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Fly The Scary Skies

[Stuff magazine, US edition, 2000]

(Author's note: this was written prior to 9/11, so kindly don't mail me abuse for being an insensitve bastard. Just in case you were planning to.)

“UH, LADIES and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Completelymental Airlines flight 13 to Milwaukee, with connections in Mortal Terror and Insanity. Our cruising altitude is 30,000, ah, feet, until we make some kind of idiot error in the cockpit, or an armed lunatic blows a hole in the plane, or large chunks of it peel off in - a-heh-heh - mid flight. Then we will descend into a sickening death-plunge, perhaps pulling out only milliseconds away from a firestorm of, uh, destruction and leaving you paralysed with abject dread for the remainder of that life you have so narrowly clung on to. Our in-flight movie will be Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges. Thank you for choosing Completelymental, and we hope to scarify the living crap out of you again soon.”

June 29, 1994: American Airlines flight 901, Miami-bound out of Buenos Aires, is cruising peacefully above Jamaica when a flight attendant brings a box of refreshing beverages into the cockpit. But where to set it down? The reserve first officer, flying the plane, helpfully moves his co pilot's seat forward, startling his colleague, whose legs hit the control column, disengaging the autopilot and forcing the jumbo jet into a nosedive. The passengers' meals, and some of the passengers, splatter against the ceiling like close-range paintballs. 16 seconds later, when the crew regain control, one traveller has a ruptured spleen, several are sprawled across the gangway and the rest have lost their appetites. Lesson: keep your seat belt fastened and your thumb on the beef-or chicken-sir.

July 23, 1999:
The thing about most hijackers is, crazy as they are, they understand the need for a pilot. Not Japan's Yuji Nishizawa. An avid fan of flight simulation games, not to mention mad as a jackrabbit, Nishizawa demanded the controls of a local All-Nippon Airways flight at the point of an eight-inch knife. When captain Naoyuki Nagashima refused, he was stabbed to death. Horrified passengers witnessed the remaining crew wrestle Nishizawa to the floor and land the plane. The captain's brave resistance probably saved the other 516 souls aboard the aircraft. Nishizawa's plan for the Boeing 747? To loop the loop under Tokyo Bay's Rainbow Bridge. Nifty flying, even for a nutjob with his extensive training.

August 19, 1980:
Saudia Airlines Flight 163 took off from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, carrying 287 Muslim pilgrims and 14 crew en route to Jeddah. Within 12 minutes, it was heading back, on fire. The captain landed safely but, despite the smoke was pouring down the gangway and the passengers fighting in the aisles, elected not to order an immediate evacuation of the aircraft. By the time firemen and rescuers managed to wrench open a door, almost half an hour later, the inside of the jet was blazing and the exterior shell on the point of collapse. There was not a hope in hell (and this was a passable imitation) of finding anyone alive. The likely cause of the hideous conflagration: a pilgrim who saw no reason not to brew up a cup of tea in the aisle on his kerosene stove. Well, he was really thirsty.

April 24, 2000:
Grant Johnston was sitting aboard Alaska Airlines flight 101 from Portland to Anchorage waiting for take-off, when he heard an odd noise by his feet. He was lucky to have heard it at all; it was the sound of a .357 bullet, discharged by a handgun in the hold, striking his hand luggage - a diaper bag, where it lodged in a baby's changing pad. The firearm was tracked down to fellow passenger Betty Jean Smith, 66, of Eagle River, Alaska, whose baggage also contained a loaded .22 pistol. Eagle River must be one bad muthaphukkin' hood. Johnston got off light; one passenger on an El Al flight was accidentally shot and wounded through the back of his seat by the airline's own security guard, from inside the toilet cubicle. You know how it is: long flight, you're bored, you wind up cleaning your piece in the restroom.

April 28, 1988:
Nineteen. A good age for a girlfriend. Not so good for an airplane. Bodywork inspections are called for in both cases. It was almost Aloha-And-Goodbye Airlines when a Boeing 737 lost a six-yard chunk of its fuselage at 24,000 feet over Hawaii. Just ripped off and blew away, taking a stewardess with it. Said one passenger: “The plane was disintegrating. It was just a matter of time before it came apart.” As all aboard sang hymns from the brace position, pilot Robert Schornstheimer somehow managed to guide them down to safety. The FAA promptly ordered checks on all 737s, more than half of which showed stress fractures. Maybe that explains why an eight-year-old Piedmont Airlines 737 shed an engine over Chicago O'Hare airport the following January. Or maybe it was just moulting.

March 16, 2000:
carpenter Peter Bradley, 39, is described by neighbours as helpful and polite. By his neighbours in Blue Springs, Missouri, that is. To his neighbours on Alaska Airlines flight 259 from Puerto Valleto, Mexico to San Francisco, Bradley is the six-foot-two looney-tune who tried to kill them all. They were tipped off by Bradley roaring “I'll kill you all!” as he battered his way into the cockpit and lunged for the controls. He had spent most of the flight wandering around barefoot and shirtless, babbling and gibbering and intimidating the tiny stewardesses. Then, as the plane started its descent, he made his move on the flight deck while the copilot tried to fend him off with an ax. It took four even bigger men to drag him off and overpower him. Apart from two traffic violations from 1979, Bradley had no previous record. A late starter, then, but one making up for lost time.

March 5, 2000:
You're not even safe on the ground. In what the airline described as its “worst Incident ever”, a Southwest plane carrying 142 people overshot the runway at Burbank airport, smashed through the perimeter fence, slammed at least two cars on the six-lane Hollywood Way and finally came to rest at a Chevron gas station. This is not the usual practice for aircraft wishing to refuel. Astonishingly, no-one was seriously hurt. Investigators believe the Boeing 737 came in twice as steeply, and 50mph faster, than recommended. Said a ranking local police officer: “We are really lucky a lot of people were not travelling on that road, because those planes are a lot bigger than cars.” With those powers of detection, no wonder he's the boss.

March 23, 1994:
Perhaps Captain Yaroslav Kudrinsky, of Aeroflot flight SU593 from Moscow to Hong Kong, was a little too enthusiastic about Take Your Daughter To Work Day. A cockpit tape records his 13-year-old girl, Yana, saying “Daddy, can I turn this?” Then his 15-year old son El'dar took over at the controls, and the trouble really started. Eagerly swivelling the control column, Junior disconnected the autopilot. The plane, still at full power, rolled over sideways and began to plummet at a dizzying 650 feet per second, while crew members shrieked instructions at the bewildered teenager and his father desperately tried to shift him out the seat. Kudrinsky at last levelled out at 1300 feet, too late to stop the Airbus A310 shattering against a Siberian hillside, killing all 75 aboard. Wrecking the old man's car is one thing. . .

April 7 1994:
Forget going postal; Federal Express has employees so spectacularly disgruntled they make the mailmen look like pussycats. Take flight engineer Auburn Calloway. Minutes into a routine FedEx hop from Memphis to San Jose, Calloway leaped from the jumpseat and attacked his colleagues with a claw-hammer and a speargun. Soaked in blood and with their plane rolling all but upside down, the crew of three still managed to subdue Calloway and land the DC10. Seems nobody had thought to ask, when he boarded, “What's the deal with the speargun, Auburn?” Maybe they're standard issue for flight engineers: “Slow down, Cap, I'm gonna bag me a sky marlin.”

December 17, 1986:
The brand spanking new, $30 million F-16 fighter jet was the pride of the Pakistani airforce. Alas, it was not to last. This gleaming denizen of the clouds was brought crashing down in flames by one of the Islamic nation's oldest and most reviled enemies: pork. Its little piggy brain boiling with ham-like kamikaze fury, a suicidal wild boar charged into the jet's front wheel on take-off, sending it skidding across the runway in a veritable inferno of sparks. The pilots ejected seconds before fire engulfed the mighty metal war machine. Not about to take this lying down, rampaging air force officers butchered hundreds of the porkers in an orgy of bloody retribution. That showed 'em.

January 7, 1996:
Taking off from Atlanta, the pilots on a Valujet airliner were perturbed to notice that the landing gear had failed to retract, Lesser men would have turned the plane round and headed right back, but these fellows were made of sterner stuff. Thinking outside the box, they simply pulled a circuit breaker, silencing the cockpit alarms for the duration of the journey. 200 feet above their destination, Nashville, the canny airmen reset the switch, which automatically deployed the spoilers on the wings. The plane lurched downwards, bouncing like a basketball on the tarmac, knocking out the radio signal from air traffic control, and dragging the horrified passengers to the brink of cataclysm. So much for the Bright Idea school of flying.

October 26, 1986:
Even spicy in-flight food couldn't account for the thunderous explosion which resonated from the rear toilet cubicle of Thai Airways flight 602, minutes away from Osaka, Japan. After the pilot skilfully brought the damaged plane in to land, sharp-eyed detectives surveyed the evidence. One hole in the cabin floor. One hapless Yakuza gangster, with a buttload of shrapnel, dangling headfirst through said hole while two buddies clutched at his legs. One restroom trash chute ripped to smithereens by a “pineapple”-style hand grenade. Hmmm. Maybe this wasn't an accident. Unless, of course, the guy didn't mean throw out his grenade. Chopping off your little finger can make it damn hard to keep a grip on things.


You've heard the saying, “Hell is other people”. Well, you'll never know just how true that is until you're trapped six miles up with a drunken, apeshit ball of dementia frothing in the adjoining berth. Next time they seat you alongside a wailing baby, just think of these airborne neighbours from Hades and re-e-e-lax.

January 16, 1999: Ian Bottomley, a 36-year-old plumber, was glued to his laptop computer on a British Airways flight from Johannesburg to London. No wonder; a screenful of hardcore porno pix will tend to get your attention. It certainly caught the eyes of fellow passengers. Asked to change his viewing material, Bottomley invited his critics to “step outside”, knocked down a steward and bit his arm. Then, screaming “I'm going to kill you!”, he injured three more crew members out of the six it took to restrain him, cuff him and tie him to a back-row seat. Must have been really good porn.

January 31, 1999: It's a well-known fact that Irish love a drink and a sing song. So when, on a charter flight from London to Montego Bay, a dozen Irish travellers found themselves a few sherbets to the good, the melodies began. Somewhat irked after the fiftieth chorus of “I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen”, fellow passenger Mark Mahoney threw his Baileys Irish Cream (what else?) over the roistering Patrick Connors. The ensuing mayhem saw the flight diverted to Norfolk, Virginia, where the tuneful twelve were unceremoniously slung off. Reports that the crew were singing, “I Won't Take You Home Again, Kathleen” are unfounded

October 20, 1995: Investment banking firm TCW America were no doubt beaming with pride when they saw the publicity garnered by their president, Gerard Finneran, 58. En route from Buenos Aires to JFK, Finneran found the crew couldn't bring him liquor fast enough, so he got up and helped himself. Asked if he would mind not doing that, he genially replied, “I'll bust your ass!”, roughed up a stewardess, then pulled down his pants and took a crap atop a first-class service cart, wiping his ass with the linen napkins. As they say in showbiz: what a finish.

July 9, 1998: Jarrett Liebman, 12, and his little sisters Mazi and Ashley were flying unaccompanied for the first time, from Fort Lauderdale to Atlantic City. Seated behind them was Celeste Keenan, a 37-year-old dancer from Pompano Beach. Keenan, having sprayed the cabin with perfume and cursed out the stewardess, took umbrage with Jarrett, sweetly explaining, “I'll kill you. I'll sue your family so bad you'll be living in the street.” When the boy reclined his chair, she broke it with a savage mule kick, trapping him like so much pastrami on rye. Clearly a believer in firm discipline.

Exact date unknown, 1998: Denied cigarettes on the long haul from Cape Town to London, Kasimierz Pasierbek, 24, howled like a banshee and tried to whale on another passenger. Bad luck for Pasierbek; his target was a member of the SAS, an elite British military outfit whose members know 50 ways to kill a man using their eyebrows. The commando calmly punched out his assailant, breaking his nose and leaving him unconscious for the rest of the journey. Why don't all aircraft come equipped with guys like that?

February, 1998: Picture Spice Girl Mel B, tanked-up, rabid and madder than a bag of cats, exploding out of an airplane toilet and felling stewardesses like ninepins. This was near as dammit the scene that greeted passengers on a 767 bound from England to New York, as “Scary Spice” lookalike model Lorna Dow, glutted with champagne and cannabis tea, ran amok. She demanded to fly the plane, as the pilots were “only drivers”, then dragged flight attendant Christine Cook down the aisle by her hair, screeching “What are you going to do about it, bitch?” Only the fact that Dow's head didn't spin through 360 degrees rules out the first recorded instance of skyborne satanic possession.

All material on this site is copyrighted to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission.

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