Home Classic Airliners Classic Airline Fleets – Northwest Airlines DC-9s

Classic Airline Fleets – Northwest Airlines DC-9s

by Matt Falcus

The Douglas DC-9 was an airliner developed at a time of intense competition as the world’s aircraft manufacturers each tried to capture a slice of the new jet airliner market which had advanced at pace.

First flying in 1965, the DC-9 emerged among other types like the British Aircraft Corporation 1-11, the Hawker Siddeley HS.121 Trident, the Sud Aviation SE.210 Caravelle, Boeing’s 737 and even the Tupolev Tu-134. The Boeing 727 was also enjoying popularity among airlines, albeit with a larger capacity and therefore not a direct competitor.


Northwest and the DC-9

N926NW DC-9-32 Northwest Rochester NY August 1990

Northwest Airlines (previously Northwest Orient) acquired a large fleet of Douglas DC-9 aircraft as the base of its short- and medium-haul operations. They were used to replace older piston prop types like the Douglas DC-6, DC-7 and Lockheed L-188 Electra, and worked alongside the slightly larger Boeing 727 fleet.

Northwest Airlines would operate all variants of the DC-9, including the DC-9-14, -15, -30, -40 and -50.

Additional examples were acquired when Northwest merged with Republic Airlines in 1986, with some aircraft flying in hybrid liveries for a while.

This merger also brought a small fleet of larger McDonnell Douglas MD-82 aircraft, based on the DC-9 design, but these were not ordered in in any larger numbers as the airline preferred to focus on the Boeing 727, 757 and, from the late 1980s, the Airbus A320 family.


Where did Northwest fly the DC-9?

Northwest Airlines DC-9

Northwest Airlines principally flew its DC-9s on domestic routes out of its main bases at Detroit, Minneapolis St Paul and Memphis.

While larger aircraft like the Boeing 727, 757 and 767 were primarily used on trunk routes, the DC-9s were used to smaller cities, and on shuttle routes between hubs. Having different sizes of DC-9 meant the airline could cover a wide range of options in an age prior to the introduction of dedicated regional jets and turboprops, which would later take over smaller routes.



Delta Renaissance

Delta DC-9

Delta Air Lines was the first operator of the Douglas DC-9 back in 1965. Like Northwest, Delta used the type heavily on its domestic route network until the 1990s when these older jets were replaced by newer Airbus and Boeing types, as well as the Boeing 717, McDonnell Douglas MD-88 and MD-90.

However, in 2008 it was announced that Northwest Airlines and Delta would be merging, creating the world’s largest airline at the time.

Northwest was still flying much of its DC-9 fleet, which meant that when the airlines merged their aircraft fleets, Delta would once again introduce classic DC-9 operations.

Some might consider this strange, given the number of modern A320 and B737 family aircraft available, but the recent overhaul of its DC-9s by Northwest meant they still had some life in them.

Between 2009 and 2014, Delta went on to operate up to 73 Douglas DC-9-30, -40 and -50 aircraft mostly out of the former Northwest hubs at Minneapolis St Paul, Detroit, as well as on some routes out of Atlanta.

Wearing the new livery of Delta, these DC-9s would be the last in regular scheduled service in the United States (as well as being the first). The actual final flight was operated by DC-9-51 N779NC between Eglin Air Force Base and Atlanta on a military charter on 22 January 2014. It left only a few operators of the DC-9 around the world.



DC-9 Disasters

On 3 December 1990 a Northwest Airlines DC-9-14 (N3313L) was departing Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airport in dense fog when it collided with a Boeing 727, also of Northwest. The DC-9 suffered serious damage, and 8 people died in the accident.

Another Northwest DC-9 collided on the ground with one of the airline’s A319s at Minneapolis St Paul after landing on 10 May 2005. The hydraulic system on the DC-9 had inadvertently been shut down by the pilot, causing a loss of control. Both aircraft were damaged, but there were no fatalities.


Northwest DC-9 Survivors

Upon its merger with Delta, most of Northwest’s active DC-9s were transferred into the new fleet. Older, smaller DC-9-14s and -15s had already been retired at this point.

Once the DC-9 fleet had been retired by Delta (in 2010, 2011 and 2014 respectively for the DC-9-30, -40 and -50), most were withdrawn from use and sent for scrapping in the desert.

Delta took the opportunity to preserve one example at its Delta Flight Museum outside Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Georgia.

DC-9-51 N675MC (c/n 47651/780) was built for Austrian Airlines in 1975 and later flew for a number of airlines. Northwest Airlines acquired it in October 1992, and upon the merger with Delta in 2009 it was repainted and carried on flying until being earmarked for preservation in 2013.

Visitors to the museum can now see this aircraft up close as they enter the museum.

DC-9-51 N779NC (c/n 48101/931) was the aircraft that operated the final Delta commercial DC-9 flight in 2014. It is now preserved at Thief River Falls Regional, MN, and used by the Northland Community & Technical College to train students.

Northwest Airlines ~ DC-9-14 (N8906E)

DC-9-14 N930RC (c/n 45729/16) is also preserved at Thief River Falls Regional for the same use. It flew for Northwest between 1986-2002.

DC-9-14 N8903E (c/n 45744/31) is also preserved at Thief River Falls Regional for the same use. It flew for Northwest between 1986-1998.

DC-9-32 N606NW (c/n 47225/317) is preserved at Plaza Culccullco Shopping Mall in Mexico City as part of a Kidzania attraction. It flew for Northwest from 1995-2008.

DC-9-51 N779NC (c/n 48101/931) is also preserved at Thief River Falls Regional for the same use. It flew for Northwest between 1986-2009 (and later Delta until 2014).

DC-9-51 N782NC (c/n 48107/936) is preserved at the Carolinas Aviation Museum at Charlotte Douglas Airport, NC. It flew for Northwest from 1986-2009 and Delta until 2014.



Who still flies the DC-9 today?

African Express DC-9-30 (c) African Express Airways

Despite its once popularity among the world’s airlines (over 970 were built) – particularly in the USA, Canada and Europe – very few Douglas DC-9s remain in service today.

USA Jet Airlines is the largest operator of the DC-9 in the USA today. It flies a small fleet of the type, as well as its larger MD-80 siblings, on charter freight work. N192US is one of its fleet which previously flew with Northwest Airlines.

Other US cargo airlines still flying the DC-9 incluide Everts Air Cargo, based in Alaska, and Ameristar based at Addison, TX, and Detroit Willow Run, MI.

Aeronaves TSM, based at Saltillo Airport in Mexico, is probably the world’s largest DC-9 operator at present. It has a fleet of around ten DC-9-15 and -30 freighters.

The only known passenger operator of the DC-9 today is African Express Airways, based in Kenya.


Delta Air Lines History

Northwest Airlines and its fleet of Douglas DC-9s merged with Delta Air Lines in 2008.

This new book charts the history of Delta, with chapters on the history of Northwest and their combined fleets following the merger.

Packed full of historic images, it’s available now here: https://destinworld.com/product/delta-air-lines-book/




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1 comment

Scott Norris February 11, 2024 - 4:01 am

There is a major error in this article – Northwest did not in fact fly the DC-9 in the 1960s-1970s, and it was not a replacement for NWA’s DC-6, DC-7, and L-188 Electra fleet. That role was performed by the Boeing 727-100 and later 727-200. Instead, DC-9s were brought on by Southern Airways, North Central Airlines, West Coast Airlines, and Bonanza Airlines in the latter half of the 1960s to augment their propeller aircraft, increase capacity in core markets, and enable longer-range operations. Bonanza and West Coast would merge with Pacific to form Air West, later Hughes Airwest. North Central and Southern would merge to form Republic, which would then absorb Hughes Airwest. In the mid-1980s Republic was operating the largest DC-9 fleet in the world, and after the 1986 merger with Northwest, NWA would continue to increase the fleet into the 1990s, determining that hushkitting engines and renovating cabins of the venerable frames would be a better use of funds than acquiring another new aircraft type.

For more information about Northwest and its historic family of carriers, please visit the Northwest Airlines History Center, based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, at northwestairlineshistory.org.


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