We scholars (or in my case, "scholar" in skeptic quotes) of American politics miss out on a key rite de passage in graduate studies in the social sciences: doing fieldwork. We don't spend a year or two of our lives in places no sane person accustomed to the pampered American lifestyle would go. We do not interview Uzbek peasants in unelectrified villages in the Pamir Mountains. We do not live among the undiscovered tribes of Borneo. We do not subject ourselves to thrice-daily malaria prophylaxis or vaccinations for diseases eradicated in the West during the presidency of Grover Cleveland. Our data are readily accessible or, if not, can be collected in the comfort of various Capitals.

On the one hand, this is great. We finish grad school a little faster than our foreign-oriented colleagues and we don't have any hardships along the way. But on the other, we don't have bitchin' fieldwork stories like, "I lost a toe in Siberia to collect my data" or "Yeah, my hut was only accessible by burro." Granted, not everyone who does overseas fieldwork ends up roughing it to that extent, but you get the idea. It is worth many Experience Points and if it doesn't build character it will at the very least provide some colorful stories.

The most consistently amusing of the Field Work Tales, in my opinion, is the Third World Airline tale. I mean, we Westerners think our airlines are bad, and they are. They lose luggage, they are always late, and their staff range from indifferent to openly hostile. That said, our airlines are not bad like most of the world's airlines are bad. As much as Delta sucks, it's not Air Angola or Garuda Indonesia. It never ceases to amaze me that people actually get on domestic flights in undeveloped countries. They are almost entirely unregulated and they fly planes that have been used up and discarded onto the scrap heap by the major airlines.

The travel writer Robert Young Pelton offers some sage advice about flying in underdeveloped places: "Never board a plane if its logo has a goat in it." This strikes me as excellent advice, but we know that being picky is not always possible. In places with no road networks, you take the Flying Yak Airways flight to Point B if that's where you need to go.

I never tire of horror stories of the in-flight variety, largely for three reasons. I have led a soft life, the airline industry is very interesting to me because it represents so much of what is wrong with our economy and society, and I am a 9 year-old who thinks airplanes are Neat. So go ahead and regale me with your airborne adventure tales. What was your worst flying experience? Scariest? Funniest? Sure, I'll take the "Delta lost my suitcase" variety, but I'm hoping that a few of you globetrotters or old-timers will have a good story or two of the Holy Shit variety.

Don't let me down.

37 thoughts on “NPF: THE HORROR, THE HORROR”

  • Flying a cheap airline home to Australia I chatted to the guy next to me who turned out to be a pilot. As we came in to land he said " we've missed the bricks!". At that moment the engines were revved to max and we launched back into the sky. As we approached for the second time we could see the emergency vehicle lights blinking all around the runway. The pilot set the aircraft down VERY hard and braked to the max. We were towed off the runway.

  • Oh, let me tell you about Cuba's domestic airline.* Oh holy crap.

    The airport didn't have an x-ray machine, so they went through all our bags by hand. In the 2 weeks before (but after I'd bought my tickets, to vacation from Havana to Isla de la Juventud) the same route I was flying had been highjacked to Miami TWICE (as had a cross-harbor ferry I often took to go party at the foot of a 66 foot marble statue of Jesus, because that's where all the good Dj's were that year, but I digress), so it took an hour and a half to load 30 or so people onto an aging Soviet prop plane, and there were lots of awkward questions about me and my friend's American-goodie-laden luggage. (ever seen a very shy sorority girl try to explain what a tampon is for in pidgin Spanish? You should)

    They didn't turn the air on in the plane until it was ready to take off, so those of us who climbed up the 70's style ladder-stairs off the tarmac earlier had to sit in sweltering heat as the plane loaded up. When they did cut the air on, the super-high humidity made the whole cabin fill with very opaque fog.

    I was on the exit row, and when the girl next to me offered to trade me for the window seat, and I gladly obliged. As we started to take off, everyone on the plane crossed themselves furiously. Cuba is not a super Catholic country, so this surprised me a little, and made me wonder if I was on a plane with a church group or something, or if every one of my co-passengers was just getting ready to die.

    I think it was the latter. I realized why the girl had offered to trade seats when I looked at the emergency exit door. It had an ancient, peeling sticker on it in Russian and Spanish that read "Emergency exit only. Do not remove pin except in case of emergency." And below that, there was a little recessed area in the door, where one metal loop jutted out from the door and another from the doorjam. And I shit you not, instead of the factory-mandated pin, there was a bent up piece of coat hanger serving as the only thing keeping the emergency exit next to me closed during our turbulence-laden flight. We made it ok, but then I had to spend the long weekend knowing that plane was my only way back off the island.

    And, I am not a small-plane wimp. Panama's domestic airlines (I've tried Aeroperlas and Air Panama) are entirely non-terrifying, and the best (sometimes only) way to get to some of the more remote parts of the country. They're cheap, too, and much more comfortable than a long bus ride.

    *At the time, US citizens could get permission from the US treasury dept to go there for educational purposes, which I did. It was amazing overall, and I'd do it again. But I's stick to trains, buses, cars and hitchhiking–much safer

  • Edward Qubain says:

    For a funny account of the fieldwork experience of an anthropologist, I recommend "The Innocent Anthropologist" by Nigel Perry.

    The country which has a dangerous airline is Iran because E.U./U.S. sanctions do not allow Iran to buy spare parts for their planes. Every year many people die because of this.

  • ex-PFC Chuck says:

    Not all terrifying flying experiences take place outside of the US of A. In early 1968 I was flying a TWA Convair 880 from Chicago to Atlanta, on the way to the Space Coast of Florida for a job interview. We were six or eight minutes into a full-power, steep climb southwest out of O'Hare and, having been bumped up into first class, I was at the port side window seat in the second row. Suddenly the pilot jammed down the throttle and nosed down to level flight, and I then looked out my window just in time to see a business jet pass in front of and just above us, close enough to easily read the numbers on the tail. It couldn't have been more than a couple of hundred yards away. The plane then continued on the SW vector and at reduced speed for what seemed like fifteen minutes, while the flight crew was probably multi-taxing between chewing out the air traffic controller and cleaning out their chairs.

  • In mid-90's Kazakhstan the flights to cities like Istanbul or New Dehli were notoriously overburdened by "shopturisti". Imagine a man with an automobile bumper as carry-on baggage and you get the picture. I found that entertaining until the time the pilot asked people to move toward the back of the plane to help with take-off.

  • I had one absolutely terrifying flight going from Honduras to El Salvador about 13 years ago that I can't bring myself to relive through writing, but as mentioned in comments above, you don't need to leave the US to get a thrill.

    A few years back I was on a flight in eastern Washington that aborted take-off. We were air born and then slammed back down to earth. That part was bad enough, but the screaming babies and weeping women added an awesome touch! Most of us men were silent, scared to fucking death. Come to think of it, I haven't flown since….

  • I just got back from flying Safi Air to Afghanistan, and that was an experience. However, the worst flight I ever took was ALM (Antilles Airlines). It's defunct now, but it had a habit of stranding people in Cuaracao, as it did me. The next morning, we boarded the flight and waited for take off. I was sitting in the back, and in front of me were three guys from Jamaica who started smoking pot. (I promise you this happened.) A woman got on with a chicken. When I asked the flight attendant what we were waiting on, she said the plane needed to be refueled and that they were doing it now. I looked out the window, and honest to god the guy fueling the plane was standing there with the hose in one hand, and his cigarette in the other. I never thought I'd actually get to my destination. After take off, we flew to my stop, and as we landed, the door to the bathroom fell off. Needless to say, I was happy to get off the plane.

  • Um, how it used to be..
    In 1967 I was traveling with my family from Pittsburgh to Frankfurt with a plane change at JFK. We landed very late at LaGuardia because of problems at JFK. We were immediately whisked off the plane and piled (5 of us and all luggage) onto a Piper Aztec for the 5 or so minute flight to JFK to make the transatlantic TWA connection as it sat idling on the runway. We were the last 5 people to board.
    All part of TWA service I guess.

  • La Paz, Bolivia, 2008. Passport having been lost and reissued at the consulate, it didn't have an entry stamp– you can't exit without an entry stamp, can you? So, we got shaken down for $20 by border control trying to leave the country.

    Then my wife's insulin became a problem at security. They said it had to be checked. Then they said it was OK, but the syringes couldn't come with. Then they got distracted by someone they knew who was in line further up, and just sort of waved us through.

    After security, they let us buy water, but we couldn't take it through the second security screen. Which was a manual one. My bag had a busted zipper, so they let me open and close it for them because it was tricky. Can't have been that effective, really.

    Of course, the plane can't take off from 15,000 feet with a full tank of gas, so it has to fly to a lower altitude city and refuel. And while we're at it, another security screening. On the plane. At 2AM. Everyone has to wake up and stand in the aisle while police come through the plane checking under the seats and the removable flotation devices for contraband.

    The flight itself was uneventful.

  • One time flying into Miami we were going round and round I guess waiting for the wind to die down. Finally we go for the approach and are getting really slammed with the wind. Right before we touched down (I was in a window seat on the starboard side of the plane) I looked out the window and the runway was literally parallel to the wing! At the very last second the pilot lurched us around and we landed. Many cheers on that flight!

  • I recently flew from Indianapolis to Chicago (and from there to Seattle). On the IND-ORD leg, I was seated next to the largest person I have sat that close to, ever, for any reason. A black man dressed head to toe in a loose cream-colored suit and wearing lots of gold jewelry. His hip fat tore off one of the armrest covers when he squeezed in. He could not fasten his seatbelt but kind of laid the two ends across his gut, where they hid in a fold from passing attendants. I'm not germ-phobic and I don't particularly have "touch issues" or require a 3-foot buffer between me and strangers or anything like that. But no matter how far I scooted toward my window, some part of this guy was TOUCHING ME the entire flight. Usually his rotund upper thigh bulging over into my area, or his rolls of waist flopped onto our shared, coverless armrest. I felt sorry for him because he could barely move once he was in the seat, and had to hold his complimentary beverage out in the aisle because he couldn't put the tray down.

    Best part of the flight was arriving in Chicago 3 minutes before I'd left Indy, because of the time change.

  • Domestic ride 727 coming into the Atl from Chicago back in the late '70s. Seems that the 727 glides not at all w/o power on (pilots correct me) – the sucker seems like a flying rock.

    As he makes the final approach to Hartsfield and the gear locks down, I notice…hmmm..He's kinda hot, the ground is rushing up towards us, and as we get close the ground, the land marks are whizzing by much faster than usual.

    Everybody on board is chattering away per normal not noticing our situation when we suddenly slam into the runway much harder than I ever remember, and we bounced a couple times really bookin'..The pilot stabilizes the ground run and flips the thrust reversers on and starts to spool up the engines, the pitch goes higher and higher and…..BLAM, a blast shoots parallel to fuselage up the right side of the plane just outside my window.

    It is now deathly silent on the plane as the engines spool down on the now slow ride to the taxi way. It stayed that way till we got to the gate.

    I am told that the extreme spool up probably caused a compressor stall on the starboard engine or we had rich exhaust gas re-circulation that got ignited by compressor heat. Experts comment?

    How would you like to be on the next leg of that flight? I was home.


  • William Shatner says:

    I was flying home after a stay in a sanitarium, and everything seemed fine until I looked out the window…

  • A group of four of us were asked to skydive into an airshow in Illinois. However, none of the airplanes at the airport which were outfitted to fly skydivers were available. Not to be deterred, we piled four fully geared-up skydivers and a pilot into a tiny Cessna which still had all the seats in it, didn't have a jump door and didn't have any steps on the outside to accommodate climbing around on the outside of the airplane as we skydivers do. Needless to say, we were hugely, severely overweight for the tiny aircraft.

    We used up all the runway on takeoff and our (extremely skilled) pilot barely managed to get us off the ground. From takeoff to 2000 feet AGL the stall warning horn was going off continuously. I was terrified.

    While in flight, we got word that our jump had been cancelled due to a crash at the airshow, but none of us were willing to try to land in a plane so totally overloaded, so we circled back to the drop zone. Since the plane didn't have a jump door the pilot had to skid the plane sideways in the air to allow us to push the door open enough to squeeze out. (Imagine trying to open your car door against a 100+ MPH wind.) I squeezed through barely, trying to keep an eye on all my handles because if I snagged any of them it would likely kill myself and everyone on board the plane.

    I put a toe on the 4" long little peg that was the only step outside the door and jumped, watching the plane fall away from me. After that, all was well. It was one of those stories that you could laugh about since everyone lived, but really… it was almost 100% stupid and ill-advised.

  • I was once asked by a steward if I'd mind sitting in the cockpit because the plane was too full and there weren't enough seats. On a Lufthansa flight. (Yes, the national airline of the well-known third world backwater that is…um…Germany).

  • I was on a flight from LAX to Pittsburgh(i think) and happened to be seated next to a fairly cute girl. We started chatting and it turns out she is a flight attendant for another airline.

    At some point we hit some turbulence, but nothing too bad. We're sitting at the bulkhead and I see one of the flight attendants answer the phone, and quickly walk over to their seat and buckle in. At that point, the girl next to me leans over and says: "I don't want to freak you out, but I'm freaking out. See how that light on the ceiling are lit? That's the sign to the crew that something is REALLY wrong with the plane. Like, we have to land immediately." So me and her are sitting there scared shitless while everyone else is carrying about their business; it was quite surreal. I don't know how long this lasted, but every little bump and I kept thinking "engine is failing!"

    Eventually the flight attendants get up and carry about so the girl next to me asks one of them "On my airline that's the emergency light…" The reply: oh, no. that's just the light that the pilot is calling us. he just wanted us to sit down through the turbulence." It was probably the most scared and helpless I've felt in my life.

  • This is actually pretty lame, but of some historical interest. It was 1969, give or take a few months, and I was flying on an all first class flight from Toledo Express to the Hell Hole that is Philadelphia, in a prop plane – Corsair, maybe?. Stewardesses, as they were called in those days, were all relatively attractive, pleasant, nicely though modestly dressed, and topped with little Jackie-O pill box hats. (Or, at least, such is my recollection.)

    On this relatively short flight, they passed out complimentary sandwiches, drinks, and packets containing two cigarettes each. Yes – they were actually ENCOURAGING you to smoke on the plane.

    Other than the emphysema risk, the only really terrifying thing about the flight is that I was traveling with my first wife.


  • Nothing too earthshattering, but I was on the last PeopleExpress flight from Chicago to Newark back in February of 1987. I was headed to NYC tostudy for a semester and the weather was iffy, so I got bumped somehow and P-Ex offered me a seat and a little cash to make up for it. Oy vey. The flight wasn't Yak-Airways awful, but it was bumpy and stuffy (wahhh) and when we landed in Newark, their baggage handlers were done. Forever. Like gone home. So we stood around for 90 minutes until TWA or United or someone's handlers got our stuff out of the goodness of their cold, black New York hearts.

  • I'll never forget that military flight that night out of Hickam and, oh….right…..classified. Never mind.

  • My scariest moments in an airplane were all when I was at the controls. I was great at taking off, but landing was always a bit trickier. I will give you a scary example from my own research of the kind of things that tend to happen on general aviation flights though. (Some real contenders for Darwin awards in this bunch).

    One accident report tells the story of a newly married couple. Their best man happened to be a licensed pilot and decided that his wedding present to them would be to take them up for a quick "mile high club" flight. The rest of the wedding party decided to then organize themselves in a big line on the runway to all simultaneously moon the newlyweds. As the pilot does a low flyby so that that the couples can see line of asses, he ends up clipping one of the people lined up with the wing. He then proceeds to have a complete flip out about what has just happened and crashes the plane killing everyone aboard.

    But it seemed like such a great idea at the time…

  • bb

    I've been both a flight engineer and first officer on the 727.

    The 72' would come down pretty fast with the gear down and all the flaps out. You didn't pull the power until you were about 10 feet off the ground on landing or you would hit HARD.

    Difficult plane to land smoothly. The main gear were so far back that you could bang them onto the runway when you flared the plane. When you got good, you learned how to ease forward at the last second to roll them onto the runway.

    The engines were known to compressor stall in crosswinds. The wind blowing sideways across the intakes could interrupt the airflow. That's probably what you heard – the pilot maybe got a little carried away with the reversers and caused a compressor stall. Not really a big deal in that airplane.

  • Paul W. Luscher says:

    None here, really. Did fly Druk Air into Bhutan's only airport–certainly a sight, on final approach, to see land only, oh, two hundred feet or less under one wingtip, and about a thousand feet or more under the other..

  • It was 1979, I remember because of the fact it was my first commercial flight. I was flying into Minneapolis-St. Paul on the way to New York City. As we began to land there were large colorful explosions all around the plane — it felt like one imagined a WW2 bomber run would feel like. It turned out that we were landing over Metropolitan Stadium and there was a fireworks show taking place after that night's Minnesota Kicks game. Ahh youth — I thought that experience was pretty neat

    Also, does the goat prohibition go for Frontier airlines Airbus 319 with a picture of "Fritz" the Mountain Goat on the tail?

  • My wife traveled with a bunch of penguins walking around on the flight. In the USA on a domestic flight no less. The zoo was transporting the penguins on the plane, in the seating area.

  • I dunno…flying from Chicago to LA before jet travel so that it took 7 hours, we had to board from the field, I woke up with a terrible earache and my mother soothed me with, "Don't worry. Your uncle [we visited] is a doctor. He'll give you something for it." Does that count?

  • Prior to a flight from Las Vegas to Indianapolis, I was seated next to an enormous guy and his enormous wife (the guy was bigger than his wife). The guy should have been required to buy 2 seats, and he was 325 lbs., maybe more. I was seated next to the aisle by the guy. If I had been seated in the middle or by the window, I really don't think I could have gone through with it and not suffered a panic attack from lack of space. Anywho, the left arm rest at my seat could not be moved, but I could maneuver myself to where I basically had my right ass cheek in my seat and my left ass cheek in the aisle: the guy took up half of my seat. And, my right side was touching this guy from my knee up to my shoulder: it was impossible to not be touching the guy. Needless to say, the ride was pretty uncomfortable. The guy and his wife were actually pretty nice people, and maybe I should have asked to move.

    Another time, on a flight from the Caribbean back to the States, there was a kid, probably 3-4 years old sitting across the aisle from me that was completely hysterical: yelling and crying like somebody being tortured. I've never before seen a kid that wild and loud. The girl sitting next to the kid actually moved because the kid was so out of control. The kid had an endurance that was actually pretty impressive. I think it went on for like an hour and a half (I shit you not). Finally, the kid wore itself out and went to sleep. But, witnessing this kid was like sitting next to a mad man flipping out or listening to someone being tortured.

  • First time I flew Ariana to Kabul, you could smoke in the rear galley for a little baksheesh. Can't say I wasn't tempted, despite not being a smoker.

  • On my way from NYC to Raleigh/Durham to visit my future-wife-now-ex-heartstomper (she got involved with an effing dirty hippie panhandling outside a coffeeshop in Asheville, for the love of body wash), I almost bought it.
    We're flying in one of those mid-size planes, I dunno the model. In any case, I wake to hear that we're coming in for a landing. Please note that the weather, while warm, was pretty damn sweet: About 88 degrees, maybe 5-10 mph breezy/windy.
    As we descend, no indication of the fact that in a few short moments we will all be wondering at the fact that we will die among so many utter strangers.
    Heading toward the runway, maybe 500 ft. off the ground, we start swaying back y fortho. Nothing too extraordinary.
    As we continue to descend, the swaying becomes more pronounced, preventing us from touching down as early as an experience flier might expect, to the point that we are well past the point where the wheels have already touched down. First uh-oh.
    Second uh-oh? The back landing gear touches-nay-slams down, first on the left, then on the right, then at the same time. Like, a medium-sized jet dead-dropped from about 20 ft. Imeediately thereafter the front landing gear slam down even harder, like, throwing me fully against my seatbelt, almost giving me a taste of the seat in front of me.
    The uh-oh's turn to ohfuckshitfuckohshitchrisohshits when it dawns on me that I haven

  • when it dawns on me that I haven’t heard any thrusters, we don’t seem to have slowed much at all since we are no longer in the air. Cue the thrusters, although they don’t seem to do the trick since we are clearly going much faster than is normal at this stage of landing. Instead of significantly slowing, the motherfucing plane is motherfucking starting to fishtail down the runway, I shit ye not, so that, alternately, looking to my left and right, I can see all the way down the runway. Unreal. I’m riding in jet that is doing 180’s left and right, NASCAR velocity.
    Still hauling ass, taint, and balls, the plane is notsomuch in the staying straight down the runway given the tires are, oh, slipping all over, kind of like Burt Reynolds is driving and trying to flip a bitch. Which is why, gripping the everlovinghell out of my chair arms, I look to my right as the ass end of the plane swings out that’a’way to see huge chunks of turf flying past the window. Lots of them. Bear in mind I can’t imagine we are still zooming down the runway at what has to be over hundred miles an hour.
    At least we’ve stopped fishtailing since the turf off the side of the runway seems to allow the tires more grip and less smoky-meltiness! There are of course a chorus of gasps, whimpers, shrieks, et cetera going on ever since the fishtailing got WAY out of hand. Granted, they were somewhat drowned out by the screaming of the tires, so that's positive. Personally, I sitting there on a floatational suppository device unable to tell if I’m having a stroke, a paroxysmic-yet-constipatory bowel experience, or a debilitating panic attack.
    Suffice it to say we eventually glide to a halt, sideways, and looking out the right side of the plane the end of the runway is clearly visible, oh, 75 ft. away, and the thickly wooded and steep downslope about 20 ft. farther.
    The entire plane shuts all the way down to the fucking emergency lights as soon as we come to a complete halt, including the air conditioning. In the hour and twenty minutes we are forced to sit in an enclosed airplane full of nervous sweat and dime-to-tennis-ball-sized piss stains without AC, we are told that we must wait for the fire dept. to come get us lest the plane burst into flames from unseen fuel leaks.
    I’ve flown a few times since, but never have I walked past a cockpit with a thirty-something dude vainly trying to comfort a twenty-something girl in the copilot seat who, it is plain to see, realizes that she almost toasted about 120 people because she couldn’t, er, LAND THE FUCKING PLANE IN PERFECT FUCKING WEATHER WITHOUT CAUSING 120+ FUCKING CASES OF PTSD. ASShole! Grr.
    Those few times since are fading into the past, and based on the other stories here, in most cases it is not worth it if there are alternatives.
    Alsotoo, William Shatner wins. Always.
    Finally, fuck United Airlines. That's not even who ran the flight under discussion, but they are the worst fucking company ever. Ever.

  • Not a flight I was on, but my brother's ex-girlfriend's parents were on the one near Hawaii where part of the top peeled off like a sardine can.

    I think they got reimbursed for luggage "lost" from the overhead compartments.

    They don't fly anymore…..

  • Mark,

    I remember reading about that one. Everyone survived except the flight attendant who got sucked right out of the cabin, not having the benefit of a seat belt.

  • I'm not a foreign-oriented scholar, but I am married to one who does bitchin' field work in Siberia. Since we've been together, twice he has flown to Irkutsk on the same day that another plane en route there has crashed killing hundreds of people. That's always fun to sit around, waiting for him to find his way to an internet cafe and discover that I've been freaking out for 36 hours.

    I have flown Aeroflot. The trip from Moscow to O'Hare was fine and lovely (it's hard to complain when you are served smoked salmon and caviar in coach), but we arrived early and spent a couple hours circling Elgin, burning off fuel and waiting for a good August Tornado spawning thunderstorm to roll in before deciding to land. I seriously thought the plane was going to crash – we were blown around a lot by the wind, including sideways off the runway at one point. I'm not sure if the window seat was a good decision for this flight. Sometimes it's best not to know what's going on.

  • My sister did her fieldwork in Alabama. With you in Georgia, maybe you're doing your right of passage now….or maybe she never had hers.

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