Spooky Skies

Just in time for Halloween, a collection of aviation mysteries

spider sculpture
Spiders at 30,000 Feet: A Louise Bourgeouis sculpture outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Brian Colson

On February 27, 1920, test pilot Rudolph W. “Shorty” Schroeder of the Army's McCook Field in Ohio set a new world altitude record, taking his LePere biplane fitted with a General Electric turbo-supercharger to 33,114 feet. He almost didn't make it back. During the flight, writes Edith Dodd Culver in Talespins: A Story of Early Aviation Days, Schroeder’s oxygen supply failed, he passed out, and his eyelids froze to his eyeballs. As his aircraft plummeted toward Earth, Schroeder regained consciousness in time to land safely. And once on the ground, he had a strange tale to tell.

“He flew through an area more than seven miles [sic] above the earth where there was a cloud bank of tiny creatures, each about the size of the point of a pencil," writes Culver. "They clung to the wings and crawled into the cockpit, and even squirmed in behind the instrument panel. These creatures, which looked like spiders, were still alive when he landed, so he sent some of them to the zoology department at Yale University. The professors there said yes, there are spiders in the sky…. Perhaps these were the same creatures described by some early aviators as cloud worms, which they sometimes found on the wings and in the cockpit as well as in their hair and ears.”

We contacted Yale University to see if arachnids actually swarm the skies. Professor Oswald Schmitz replied to us by email, “This is a case of baby spiders ballooning—basically they let out a strand of spider silk, and that catches in the wind and carries them away from their birth site. It is a common dispersal strategy. Depending on air currents and wind speeds, they can travel quite high in the atmosphere and very long distances. So it is not an incredible event at all.”

Maybe not incredible to you, Dr. Schmitz. Culver reports that Schroeder “suffered from the effects of this harrowing flight into the stratosphere for the rest of his life.”

007’s Haunted 747

(imdb.org)

During the filming of the 2006 James Bond flick Casino Royale, reports began to circulate of a haunted aircraft. The culprit was the non-flyable Boeing 747-200B used in the film, an aircraft that was part of British Airways’ fleet for more than 20 years.

“Scared Casino Royale workers fear the 747 is protected by the spirit of a passenger who died from a heart attack on board,” claimed MI6-hq.com, a Web site devoted to all things Bond.

“They say the lights and warning systems have come on during filming—even though the jet has no power. Crew also claim to have seen the woman’s ghost gliding up and down the aisles.” Supposedly a Portuguese woman traveling from Singapore to London died of a heart attack while trying to attract the attention of a flight attendant.

The aircraft is owned by and maintained at Dunsfold Aerodrome at Cranleigh, Surrey, and can be rented by film companies through Aces-High Aviation. Sadly, the ghost story isn't true, says Caroline Woodley of Aces-HIgh, although she generously allows that "an empty 747, sitting in splendid isolation on a private airfield is a spooky thing."

Photo: You know it's a James Bond flick when the bodies begin piling up. Screen grab from Casino Royale.

The Reluctant UFO Expert

(NASM)

You spend years training to become an astronaut and what happens? You become labeled “a world-renowned UFO expert.” Here’s how it came to pass: During the 1965 Gemini IV mission, astronaut James McDivitt glanced out the window of the spacecraft, and saw something white, shaped like a beer can with a pencil sticking out of it. He was able to quickly take two pictures before the spacecraft rotated away from the object.

McDivitt had no idea of the object’s scale; “it could’ve been the size of the Empire State Building for all I knew,” he said in a 1999 oral history conducted by Doug Ward. But he theorized it was probably a piece of ice that had fallen off the spacecraft, or perhaps a piece of detached Mylar.

No objects showed up in the printed photographs (McDivitt hadn’t had time to focus the camera). But when the EVA film was developed, the technician “picked out one that looked like a bunch of spacecraft…. They were disc-shaped things with a tail. I think there were three or four of them in an echelon formation.”

But when McDivitt looked at the photograph, he realized it wasn’t a spacecraft at all. “[It] was a reflection of the bolts in the windows,” he recalls. “The windows were made up of about three or four or five panes of glass, so that if one got broken we still had some pressure integrity. And these little things, when the Sun shined on them right, they’d multiply the images off the different panes. And I’m quite sure that that’s what this thing was. But anyway, I became a world-renowned expert in UFOs. Unfortunately.”

Photo: Jim McDivitt (right) and Ed White with a model of their Gemini capsule.

Fear of Floating

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(NASM)

In the spring of 1909, Britons began spotting zeppelins everywhere they looked. As Dan Vergano wrote in our 2009 article “Fear of Floating,” “Zeppelins had been flying for nine years, but this was the first time one had been spotted over England. Designed by Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, the rigid airships were marvels of engineering…. But they had also proven fragile, skittish, and prone to catastrophe: Of the first 10 built, six crashed or burned. By 1909, only two, LZ 3 and LZ 4, had enjoyed some success. LZ 3 made 45 short hops totaling 2,733 miles, while in 1908, LZ 4 made a 12-hour trip of more than 600 miles. But had one really flown from the zeppelin hangar at Friedrichschafen, Germany, to Peterborough, England, and back—a trip of 1,036 miles?”

The short answer is “no.” While the sightings–more 49 in May 1909 alone—went on for four months, reported by several hundred people throughout the United Kingdom, they finally began to subside.

Vergano offers several explanations: Some historians believe zeppelin mania was started by newspapers eager for more readers. Others felt any airship “sightings” were a simple misidentification of Venus, shining brightly in the night sky. And there were copycats: “Pranksters released six-foot-wide fire balloons to spark airship reports,” writes Vergano. “And the Northampton Mercury reported a hoax involving an airship model used for advertising motorcars.”

Photo: The Graf Zeppelin over London, ca. 1930.

The Mystery of Flight 19

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(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

You remember the 1977 blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The story begins with French scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and his American interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) arriving in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert, where they find five pristine Grumman TBM Avengers sitting in the sand. As the numbers are read off the engine blocks, Laughlin becomes confused. “Tell me something—what the hell is happening here?” he calls out. “It’s Flight number 19,” someone replies. “19 what?” Laughlin asks. “It’s that training mission from the Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale,” says the man. “They were doing target runs on an old hulk.” “Who flies crates like these any more?” asks Laughlin. “No one,” comes the reply. “These planes were reported missing in 1945.”

Director Steven Spielberg used an actual aviation accident for the opening scene of his iconic movie. Fourteen airmen and their five aircraft disappeared on December 5, 1945, during a navigation training flight. Accident investigators speculated that the flight leader may have become disoriented, and the aircraft crashed into the sea after running out of fuel. The five airplanes were never located. Eerily, a PBM patrol aircraft, launched at 7:30 p.m., December 5 to search for the squadron, was not seen or heard from after take-off, reports Naval History & Heritage Command.

Photo: Screen grab from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Lucky Minnie

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(Courtesy H G Mukhopadhyay)

Is it true that animal mascots bring good luck to their squadrons? Consider this tale. “There was both sorrow and foreboding in the sultry air when Yankee airmen gathered in the cemetery of a big Pacific base,” notes the (apparently) anonymously written book 11th Bomb Group (H): The Grey Geese. “They were saying good-bye to a comrade who had flown with them on many a perilous bombing mission over Japanese territory, but who now would fly no more.”

And who was the object of this purple yet tender prose? Minnie the Mongoose, who the men of the 11th had found near their barracks during a stopover at Hawaii, while en route to Saipan, in July 1944. The men fed her canned milk with an eyedropper, and later flew her to the Marianas with them.

Minnie took to flying, reported the Los Angeles Times on January 7, 1945, resting comfortably on the flight deck during missions. She did lose consciousness when the bomber reached an altitude of 20,000 feet, but “the crew quickly revived her with oxygen.” The crew was so taken with their mascot that they named their B-24 the Flying Mongoose.

The queen of the air survived flak from the enemy, oxygen deprivation, and a misguided makeover (fearful that she would be mistaken for a rat, the crew bleached her fur with peroxide and tied a bright red ribbon around her neck). Perhaps it was inevitable that Minnie would die on the ground: On Christmas Eve, the little mongoose was run over by a jeep.

At Minnie’s funeral, “platoons of soldiers march to the cemetery behind the victim’s body,” says the 11th Bomb Group. “The rifles of a firing squad crashed in tribute. The solemn of taps followed, while bomber crew members stood by, silent and sober-faced.”

The day after Minnie died, reported the Los Angeles Times on March 6, 1945, the Flying Mongoose was scheduled to fly a mission. Its engines stuttered on the runway, and the flight was cancelled. Two days later, the bomber left the base on a mission. “The target was reached, the bombs dropped and the plane headed for home,” notes the Los Angeles Times. But the B-24 had multiple engine failures, and 15 miles from their base, the Flying Mongoose crashed into the sea. The pilot, copilot, and bombardier were killed; the rest of the crew escaped and were rescued. Coincidence? You decide.