DC-9: once a successful workhorse for KLM and Martinair

While the choice to renew the European fleet of KLM and Transavia involved only two types, machines from the Airbus A320neo family or from the Boeing 737 MAX series, in the sixties a choice could be made from a number of different manufacturers. During that period, KLM investigated no less than six short- and medium-haul aircraft: the Fokker F28 Fellowship, the Boeing 727, the De Havilland Trident, the Caravelle, the BAC-111 and the DC-9.

In the end, the choice fell on the latter. In 1966, KLM took the first one into service. In 1968, Martinair also welcomed its first machine of this type. For this company, it was also the first aircraft that they bought new from the factory. The twin-engine T-tail machine is a design of Douglas and a product of the later McDonnell Douglas. The first prototype flew in 1965 and then to a successful future. Almost a thousand of the DC-9 series were built. When the MD-80, the MD-90 series based on this is included, the total comes to around 2400 units.

The new interior of the DC-9 with the so-called “wide body look” © KLM

Converted in a short time

KLM had three versions of the type: the DC-9-15 or ‘the short 9’, the DC-9-32 and the DC-9-33RC. Martinair flew both the 32 and the 33RC, which they later replaced with the 82. RC stood for ‘Rapid Change’. In a short time, these machines could be converted from passenger to cargo aircraft and vice versa. They were good for carrying 105 (KLM) and 112 (Martinair) passengers or 14.5 tons of cargo. With a large cargo door directly behind the cockpit, this type was easily recognizable from the outside. Also, due to the stocky stature of ‘the short 9’, it wasn’t hard to tell the difference between this workhorse and her taller sisters. This machine was also easy to distinguish during the approach. While the 32 and 33 approached with the nose up, the 15 had a very low pitch due to the lack of ‘slats’, an aerodynamic aid on the leading edge of the wings.

Standard joke

Because the ‘short 9’ had the same engines as the longer versions, this machine had a performance that was phenomenal, especially when the aircraft was almost empty. This workhorse went like a rocket. Climb rates of 7000 to 8000 feet per minute were achieved in that case. ‘The short 9’ was the only DC-9 not to have a rear step. After parking, the standard joke from the cockpit was to call the cabin crew: ‘The back stairs can go down!’ The aft staircase was used on the long 9 to allow passengers to board and disembark on the platform and to allow cleaning on board.


The work of the cockpit crew in a DC-9 was clearly different from later generations of aircraft. On the then modern autopilot (AP), 0 vertical speed was selected to maintain altitude. AP had no height grip. Navigation was accomplished by changing the course to fly from one radio beacon to another. It was not possible to connect the aircraft to a navigation signal.

KLM flew the DC-9 via Warsaw to Moscow and later also Leningrad. This happened on NDB navigation, a medium wave frequency that was decidedly inaccurate at longer distances, especially during thunderstorms. Air traffic control often said “KLM301 you are (for example) 10 kilometers straight to the track.” As proud as the KLM pilots were that they flew from A to B in this way, they felt somewhat bruised in their egos. Until a Russian traffic warden said it was a sincere favor. The Russians assumed that KLM navigated with Omega like Aeroflot and the said deviation was intended to adjust the navigation.

PH-DNC in Leningrad with a Russian tank truck in the foreground © Guus Kieft

As for ground speed, as usual for aircraft of the time, it was not shown. The pilots timed for one minute and watched the DME (distance indication beacons) change over time. Multiplying the time found by sixty gave the driving speed. Extra vigilance was required when intercepting (landing) a 33. Because of the heavy cargo door and weighted floor that this aircraft was equipped with, it had a different center of gravity that was more forward. With a maximum setting of the flaps at fifty degrees, a 33 could ‘press on’, resulting in a harder landing.

Special tasks

The DC-9s performed a number of special missions for both KLM and Martinair. Arab sheikhs hired these machines from KLM for private flights. And after a papal visit to the Netherlands, the prelate flew to Luxembourg on a special DC-9 flight. A special, very spacious flight seat was placed in the cabin for this purpose. The mission was not over for this DC-9 after the papal party was delivered to its destination. The plane flew on to Liverpool, where relations with the players from a British football club were waiting for a flight to Rotterdam. Martinair used both DC-9s for Hajj flights from Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia) to Mecca (Saudi Arabia). Considering the limited range of the DC-9, this is a huge achievement.

A huge noise

The noise the DC-9 caused eventually became a problem. The jet engines roared violently, aircraft noise that is complained about today is completely insignificant. Many airports no longer allowed night flights of the type of aircraft. Martinair therefore replaced the 33RC with the 82, which served faithfully until 1992. For the red company, the misfortune of this type was that it was somewhat eclipsed by the larger Airbus A310 purchased at the same time. In the end, both had to give way to the Boeing 767-300ER. At KLM, the DC-9 became history in 1989. The blue company chose the Boeing 737-300 and 400 as its successor.

DC-9 farewell certificate at KLM © Ronald Dijkstra


In the summer of 1989, KLM leased another DC-9-50 from Finnair. In the period from mid-June to the end of October, this aircraft flew from Amsterdam to Stockholm and back twice a week. Because the machine had a different cockpit design to the KLM DC-9s, it was flown by Finnair pilots. Such a measure was not necessary for the cabin, which was only staffed by KLM staff.

No story yet

Still, it is not yet history for all DC-9s that KLM has ever flown. Via completely different detours, PH-DNO, DNP and DNY eventually ended up as freighters with Aeronaves TSM, where DNO and DNY are still active as XA-DHL and UPS. PH-DNP flew for ten years as XA-UOG for the Mexican airline. She still does that, but now on behalf of Argentinian MercadoLibre. One of these machines from Martinair, PH-MAN, also changed hands several times before it also ended up with Aeronaves TSM last December. Some of these workhorses can be seen on the company’s website.

Can be ordered now

Although the last DC-9 left the KLM fleet in 1989, the unit has not completely disappeared. You can order/reserve your own scale model of the first KLM blue DC-9 via the Up in the Sky webshop. The Herpa Wings model is expected to arrive in spring 2023 (March) in. To be sure of a copy, we advise you to order in advance. When the item is in stock, it will be delivered as soon as possible.

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