I was sitting in an airport lounge last week, about to board yet another long flight. To pass the time I was scrolling through my Facebook feed. I noticed that my sister-in-law had just posted a brief video taken by her brother on a flight he had taken earlier that day, somewhere in the USA.
The clip was of a passenger sitting across the aisle – a tubby young guy with a goatee, in a track top and baseball cap. The type of nondescript college kid you see everywhere in the States, and that you’d never really notice. Except that this particular frat-boy was doing his level best to get noticed, on account of his not liking the act of flying very much. Or, to be perfectly honest, not liking it one tiny little bit.
You see, as the plane takes off this bloke gradually descends into a form of panicked madness. At first he grips the seat armrests so tight his knuckles go visibly white; then he starts moaning; then shaking; then making weird yelping sounds like a dying dog. As the plane gets airborne, the guy starts shouting: “No way, no way”, really, really loudly. Followed by him flailing his arms around wildly, before smashing them down on the back of the seat in front of him while crying out again: “No, NO, NO…” This is followed by more shaking, seat smashing, and crying.
Then, displaying an incredible amount of self-awareness in the circumstances, he shouts out an apology, for all to hear: “Sorry everyone, my bad, my bad, I am not used to flying”. No shit, Sherlock. But then the horror of flying catches up to him again, and he recommences his shouting, shaking, thumping and apologising, until eventually a flight attendant comes up to try to calm him down (here is the link).
Sadly, the video ends without us getting to see how it all ends. But I hope it included a flight attendant sedating this first-class moron by punching him in the face. I mean, seriously – if you don’t like flying, then don’t fly. What’s so Gad-damn hard to understand about that basic proposition?
All of which led me to thinking: I spend a lot of time on airplanes, and over the years I have seen my fair share of people who should never have been allowed on the plane, whether drunk, rude or frightened out of their wits. I have also experienced a few aborted landings, been in some terrible turbulence that resulted in passengers barfing into airsick bags all around me, and have had the joy of being seated next to more irritating toddlers and pain-in-the-arse chatterboxes than I can count.
But in totality, compared to the guy caught in this video, it now all seemed rather tame, and I concluded that there must be more. Surely, what with all the millions of people around the world flying about every day, some genuinely weird shit must happen up in the air.
And then it occurred to me: who better to ask than those who work there? So, on almost every flight I have been on these past few weeks, I have taken to asking the crew about any strange or unusual airborne episodes they know of. (Air)field research, if you will, coupled with a bit of online digging.
And the result? Well, all I can say is that I now have new-found respect for flight attendants who, it would appear, sometimes have to deal with seriously fucked-up stuff in the course of their day.
Here are my seven favourites:
The Perverts: Once, about ten years ago, I sat across the aisle from a guy who looked entirely respectable – neat haircut, rimmed spectacles, expensive suit and tie, etc. That was until he got his briefcase down from the overhead locker, and took out some reading materials. But he wasn’t reading the Wall Street Journal, or the Economist. Rather, this bloke was into dirty magazines: hard-core smut, of the type that would probably make Hugh Hefner blush. He then proceeded to read / leer away for the rest of the flight, much to the astonishment of everyone sitting near him.
Although, as one flight attendant told me, this is not as unusual as it sounds. Especially nowadays in the internet age, given the spread of onboard Wifi and private media playing devices. He said that in recent years he had noticed an increasing number of people – whether via pre-loaded iPads or in-flight internet services – surfing adult dating sites, ogling online nudie sites or watching their favourite porn, all from the comfort of their seats.
And two years ago an Australian journalist took it one step further. He was on a flight with pop-star Rihanna and decided to make his move for her affections. By stripping off completely naked, and streaking through the plane. Yep, these are my people….
The Fiddlers: A joy of Asian airports is that they almost all have somewhere to get a massage. But for some inexplicable reason, people seem to think that an airport massage cubicle, surrounded by a thin curtain, is the same as a private room surrounded by sound proof walls. I have heard more than one tale of a pre-flight massage being ruined by having to listen to the guy in the neighbouring cubicle as he tries to convince the masseuse to give him a “special”. Thankfully, the public nature of airports means these attempts at gratification generally fail, sparing those unfortunate enough to be nearby from having to listen to the “happy ending” itself…
And while this sort of stuff might be commonplace on land, who knew that it continues aloft? But more than one flight attendant has told me they have spotted someone (OK, always a guy) fiddling under the blanket after the cabin lights go dim and everyone else goes to sleep. One article I came across even tells of a couple who got arrested for their onboard antics: seems that Madam thought it would be a good idea to crawl under the blanket and provide Him with a different sort of “in-flight service”.
Listen up, fellers, it isn’t complex: if smokers have to hold it in for the duration of the flight, you should be able to manage, too.
The Forgetters: I take many flights each year. So it isn’t surprising that every now and again I’ll forget something on the plane – commonplace items like my wallet, a book, and once even my laptop. But who in God’s name would forget a shrunken human head, or a six carat diamond, or a stuffed goose, or a whole suit of armour?
Nonetheless, according to the US Unclaimed Baggage Centre in Alabama, these are real items that have been turned in over the years. Not to mention a wedding dress, various prosthetic limbs, glass eyes, wigs and toupees of all sorts, a bag of sand, and a ten kilo sack of onions. It seems live animals are also something often left behind, from parrots to tortoises to frogs, and even a falcon (you know, a bird the size of a frikking eagle).
And one of the respondents to my recent in-flight survey told of finding some frilly ladies underwear in an overhead compartment at the end of the flight. She blushed slightly before adding: “There were other things too, in a bag. You know, like, um…. equipment”. Given the sensitive nature of the matter I thought best to enquire no further, although it did get me to thinking how the passenger in question might have responded when the clerk at the lost and found office asked: “Ma’am, are you able to describe the missing items?”
The Gross: I have wound up sitting next to folks who burp repeatedly, snore, fart a lot, or simply reek of horrendous body odour. But I never realised you could do anything about it, although evidently there is. On a recent flight in Canada, for example, a passenger was asked to disembark because his body odour was so rank. According to news reports, his stench was offensive to the point that one of the other passengers threw up, and several of the flight crew threatened to mutiny if he was allowed to remain on board.
That said, when I asked a Singapore Airlines flight attendant about this she said it sounded dubious, given that most aircraft will carry a few cans of deodorant spray and air-freshener, for just these sorts of emergencies. The same flight attendant did, however, tell me of something arguably just as disgusting: a passenger in Business Class who shortly after takeoff removed his shoes and socks, lifted his feet, and proceeded to clip his overgrown toe-nails on the pull-out dining table….
Passengers Behaving Badly: An airline exists for the sole purpose of taking your money in exchange for moving you from Point A to Point B. Which means you’d have to be pretty badly behaved to get kicked off the flight, don’t you think? Sure, you might get un-boarded if you are blind drunk, are abusive, or threaten violence. Or, like the idiot Jet Blue passenger in America last year who kept talking about “the bomb”, referring to it more than 100 times during his check-in and security process. Unbelievably, he was merely denied boarding, rather than being arrested and sent to Guantanamo. Even more unbelievably, he felt aggrieved by this, and wrote in to complain.
But these are the obvious cases. It seems, however, there are many other less likely ways in which you can make yourself so unwanted that the crew will take steps to evict you from the plane (before take-off, that is). Like Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of mega-rock-band Green Day, who was infamously kicked off a flight for refusing to pull up his trousers (the obvious question, of course, being why he was on an airplane with his trousers down around his ankle in the first place, but let’s not go there…).
Although my favourite story relates to another singer of sorts, on an American Airlines flight last year. As reported, the flight made an emergency stop at Kansas City en-route from LA to NY, to have a passenger removed. Why? Well, shortly after departure the passenger in question decided to start singing Whitney Houston songs. She then continued, non-stop, for three hours straight, at the top of her voice, much to the annoyance of everyone else on board. When the plane made its unscheduled landing she was eventually escorted away by Police, still singing.
Pilots Behaving Badly: I read an article about something that happened three years ago on a Southwest Airlines flight that is so fantastic it has to be included in this list (or better yet, listened to in full – here is the link). It turns out the pilot decided to have a rant to his co-pilot about the loveless state of his life. He said he was having problems meeting women because the airline’s hiring policy meant there were only “homos and grannies” working the planes. As a result, he had only “been to the bar” three times in six months, and his pecker was “lonely”. He claimed to have even sought counselling for the problem, but to no avail: “My shrink told me I had mother issues, but that just gave me a boner.” All fine, except that this idiot forgot he had not turned his headset off, so it was still transmitting. Meaning that every other flight crew in the area, and everyone in the air traffic control centre, got to hear about his issues too.
Then there is the case of an Air India flight where one of the female flight attendants claimed she had been groped by the pilot. The Head Steward that day (a guy) was not happy, and decided to have a word with the pilot about this inappropriate behaviour. Things escalated, and within seconds the pilot and chief steward were engaged in a full-blown fist fight. Not in the cockpit, mind you, but in the galley of the plane, in full view of the passengers. Although the really worrying bit is that for the ten minutes they were slugging it out, no-one was flying the plane.
Thank God for co-pilots, I say, as was also demonstrated not that long ago when a Canadian pilot experienced a full-blown mental break-down. Mid-flight. Over the Atlantic. But when he began “asking to see God” the co-pilot realised it was probably best to remove him from the controls.
My favourite of the lot though, and apparently a true story, is of a budget airline flight on approach to Singapore Airport about four years ago. For some inexplicable reason, 2,000 feet up and minutes away from landing the pilot decided it was essential he check his text messages, that very instant. So he did, never mind that he was supposed to be attending to the trivial matter of landing the plane. In the process, he became so engrossed that he forgot to put down the landing wheels. Oops.
Thankfully, the co-pilot was not on his mobile as well. Less than 400 feet from the ground he realised that this particular flight was on course for a rather bumpy landing, and grabbed the controls away from the pilot to pull the plane up, averting a near disaster. And proving what I suspect you all knew anyway, even if you’ve never flown a plane: “don’t text and fly”.
The Dead: All day every day millions of people are flying from somewhere to somewhere else. Inevitably, there will thus be deaths on board. In fact, there are about ten in-flight deaths reported around the world each year. Normally, when this happens, airline policy is to move the body to the crew area, or to otherwise get it out of sight. A few airlines carry a body bag onboard, and some Singapore Airlines planes even have special “corpse cupboards”, in which a dead body can be stored until the plane lands (that is why Singapore Airlines is the best in the world – they really do think of everything…).
But on other planes, if the flight is full and someone croaks, the crew need to do the best they can to deal with the corpse. And often, options are limited. Thus the British Airlines First Class passenger who discovered to his dismay that a dead body had been placed in the empty seat next to his, while he was sleeping. Or like the deceased passenger who was simply propped up and made to look “alive”. According to a flight attendant: “We are given the option of putting an oxygen mask on the person and simply saying they didn’t feel well, even if we were sure they had gone to meet their maker”. Or like the New Zealand woman, whose fiancé sadly choked to death on his in-flight meal, and who then sat next to his body, wrapped in a sheet, for the next nine hours. Think of that next time you order the chicken.
But the most bizarre in flight death of all: the pilot. Several years ago a Continental Airlines pilot simply keeled over and died, mid-flight. The co-pilot took over and continued on without alerting the passengers until they had safely landed. Although I can only imagine the chaos that ensued once that particular announcement was eventually made: “Ladies and gentlemen, can I ask you to remain in your seats for a few minutes, as your pilot died a few hours ago and we have to first remove the body before we can allow you to disembark. Thank you for your patience, and have a nice day…..”
So there you have them: seven real-life bizarre things that actually happen on planes. All of which the flight attendants are ready, willing and able to take in their stride. So have a little mercy next time you feel inclined to whine when they put three cubes of ice in your G&T, instead of the two that you requested. And, if you can manage to remember it for next time you fly, I am sure your cabin crew would really appreciate it if you could wear lots of deodorant, perhaps leave the porn at home, and refrain from dying en-route ….