Ghost stories in flight


James Wysong, a flight attendant for United Airlines, used to write regularly for us. I found this Halloween post from back in 2005 and thought that readers might enjoy his quirky perspective on fright night.

At the end of an otherwise ordinary flight, I hear a strange rustling from the overhead bin. A faint, ghostly whisper emanates from the back of the airplane. The whisper comes nearer, and the voice becomes spookier. Now I can make out the words: “Get out!”

The whisper grows louder and more insistent. My heart beats faster and my hair stands on end. I hear the voice once again:

“Get out, damn it!”

Oh, OK. Never mind. It’s just Susan, another flight attendant, hoarse from a cold. She wants to go home, and I’m in the way.

But it’s that time of year, and tales of paranormal activity are common enough among flight crews. Haunted airplanes, haunted airports, hotel rooms that have seen strange goings-on, bizarre deaths and unexplained sightings — you name it, it’s all in the folklore.

I’m a skeptic, myself, but scary stories fascinate me. As a kid, I wanted to spend the night in a haunted house or sleep in the cemetery, but those opportunities never came my way. So, when a “haunted” hotel room becomes available, I always request it. So far, no messages from the world beyond. Maybe the lights have flickered once or twice, or the curtain has fluttered, but nothing to make me call Ghostbusters.

No, I was never much of a believer in ghosts. Until one winter day.

I was working on a flight to Europe with my wife, Martha. We had been married for two years and always flew together to maximize our off time. During the flight briefing, the purser announced the usual flight details, including the aircraft number. A terrified expression appeared on the faces of two of the flight attendants.

“You know this is the haunted one, don’t you?” said one of them.

“Excuse me?” the purser replied.

“This is the one where nine people died over the Pacific Ocean. The cargo door tore off, and the people were blown out into the night. The bodies were never found. The plane landed safely, but people say the spirits of those poor passengers haunt the lower galleys of the plane.”

At that moment, the other flight attendant got up, walked out and put herself on the sick list.

A supervisor appeared. She confirmed that this was indeed the airplane involved in the incident, said that it had been completely refurbished, and assured us it was not haunted. Easy for her to say — she wasn’t joining us on the flight.

I wasn’t worried. In fact, I was excited. Martha and I had been assigned senior positions on this flight. Older 747s like this one had prep kitchens under the main floor that were accessible by elevators; I’d been given the back lower galley and Martha had the forward one. These are great assignments because you’re not surrounded by hundreds of people and you can work at your own pace. Sure, it can be a little lonely down there by yourself, but I always carried a mini-stereo and I would prep the carts to the beat of the music. I’d installed fresh batteries in the stereo just before takeoff, so I was ready to go. Besides, I didn’t believe in ghosts.

Still, I was little apprehensive when I stepped off the elevator into the back lower galley. Nine people dead: They must have left some sort of trace. But I just cranked up the music, prepped the carts and waited for the meals to finish cooking. Suddenly, one of the ovens started to turn off and on as if it had a short circuit. An alarm bell sounded, as it always does when an oven shuts off. I gave the oven a quick smack. This seemed to solve the problem, but a moment later, the other ovens joined in: ovens on, ovens off, bells ringing all over the place.

The overhead lights started to dim. I was becoming concerned. Then Martha called: Her ovens were behaving strangely, too. I summoned my manliest bluster.

“It’s just faulty wiring,” I told her. “Nothing to worry about.”

But then I noticed a new sound, a small whistle that trailed away each time one of the ovens turned off — a weird, ghostly “oooooh,” like something from a bad horror movie. (Just the fans, I told myself.) I packed up all the meals and sent them upstairs, then I turned off the ovens. Two of them continued to cycle on and off. (Just the wiring, I thought.) Then the overhead lights went dark. (A short circuit!)

When my music started to slow down, as if the batteries were dying, I beat it out of there. I knew the batteries were brand new.

Here’s the weird part. When I wrote up the problem on the airplane’s mechanical log, I found that it had been written up many times before. Each time, mechanics were unable to fix it, or even confirm its existence. The problem seemed to occur only in flight; when mechanics ran a ground check, the system was fine.

After that trip, I heard about other flight attendants bringing Ouija boards and holding seances during crew rests. In fact, flight attendants have many superstitions, such as not accepting hotel keys with numbers corresponding to flights that ended in tragedy, such as 103, 800, or 990. Such numbers worry them.

Which reminds me, have you ever noticed that most hotels have no 13th floor? Why? Bad luck? Wouldn’t this make the 14th floor the 13th? Many flight attendants won’t take a room on the 14th floor for that very reason.

I also remember the story about a superstitious flight attendant who followed strict rules of numerology. She would seldom trade her trips, not wanting to alter fate, and she never went against her readings. So, when offered a trade for one December flight, she declined, even though it would suit her Christmas schedule better. Sadly, that was her last flight: Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Perhaps the most bizarre story involves a young flight attendant whose family persuaded her to retire after the Lockerbie tragedy. Seems her mother had dreams of her dying in an airplane disaster. The young woman became an accountant, and after years of promotions went to work for a firm in New York. Her office was in the World Trade Center, and she perished on 9/11.

Was it their fate to die?

Most probably. So why inconvenience your life worrying about consequences that you have no control over? We are none of us long for this world, so live for the now and enjoy it while you can.

Happy Halloween.