Sometimes, when you’re bolting through the sky in an aluminum capsule full of crying children and the occasional schnauzer, things can get dull. To relieve the tedium, some people read in-flight magazines, watch in-flight movies, or kick in-flight seats-in-front-of-them.
Not so, pilots. For the folks flying the plane, all that is mere child’s play; they’ve seen it all before. That’s why, to entertain themselves at 35,000 feet, some pilots have been known to engineer a laugh at their passengers’ expense. Considering that as many as 50% of adults who use commercial airlines are afraid of flying, wouldn’t you?
Here is a list of some of the top pranks ever played on airline passengers by the people they were trusting to get them back on the ground safely.
1. Alternate landing
It’s the most basic prank, because nobody would have a clue: Tell them you’re landing in one place, and actually land somewhere else! That’s what one American Eagle pilot did in 2008 on a flight from New York to Cleveland. The plane was already behind schedule, so the pilot told the passengers, just for kicks, that the flight was being diverted to Toledo. Then he landed in Cleveland. Boy, were they confused when they found out they were exactly where they were supposed to be, only late.
2. Bathroom break
What do you do when you’re flying a 747 and have to take a leak? Well, if you lack imagination, you just put the plane on autopilot. Otherwise, you can do what one pilot on a prop plane in Scotland reportedly did: Back slowly out of the cockpit unraveling a ball of string with each hand and ask the nearest passengers to hold the strings—tightly, please—while you use the lavatory. Then come back, take the strings off their hands, and terrify everyone by shrugging and dropping them.
Do put the plane on autopilot first, though.
3. Waiting for Pilot
Flying a plane is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it—preferably someone random and irate from one of the back seats. Word has it that a captain with what used to be British European Airlines would occasionally sit in the back with the passengers for a while before the flight and pretend to be waiting for the pilot. People would get antsy and frustrated, and at some point, he’d declare loudly that if the pilot didn’t show up soon, he’d fly the plane himself. Then he’d get up and do just that—often pretending to have no idea how to operate the controls.
Thankfully, as far as we know, only real pilots have decided to engage in such shenanigans.
4. Cloudy waters?
Nothing says “Gaa! What’s that?!?” like a toilet full of dry ice. This prank was played on a newbie flight attendant, but it could just as easily have been one of the passengers. The pilot decided it might be fun to put dry ice in the plane’s commodes. When the ill-fated flight attendant discovered unusual vapors coming out of the lavatory, the pilot took one look and cried, “Oh s***! Cloud smoke!” and ran off.
5. Sleeping room
April Fool’s Day ads are the best ever, and even though this one wasn’t a pilot’s fault, it did target air travelers. Canadian airline Westjet once put out a statement offering, for a small fee, extra sleeping room—in the overhead luggage compartments. Apparently there was even a picture with it, showing a passenger happily sleeping in the luggage bin.
Still, the business class compartments were probably cushier.
6. Monkey business
Most of the time, you don’t see who’s actually flying the plane. You just assume they’re human.
However, one American Airlines pilot reportedly put this to the test, donning part of a gorilla suit for the airline’s televised landings and shocking the passengers, who would just see a large primate’s arm fiddling with the controls.
It’s hard to say who would be more offended by this prank—the FAA or the SPCA.
7. Just for laughs
Half the fun of having control of the airplane’s speaker system is being able to abuse it. Pilots have a thing about making clever comments over the intercom before, during, and after the flight for the amusement of the passengers, or just themselves. Usually, travelers can tell when the captain is kidding. But when the public address says, “Please turn off your cellular phones, computers, video games or any other electronic device that might interfere with the captain’s pacemaker”, one has to wonder.
Particularly since there is the occasional check pilot who shorts out the plane’s navigational systems for a lark. On a Jet Airways Delhi-Mumbai flight in 2009, the check pilot took out a circuit breaker at 3,700 feet and knocked out the flight director indications and the ground-proximity warning system. Supposedly, he was just checking to see that the crew knew what to do in such a situation. Based on the fact that no one clocked him on the head for incredibly stupid behavior, they didn’t.
8. Blind luck
One of the classic pranks to play on passengers, apparently, is convincing them that not only don’t you know where you’re going, you can’t actually see. Several pilots have been known to put on dark glasses and hold out a cane while visibly making their way to the cockpit. No worries, that’s what the navigator’s there for. Wait—wasn’t he fired for putting dry ice in the lavatories?
9. Bonus: Monty Python, Bored Pilots Sketch