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.

Inspired by this news story.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

We called ourselves ‘Supprimerlesens,’ which was a bit of an in-joke. Pierre, the lead developer, liked to say that video games subsumed and deleted the senses, so we slapped together the French phrase ‘supprimer le sens’ with no spaces.

It was a very innovative game, and a special processor in the arcade board allowed it to do amazing things with vector graphics…scaling and motion unlike anything else at the time, and more vectors on the screen at once than even dedicated vector systems. We combined it with a series of sophisticated, high-resolution sprites that formed the title, backgrounds, and some gameplay elements. It was all very abstract and geometrical, which is why we called it ‘Pythagoras.’

Of course we were our own testers at first. Everything was going well, and we had a working mocked-up arcade cabinet with schematics for mass-production and several interested arcade companies. Then we brought in outside testers from a local university. One of them had a grand mal epileptic seizure after just a few moments of gameplay. All those flashing lights and spinning colors…

The testers who weren’t susceptible to seizures loved the game, so we modified it and removed the backgrounds. We thought that was enough, but within a month the testers began suffering from a variety of neurological side-effects. Amnesia, insomnia, nightmares, night terrors…even a suicide. That should have been the end of things, but the French DGSE signals intelligence unit learned of this and bought us out. We produced a limited run of 10-12 machines, which were each modified by the DGSE before being distributed to ‘test markets’ in the United States.

Washington State, Maine, Montana, the upper peninsula of Michigan…we were told that the DGSE was going to iron out the bugs while using the game cabinets as dead drops for field agents. We beleived them, or told ourselves that we did…we were young, and ambitious, remember. The first murder-suicides put an end to all that.