All jetliners accumulate oily residue near their exhausts. It’s rarely a serious concern, being as it is mostly carbon that can’t be burned any further, but the vagaries of air travel in the jet age are such that planes can’t be washed often. It takes an eight-hour layover at an airport with the right facilities, meaning that hardworking airliners are lucky to get a bath once every two months.

Aircrew and ground personnel are sometimes known to scrawl graffiti in the residue, much like a merry prankster wiping the mud off a dirty car to write “wash me.” It’s frowned upon, obviously, and much more difficult in the post-9/11 era, but earlier aircraft often went aloft with a variety of crude or humorous temporary tattoos inscribed where (hopefully) no passengers could see them.

In 1979, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar belonging to Midwestern Airlines (MSN 1251, registration N983MW) had one such message discovered by its ground crew at 6:32 AM during routine preflight checks. The message, “LOOK OUT BELOW,” earned eyerolls from those who saw it. The pilot for the flight, Capt. Laudner Bellow, found it even less amusing: he’d been known as “Lookout” Bellow in his years flying Linebacker raids over North Vietnam. He angrily ordered the crew to scrub off the message before departing for Baltimore.

On its final approach to Baltimore/Washington International, a cargo door on N983MW blew open, scattering items from the cargo compartment over a wide area. The plane landed safely, and the incident was traced to a stress fracture in the locking latches. Despite some suspicion of Capt. Bellow for sabotage, the incident was quickly forgotten and N983MW was repaired and returned to service.

Six months later, another message appeared at around noon just before a trip to Chicago: “MIND THE BUMP.” The ground crew chief at Baltimore, Ernest “Bumpy” Washington, Jr., took the apparent joke in good humor but noted it in the log. That afternoon, N983MW encountered severe supercell thunderstorms midway through its flight, causing violent turbulence that injured three passengers whose seatbelts had not been properly secured. There was no question of “Bumpy” Washington having cause the turbulence, but rumors began to swirl among Midwestern Airlines staff about N983MW.

The situation was not improved when, a month later, “OUT OF GAS” appeared written in the residue that had accumulated since N983MW’s wash after its Chicago accident. The crew, superstitious, insisted on a full preflight check, which uncovered nothing awry. The delay forced a temporary route reassignment, and as a relatively new jet N983MW was reassigned to fly the LAX-Honolulu route for a month. On its first flight, Hurricane Fico forced the aircraft to circle for hours before landing, and the captain estimated on touching down at Honolulu International (on two engines, to save fuel) with less than ten minutes of powered flight time remaining.

It becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction at this point, as it had become well-established around the Midwestern Airlines watercooler that N983MW was cursed and its misfortunes predicted by preflight graffiti. No doubt many pranksters took it upon themselves to add to the legend with their own scrawls, and jittery crew chiefs marked down patterns that may have, in retrospect, been mere coincidence. Midwestern, for its part, simply tried to ignore the issue and scheduled M983MW for more cleanings than usual.

What is known is that on June 2, 1981, the message “GOODBYE” appeared near N983MW’s tail. The captain and flight crew refused to board the aircraft, prompting Midwestern to fire them all for insubordination. Three other crews also refused and were written up for insubordination before the staff of N946MW out of Detroit agreed to swap. The flight, a short hop across the Chesapeake to Richmond, was widely known as a milk run.

N983MW disappeared from radar twenty minutes into its flight, and the first debris washed ashore several hours later. The accident, along with another on September 22 of that year, caused a fatal loss of confidence in the TriStar as an airframe, leading to slashed production orders and the eventual withdrawal of Lockheed from the commercial aviation business.

No cause for the crash was ever determined.

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