Ghosts in the machine - Tales of haunted hangars and phantom pilots

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Whether you believe in them or not, tales of haunted hangars and aircraft abound in the aviation world. Flight International takes a spirited look at some of the stories that have chilled the industry

I didn't keep a diary in 1993, so I will never know how close I came to witnessing the events that reportedly happened just a few miles away on 13 June that year. It was Sunday morning and I was at home in Orange County, California, while most of my Flight International colleagues were in Paris covering the air show.

What I, and the rest of the world, did not yet know was that Donald "Deke" Slayton, one of the original Mercury "Seven" astronauts and a true test pioneer of The Right Stuff fame, had just died at his home 2,225km (1,200nm) away in Houston, Texas. Slayton, who succumbed to a brain tumour, died at 03:22 local time, with his wife Bobbie and daughter Stacey at his bedside.

Although one of the select group picked to be the USA's first astronauts, Slayton was at first prevented from going into space by a heart problem, and it was not until he was cleared for flight in the 1970s that he finally made it into orbit as the docking module pilot of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz project. Having celebrated his 51st birthday four months before the docking mission with the Soviet cosmonauts, he was then the oldest man to fly into space.

    
The notice of violation concerning Deke Slayton's aircraft, which was in a museum at the time

Back on Earth, Slayton later led the Shuttle approach and landing test programme before retiring from NASA in 1982. But retirement could not keep this ex-astronaut, Second World War bomber pilot and test pilot out of the air for long, and he developed an enthusiasm for the adrenalin-charged world of Formula One air racing. His chosen mount was a bright red, Art Williams-built 19ft (5.8m)-span monoplane dubbed "Stinger", with a 100hp (75kW) Continental 0-200 piston and the number "21" on the fuselage in black. Formerly flown to 18 US racing victories - including two national championships - by ace racer John Paul Jones, the Stinger was finally donated in the early 1990s by Slayton to an air racing museum in Nevada, never to fly again... or was it?

Orange County's John Wayne airport - at the centre of this strange tale - is tightly ringed by urban development and is one of the most noise-sensitive airfields anywhere in the world. Surrounded by a battery of 10 noise-monitoring stations (NMS), the airport's noise abatement office maintains a careful curfew that prevents any airliners from taking off before 07:00 Mondays to Saturdays, and 08:00 on Sundays. These same hours also mark the noise limitations for business and general aviation aircraft, which can operate for periods into the night as long as certain noise levels are not exceeded.

At 07:57 on 13 June 1993, while the curfew was still in place and commercial airliners were waiting impatiently for take-off clearance, a small red racing aircraft apparently took off, performed "various flight manoeuvres" according to reports, and immediately triggered the sensitive noise-monitoring systems into action.

NMS1, 0.75km from the runway localiser, recorded 90.4dBA, against a limit of 86.8dBA. NMS2, south of the departure path from runways 19 left and right, spiked at 90.9dBA (versus 86.9dBA) and NMS3, 1.3km away, registered 3.5dBA beyond the limit. The aircraft was then seen to continue in a slow climb to the west, outbound, and out of sight over the nearby Pacific.

Mystery aircraft

It is unclear whether air traffic control tried to make voice contact with the mystery aircraft, but what is known is that several witnesses reported the noisy, high-speed fixed-propeller aircraft to the airport's Noise Abatement Office. All reports, presumably linking the clearly visible "21" identifier with the unusual lines of the F1 racer, identified it as the US Federal Aviation Administration-registered N21X.

A notice of violation of the airport's General Aviation Noise Ordnances Section 2-1-30 was sent by certified mail on 28 June 1993 to the Houston address of the aircraft's registered owner, Donald Slayton. Here it was picked up by Slayton's astonished widow, who read: "As an initial violation, this letter is intended as a warning, to seek your voluntary compliance with the Noise Ordinance - absent any additional violation, no further referral of this matter will be made."

Bobbie Slayton told the FAA that not only had her husband died about five and a half hours (including local time differences between Texas and California) before the alleged incident, but that N21X was, at the time, stored in a museum several hundred miles away. Edward Maloney, who received the aircraft into his museum collection from Slayton all those years ago, says: "We've never flown it at all since Deke gave it to us. He was the last one ever to fly it." Contrary to other reports, Maloney says the engine has never been removed from the aircraft which, in the mid-1990s, was relocated to his Planes Of Fame museum in Chino, California, where it resides to this day.

Although Maloney believes the ghost flight incident is "someone having pipedreams", there appears to be more than the usual circumstantial evidence often attributed to paranormal occurrences. Kay Bender, executive director of the Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bicycle Museum in Sparta, Wisconsin - close to the farm where Slayton was born in 1924 - provided Flight International with a copy of the violation notice and says: "We have never questioned its authenticity." Although a few enquiries about the incident crop up from time to time, Bender says most visitors are interested in the stories about Slayton's proven lifetime achievements in space and in the air.

Beyond that, JWA's Noise Abatement Office changed its record-keeping process in the late 1990s and enquiries to the control tower revealed that, in common with most FAA sites, the strips recording movements from and to the airport are stored for only six months. So, like so many other apparent sightings and unusual events, Slayton's reported final flight remains a tantalising enigma.

 
© Frank Mormillo   
Witnesses claim to have seen Slayton's Williams Midget Racer, today preserved in the Planes of Flame Museum, take off hours after his death

Unusual timing

But if it was a prank, and someone risked the ire of the FAA to fake Slayton's aircraft, the timing was "highly unusual", says Loyd Auerbach, the San Francisco-based director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations. "Surely, the best time to pull something like this would have been while Slayton was still alive. At the time we know that only Bobbie, their daughter and the doctor knew he was dead." The Formula One type aircraft is also highly unusual at John Wayne, where most of the resident high-performance sports aircraft are well known and easily recognised.

Auerbach specialises in investigating unusual paranormal phenomena. His office voicemail promises a response as soon as "humanly, or paranormally, possible". He goes ghost-hunting all over the Bay area, but his recent focus has been on investigations into the spectacularly haunted US Navy retired aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet.

Dubbed the USA's most haunted ship, the Hornet was originally commissioned in 1943 and survived 59 air attacks during the war in the Pacific. Aircraft from her decks made the first air strikes against Tokyo since the Doolittle raid in 1942, and years later Hornet recovered the Apollo 11 and 12 astronauts.

During all this time, in peace and war, the Hornet proved a dangerous place and more than 300 sailors and airmen lost their lives on board. Not surprisingly, the ship has more than its fair share of spectral sightings, unexplained sounds, doors and hatches that move or close by themselves, and objects that fall off shelves or disappear altogether. Auerbach, whose study of the Hornet hauntings is chronicled in A Paranormal Casebook, says: "The more a place can 'replay' emotions or events, the more significant the level of haunting there seems to be."

In the ship's sick bay, Auerbach says,"we had a situation where my field device [a tool for detecting deviations in the local magnetic field] was being affected on command". In this situation, he says, the "ghost" - thought to be a medical officer - was unusually co-operative, and moved in and out of the field device "on demand".

Aircraft, like ships and even airfields, are likely places for such phenomena to be found because of the residual effects of human emotion, says Auerbach. "Pilots over the years can get pretty emotional about their aircraft. It's the same sort of emotion that people put into homes that are later haunted." He says the aircraft is the "nearest thing to land that holds on to information, and the more that happens on that land, the more ghostly the phenomena".

Apparitions seen

One of the best-known aircraft hauntings is the story of Eastern Airlines Flight 401, in which a perfectly serviceable Lockheed L-1011 crashed into the Florida Everglades late one night in December 1972 after the crew were distracted. Within weeks of the crash, apparitions of the flight's captain, Robert Loft, and flight engineer Don Repo were reported being seen on other aircraft in the Eastern fleet by bewildered and frightened crew members.

The four-month-old L-1011 had been carrying 163 passengers and 13 crew from New York's Kennedy airport to Miami International that fateful night. The flight had been routine until the approach into Miami, when the crew noticed that the landing gear indicator had not illuminated. After cycling the gear and failing to correct the problem, the crew elected to hold while trying to confirm that the issue was simply the indicator light itself.

Repo went into the avionics bay beneath the flightdeck to check whether the gear was down through a small viewing telescope, while Loft put the L-1011 on autopilot. But during attempts to remove the indicator light bulbs, it is thought the control column was nudged, altering the autopilot command and putting the aircraft into a gradual descent that was not noticed by the crew. The flight ended with a shallow impact into blacked-out swampland 34km (18.7 miles) from the end of Miami's runway 9 Left at a speed of about 200kt (365km/h). The impact killed 99 passengers and crew instantly, and two others died later.

Sightings, often by multiple witnesses, were reportedly traced to aircraft that had received salvaged parts from the crashed TriStar, and did not even stop when the writing up of such events was made a sacking offence. The incidents appeared to spread as parts from the crashed aircraft were moved into other fleets, but eventually petered out as early L-1011s were retired. In some incidents, the apparitions reportedly spoke to flight or cabin crew and would warn of impending problems. Not surprisingly, senior Eastern management held a dim view of the story, with the airline's chief executive, Frank Borman, describing the tale as a "load of crap". In later years, Borman also considered suing the makers of a 1978 film about the story, The Ghost of Flight 401.

A classic example of an aircraft haunting is that of an Avro Lincoln bomber at the UK's Cosford Aerospace Museum. Investigations followed sightings of an apparition in and around the Lincoln, and perplexing sounds - some of which were apparently recorded during an overnight vigil inside the aircraft by a BBC reporter and a paranormal investigator. Some of the sounds were later identified by ex-Lincoln crews as typical of those that would be caused by flightcrews either going through pre-flight checks or during a flight.

The RAF's Hendon Air Museum in London seems to host similar spirits in its Avro Lancaster S for Sugar. According to the aviation ghosts and myths section of the Paranormal Database (paranormaldatabase.com), a gunner has been observed sitting in one of the aircraft's gun turrets and the sounds of people working on the aircraft have been recorded late at night.

Other manifestations even appear to be loosely tied to particular airspaces. Residents living near the former RAF station at Biggin Hill, Kent, claim to have seen, and sometimes heard, a Supermarine Spitfire flying overhead. The phantom Spit is apparently best seen around January, with the 19th your best bet. See you in the bar at the Kings Arms if it's wet and overcast!