme emergency.
A tail-heavy, light DC-8 in a tailwind; you can figure out that from that alone that landing was going to be firm. So firm, it was, that we actually ruptured a tire on the right main landing gear.
This shortened our tour of the former McDonnell Douglas assembly line to some degree, but we still got to see the landmark sign.
The flight home found me firmly planted in a window seat, and also offered a longer takeoff roll. I found the windows felt much larger than the current narrowbody offerings. I spent the remainder of the flight standing in the cargo hold. At the time, it was a novel experience to cruise while standing and without a seatbelt.
When we arrived back into KMCC, we were allowed to spend as long as we needed photographing the aircraft and its associated components.
ATI and Classic Jet Tours had done a fantastic job.
The only thing that would have made the experience better is if, by magic, it was a DC-8-21 with “water-burner” engines.
N799AL now resides at an aviation museum on the island of Oahu. There were attempts to sell seats on the very last flight to the museum, but surprisingly it was cancelled due to lack of interest.
*Technically, not all engines on N799AL are JT3D-3B. It operated in intermix mode with a JT3D-7 in the number two position. This slight thrust differential was only observable during extreme crosswind.