Airline Gags

“All art attempts to rid life of banality.”
– V. Vale

The story, if you weren’t tuned in last time, goes like this: Upon touchdown in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a British Airways steward announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Riyadh. For the correct local time, please set your watch back three-hundred years.”

As these things go, I knew there was a high probability of the tale being apocryphal, but a reader informs us that a version of the event indeed took place, and did involve a BA aircraft arriving from London. The setting was not Saudi Arabia, however, but Johannesburg, South Africa, during the height of Apartheid, and the correct number was a hundred years, not three-hundred. Supposedly the story got some coverage in the British press.

You’re often better than I am when it comes to debunking or clarifying urban myths, so perhaps you can help with this one too: Another British Airways flight, this time in Lagos, Nigeria, roughly ten years ago. The 747, as I remember it, is taxiing for takeoff one evening when a cockpit warning light flashes on, indicating that a lower deck cargo door has become unlatched. That’s because a gang of daredevil thieves, riding on the roof of a stolen truck, have pulled alongside, opened the door, and are hauling out luggage and cargo. This, mind, you, while the plane is trundling down the tarmac toward the runway. Through the windows, aghast passengers can see the whole thing unfolding, their own suitcases being foisted away into the night.

Accounts of lawlessness at the Lagos airport (Murtala Mohammed International, if you need to know) are legendary, but this one, if it’s true, wins the prize for sheer audacity. Before its final grounding in 2003, that nation’s flag carrier, Nigeria Airways, had itself been notorious for crimes and corruption. The airline had appointed 12 chief executives in its last years, a few of whom spent time in Nigerian courtrooms.

While you’re Googling up West Africa for me, let me apologize for the PG-13 nature of last week’s list of public address bloopers. I wish I had some spicier examples, but truly those were the best of them. I’ve been accused of holding back, and some of you seem to think I’m concealing a long list of my own, personally concocted pranks, cranks, and anecdotes of infamy.

Not really. Granted I’m prone to some smart-ass tendencies, but there’s something about a cockpit, maybe, that just doesn’t encourage rampant pranksterism. The implications of screwing up, which need no elaboration, tend to keep even the most eccentric airman safely grounded, so to speak, in his rules and procedures.

If you haven’t noticed, a certain unexpected temperance has always been part of Ask the Pilot’s schtick (I was going to type “success,” but that’s probably your call, not the author’s). Perhaps you believe it’s incumbent upon me, as an insider, to kick up as much dirt as possible. Yet that’s never been my style or intent. Unlike others, I’m hot here to expose lurking dangers, blow whistles, or sensationalize. To the contrary, this column was born out of frustration over the such things, which heretofore seemed the staple of mainstream aviation reportage. I’m out to demonstrate two things. First, that air travel, despite the obvious discomforts, remains compelling and fascinating, usually in the ways you’re least expecting. Secondly, that what goes on behind the scenes is a lot less shady, conniving, and dangerous, than you’re normally led to think.

That sounds really boring, doesn’t it?

This goes back more than ten years, but I suppose I could talk about the time a colleague of mine — let’s call him Eric and say he was from, oh, I don’t know, Lewiston, Maine — thought it would be amusing to dangle a pair of velvet red dice from the overhead compass of a 19-passenger turboprop. No cockpit door. That one had the customers chortling, pointing, slapping him on the back, and sending a formal letter of complaint to the FAA. Poor Eric earned some quality time at the beach for the stunt, and a blemish on his record that found recruiters at the major airlines affixing the wrong color Stickies to his resume.

Things were always a bit faster and looser, which is to say younger, at the regional carriers. Here were 24 year-old kids making twelve grand a year, sitting at the controls of $7 million aircraft. The incongruity of it all made people act a little, well, funny…

The lack of a cockpit door on those commuter planes was, in a way, begging for trouble. One captain, one first officer, and 19 backseat drivers whose gazes spent more time glued to the instruments than ours did. I once doctored up the front cover of my charts manual with these prying eyes in mind. We have these books up front — leather binders full of maps and instrument landing charts. I’d keep mine on the floor below the center pedestal, in full view of the first two or three rows. On the front, in oversized stick-on letters I’d put: “HOW TO FLY.” During approach when we needed a chart, I’d pick up the binder and begin flipping through it, eliciting some hearty laughs (or shrieks).

The view of the cockpit was even more entertaining if, as occasionally was the case, somebody had spit-glued a magazine photo across the radar screen. Our radar units, mounted in the middle of the panel and visible for several rows, looked like little TV sets, and on those clear autumn days when we’d zip VFR up the coast between Boston and Portland, or from the Cape down to Newark, they’d be switched off. Those with lively imaginations (I’ll get no more specific than that) would clip out some ridiculous picture and adhere it to the empty screen. A man in a chef’s hat carrying a wedding cake, I recall, was one choice.

A 19-seater has no flight attendant, meanwhile, and it was responsibility of the first officer (copilot) to give the safety demo, providing ample opportunity to hone his or her public speaking skills. With most regional copilots qualifying for food stamps, this also was a natural segue into researching a second career. Namely, comedy. Southwest’s standup routines have nothing on the wisecracking and ad-libbing heard at Northeast Express Regional Airlines, circa 1992, believe me. I know of no airline pilot ever taking the stage at a comedy club, which is a testament to just how awful most of these routines were. “But seriously folks, your seat cushion becomes a flotation device! Is this thing on?”

Other planes had built-in cassette players, through which all regulatory announcements were taken care of by a sober-sounding fellow with a voice like James Earl Jones. Side A was the safety demo, which would run and then automatically stop. When the time came, you’d flip to side B for the pre-landing spiel. With the tape decks on hand, I’d sometimes carry albums to work. Out on the ramp between flights, I’d have lunch (usually something from Spinelli’s, over in East Boston, which would splatter my shirt with enough tomato sauce to make it look like I’d murdered my passengers) and listen to music. One thing led to another, of course, and every now and then riders would be treated to the greatest hits from Patrick Smith’s collection of 1980s alt-rock.

My exact choices varied with the weather, time of day, and probability of inflight bumpiness. Cruising-through-the-clouds: Husker Du, the Wedding Present, or the Jazz Butcher. Evening flight: The Reivers, or those mellow instrumentals from The Clash’s Sandinista! Rain or fog: time for The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, or possibly the Velvet Underground. I’d get seasonal too: the Misfits on Halloween.

The idea was to play a couple of songs while people got comfortable, then switch it off once the props were going. Occasionally I’d forget, and the music would keep going. Neither I nor the first officer could hear a note of it, strapped with headsets and busy reading “HOW TO FLY,” but I’m sure some people dug it. What more consoling to passengers, already agitated and uncomfortable, than belligerent rock music mixed with the din of thousand-horsepower engines?

En route to Burlington, Vermont, one evening, the noise was enough to prompt a weary-looking businessman to stick his head into the cockpit and ask, “Could you please turn that racket off?” Oh hell, I thought, the tape! I reached for the player, then paused with my finger on the switch and asked him, “You mean the music, or the engines?”

In the sad, hot summer of 1994, as our paychecks began bouncing and we braced for our company’s imminent liquidation, I can report that at least one first officer hit the PLAY button, instantly and “accidentally” subjecting an overbooked flight to some of the more atrocious chords of early 80s hardcore punk. MDC’s “John Wayne Was a Nazi,” got some jaws dropping, as did, a horrible old Negative Approach song that began with the clearly audible line: “We won’t take any shit!”

Those were the obvious goofs, though not the best ones. Another crew popped in their briefing cassette and, upon hearing the usual muffled tenor of James Earl Jones, or so they thought, continued with their paperwork and checklists. Thirty minutes later they were startled to notice the tape hadn’t stopped. The copilot yanked it from the slot and discovered they’d just played nearly the entire audio-biography of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.