Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Flight into nowhere

Ever heard of Pan Am Flight 914?

The story goes that on July 2, 1955, Flight 914 -- a Boeing 727 -- took off on a routine run from New York to Miami, with 57 passengers on board.  Everything was going normally until the airplane got close to its destination.  As it was making its initial descent into Miami Airport, the aircraft suddenly disappeared from radar.

There was a massive search effort.  At the time of its disappearance, it was over the Atlantic Ocean -- actually near one corner of the infamous Bermuda Triangle -- so ships, planes, and helicopters were deployed to look for wreckage and (hopefully) survivors.

No trace of the airplane or the people on it were found.

But on March 9, 1985 -- a bit less than thirty years after it took off -- a Boeing 727, coming seemingly out of nowhere, landed in Caracas, Venezuela.  From its tail numbers, it was the missing plane.  Witnesses to its landing reported seeing astonished faces plastered to the windows, apparently aghast at where they were.  But before anyone could deplane, the pilot maneuvered the plane back onto the runway and took off.

This time, apparently for good.  No one has seen the plane, any of the crew, or the 57 passengers since.

[Image courtesy of photographer Peter Duijnmayer and the Creative Commons]

Flight 914 has become a popular staple of the "unsolved mysteries" crowd, and has featured in various books and television shows of the type you see on the This Hasn't Been About History For A Long Time Channel.  Explanations, if you can dignify them with that name, include time slips and/or portals, alien abduction, and the government secretly kidnapping the people on the flight and putting them into suspended animation for thirty years, for some unspecified but undoubtedly nefarious purpose.

There's just one problem with all of this.

None of it actually happened.

Pan Am Flight 914 is a hoax, but one that for some reason refuses to die.  You'll run into various iterations of the claim (the one I linked in the first line of this post is only one of hundreds of examples), all of which have the same basic story but differ in the details -- the number of passengers, the dates of departure and arrival, and so on.  (One site I saw claimed that the flight didn't land until 1992.)  But if you take all of those variations on the tale of the disappearing airplane, and track them backwards, you find out that the whole thing started with...

... The Weekly World News.

I should have known.  There's a rule of thumb analogous to "All roads lead to Rome," which is "All idiotic hoaxes lead to The Weekly World News."  For those of you Of A Certain Age, you will undoubtedly remember this tabloid as the one in the grocery store checkout line that had headlines like, "Cher Gives Birth To Bigfoot's Baby."  They also are the ones that created the recurring character of Bat Boy:

This spawned literally dozens of stories in The Weekly World News, my favorite of which was that a time traveler had come back from the future and told people that Bat Boy eventually becomes president.  The best part is that they call him "President Boy."

Me, I'm in favor.  Given some of the potential choices we've got in 2024, Bat Boy couldn't do much worse.

Bat Boy has also been the basis for countless pieces of fan fiction and a PS 5 game, was the inspiration for the monster in the truly terrifying X Files episode "Patience," and is the main character -- I shit you not -- in a Broadway musical.

But I digress.

The fact that Pan Am Flight 914 came from the same source as Bat Boy, the underwater crystal pyramids of Atlantis, and a coverup involving a mass burial of aliens in Uganda should immediately call the claim into question, but for some reason, it doesn't.  Woo-woo websites, books, and television shows still feature the flight as one of the best-documented examples of a mysterious disappearance, even though Pan Am itself has confirmed that Flight 914 never happened and the whole thing was made up.

Of course, that's what they would say.  *suspicious single eyebrow-raise*

What amazes me is that even though a minimal amount of snooping around online would be enough to convince you that the whole story is a fabrication, the websites claiming it's true far outnumber the ones debunking it.  Further illustrating the accuracy of the quote -- of uncertain origin, but often misattributed to Mark Twain -- that "a lie can go halfway around the world while the truth is still lacing up its boots."


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