Monday, 29 October 2007

Hot air urban legends

One of the most fertile breeding grounds for urban legends is often not to be found on the ground itself, but up in the air. We're talking about the wonderful and terrifying world of air travel. Terrifying, that is, if you're travelling in the world of urban legends.

And especially terrifying if you were a passenger on the flight of...

The flying axeman

A Mozambique Airlines 727 was on a routine trip into Maputo with three flight crew: an English captain and flight engineer, and a Mozambican first officer. During the flight, the pilot's sidekicks got into a discussion about how the first officer could get a job overseas, which airlines were the best, and so on. Because things were a bit quiet on the flight deck, they decided to repair to the first class seats to continue their discussion.

At this point the captain felt a bit left out, so he put the plane on auto-pilot and joined his crew. After all, why shouldn't he?

About 20 minutes later they decided it was time to return to the cockpit to land the plane; they would continue the engrossing conversation in the flight lounge at the airport. Unfortunately, on their return to the cockpit, they discovered that the anti-hijack door had swung shut and they were locked out of the cockpit.

After a furious debate, they realised there was only one solution. They grabbed a fire axe out of an emergency locker and, to the consternation of the first class passengers witnessing the entire episode, began breaking down the cockpit door.

As in all good urban legends, this one is filled with details that seem to confirm its verifiable origins, right down to the size of the airplane and the nationalities of the crew members. The person who passed it on even claimed that he had heard it in a TV interview with a man who investigates all flying incidents by listening to flight recorders. And this story, supposedly, the man had heard on a flight recorder.

The bad news for gullible TV viewers is, firstly, that most of the incident occurred outside the cockpit and would not have been picked up by the flight recorder.And, secondly, it is a classic flying legend, told around the world. Among the best-known American versions are similar tales told about a United Airlines DC-9 and a Boeing operated by a Far East airline.

The nervous attendant

In a variation on the theme, the crew of a commercial airliner decides to have fun with a new flight attendant. They call her to the cockpit, and then all three quickly disappear down a maintenance hatch. The attendant enters the cockpit, sees that no one is flying the plane, and faints. She then falls forward, blocking the hatch.

The crew can`t get out that way, so they use a hatch further back in the plane - in the passenger area. The passengers are, of course, blissfully unaware of what's happened. All they see is the pilot, co-pilot and engineer come out of a hatch in the floor and slink sheepishly back to the cockpit.

A small problem

nd then there was the pilot of a Jumbo Jet, circling to land at a city airport, when the control tower called him and asked, "Captain, did you seen any light planes during your flight?"

"No?" replied the captain quizically.

"Well, you should have. There's one dangling from your undercarriage."

Fiery dive

That's not very different from the urban legend that was first told among helicopter pilots, but is now reported almost monthly in newspapers around the world:

During mopping up operations after one of the great forest fires that hit Sydney/California/the Cape Peninsula/the Greek islands, workers were horrified and baffled to find a scuba diver, in full diving gear, impaled on top of one of the smouldering trees.

On investigating, they concluded that one of the helicopters using a giant scoop to lift water from the sea and pour it over the flames had inadvertently scooped up a scuba diver!

Dangerous practise

And now for the passengers. After all, there must be pilots who are actually responsible people and who leave the legends to their passengers.

On a flight from America's hijack mecca, Miami (due to its closeness to Cuba), a passenger was getting increasingly nervous about the man sitting next to him, who was mumbling non-stop. He heard his neighbour saying bizarre things about "all men (mumble) equal (mumble) breaking the chains (mumble) life, liberty (mumble) pursuit of happiness (mumble mumble) take up arms..."

Eventually he could take this no longer, jumped up and went to notify a flight attendant that there was some weirdo on board talking about using weapons. So the pilot radiod ahead to the nearest airport, made an unscheduled stop, and the plane was raided by a special squad of policemen who dragged off the prospective hijacker.

It turned out, however, that the "hijacker" was an actor - and he was trying to learn the American Declaration of Independence for a role.

The wife on the flight

The next story was reported by a columnist in the Toronto Star, John Robert Colombo, after he had heard numerous versions which were clearly urban legends. He did not hide that fact, yet his own column was then used by other newspapers as the basis for factual news reports on the supposed event:

An airline company's promotion department suggested in its advertising that executives should take their wives on business trips, and it kept records of which ones did. Subsequently the department asked the market-research department to carry out a survey with three hundred of their wives to get their impressions of this scheme.

In due course the research department sent a letter to those wives asking how they enjoyed the trip.

No less than ninety percent of them sent back a baffled reply: "What airplane trip?"

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