No Tug Needed: DC-9, 727, 717, C-130, and C-17 Powerbacks

Airline operations are much more standardized and efficient than they used to be. Back in the 1990s, JetA fuel prices hovered around 50 cents a gallon. That meant that while fuel efficiency was important, time and labor was often more valuable than fuel efficiency to achieve profitability.

One unique aspect of that era was the operational use of powerbacks. Powerbacks are the use of thrust reversers to push back from a gate instead of a tug. Using TRs has a couple of advantages as well as a host of disadvantages too. One advantage is that you don’t need a tug. Tugs, like all vehicles require maintenance and constant TLC. They are used, abused, and reused tens of times each day for many years. So it isn’t surprising that they occasionally break down. Additionally, connecting and disconnecting the tug takes time and labor. It’s a few minute savings of time and it takes less people for a powerback. On the other hand, a powerback uses a few hundred pounds of jet fuel, it creates a FOD hazard on the ramp and it can injure any staff near the engines plus its really loud.

We first posted a story of a JustPlanes video showing an American Airlines MD-80 powering back from the gate. The story was pretty popular on our site. Being avgeeks, we decided to dig a bit further on the internet to see other aircraft that did (or still do) powerbacks.

Powerbacks are extremely rare today. Most airlines stopped doing them in the early 2000s as the cost of fuel soared and many T-tail aircraft were retired. While we totally understand why most airlines don’t do them anymore, they are still pretty exciting to watch. Here are a few more aircraft that have done/or still do powerbacks:

Boeing 727

Ikerazo with a video of a private 727 powering back at Coruna Airport

A Northwest 727 and other DC-9s Powering back in the mid 1990s. Video by Twatlolita.

Northwest DC-9 in Old Colors

C-17 Powerback in Manila (Video by AranRueda)

AirTran 717 by Michael Watkins

C-130 Powerback by Datong Sun

Title photo is screenshot of a Northwest DC-9 powerback by Bazukavia.