Claim: A commercial airline pilot who accidentally locked himself out of the cockpit had to hack down the door with a fire axe to regain entry
Examples: [Collected on the Internet, 1999]
Inside, we settled into the seats with 80 or 90 other passengers and waited. And waited some more. Finally, the pilot's voice came over he loudspeaker. 'We're all ready to go ladies and gentlemen. However, we've been waiting for the copilot, and he still hasn't arrived. Since we've already waited so long, we're just going to be flying without a copilot today.'
There was a nervous buzz through the cabin. He
'If any of you feel uncomfortable with this, feel free to disembark now and Air Zimbabwe will put you on the next available flight to Hwange.'
Here he paused.
'Unfortunately, we are not sure when that will be. But rest assured, I have flown this route hundreds of times, we have clear blue skies, and there are no foreseeable problems.'
No one in Plattner's group, doubtful as they might have been, wanted to wait any longer at Kariba for a plane that may or may not materialize, so they stayed onboard for the one-hour flight.
Once the aircraft reached cruising altitude, the pilot came on the loudspeaker again...
'Ladies and gentlemen. I am going to use the bathroom. I have put the plane on auto-pilot and everything will be fine. I just don't want you to worry.'
That said, he came out of the cockpit, fastened the door open with a rubber band to a hook on the wall. Then he went to the bathroom.
Plattner continues: Suddenly, we hit a patch of turbulence. Nothing much, the cabin just shook a little for a moment. But the rubber band snapped off with a loud 'ping!' and went sailing down the aisle. The door promptly swung shut. A moment later, the pilot came out of the bathroom. When he saw the closed door, he stopped cold. I watched him from the back and wondered what was wrong. The stewardess came running up, and together they both tried to open the door. But it wouldn't budge.
It slowly dawned on me that our pilot was locked out of The cockpit. Cockpit doors lock automatically from the inside to prevent terrorists from entering. Without a copilot, there was no one to open the door from the inside. By now, the rest of the passengers had become aware of the problem, and we watched the pilot, horrified. What would he do?
After a moment of contemplation, the pilot hurried to the back of the plane. He returned holding a big axe. Without ceremony, he proceeded to chop down the cockpit door. We were rooted to our seats as we watched him.
Once he managed to chop a hole in the door, he reached inside, unlocked the door, and let himself back in. Then he came on the loudspeaker, his voice a little shakier this time than before. 'Ah, ladies and gentlemen, we just had a little problem there, but everything is fine now. We have plans to cover every eventuality, even pilots getting locked out of their cockpits. So relax and enjoy the rest of the flight!"
Origins: In the wake of the
The version of the legend quoted in the example block above was circulated on the Internet during the summer of 1999, and few readers had reason to doubt its truthfulness: it was a first-person account reported by travel writer Gaby Plattner in the Chicago Tribune, a respected print journalism outlet. But soon afterwards it became clear that, in true urban legend fashion, the article's author had reported as her own experience a story she'd merely heard from someone else, and none of the events she described had happened to, or been witnessed by, her.
The following statement comes from the apology Gaby Plattner subsequently extended to Air Zimbabwe:
Quite possibly that book was folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand's Curses! Broiled Again!, which had been published a full ten years prior to Plattner's account and included the following legend description:
But both attendants are at the rear of the cabin, and a beverage cart is blocking the aisle, making it impossible for them to go to the forward lavatory.
Since it is the middle of the flight, the captain decides to check on the copilot himself. He activates the automatic pilot, steps out of the cockpit and closes the door behind him.
Just then, the copilot emerges from the lavatory. Both of them realize with dismay that neither has the key to the cockpit door. The two pilots have to smash the door with a fire axe in front of the horrified passengers.
"We do not keep axes on our aircraft. For what purpose?"
"We never fly aircraft without the full complement of cockpit or cabin crew. The distance between Kariba and Hwange is so short that our pilots fly manually; rarely would they fly on auto pilot for that distance." Mwenga complained that the article, which has been circulated widely through the internet in the last two months, had caused untold harm to the airline.
As for how old the legend of the locked-out pilot is, one of our oldest versions was contributed by an American Airlines pilot who remembered hearing it in 1978. Another reader, the former editor of a flying magazine, recalled hearing the story in 1968 when it was told of a hapless pilot of a
Too much about this legend rang false at the time for it to be taken seriously by those inclined to believe it, at least back in the
These protocols eliminate the use of keys for entering the
News accounts described an incident involving a pilot's being unable to
Barbara "no axe-ident" Mikkelson
Last updated: 2 April 2015
Anderson, Rick. "Next Time You Fly, Make Sure the Pilot Has an Axe." Seattle Times. 30 December 1987. Brunvand, Jan Harold. Curses! Broiled Again! New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. ISBN 0-393-30711-5 (pp. 48-50). Edgell, Mike. "Pilot Locked Out of Cockpit After Bathroom Break." Ottawa Citizen. 30 August 2006 (p. A1). Mwenga, David. "No Truth of the Story." Chicago Tribune. 18 July 1999 (Travel; p. 18). Plattner, Gaby. "Choppy Skies: A White-Knuckle Flight on Air Zimbabwe." Chicago Tribune. 6 June 1999 (Travel; p. 18). Smith, Paul. The Book of Nastier Legends. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. ISBN 0-7102-0573-2 (p. 63). Africa News Service. "'I Thought Air Zim Story Was True,' Says Author." 8 August 1999. Agence France-Presse. "Journalist Admits Stupidity in Cockpit and Axe Story." 8 August 1999. Zimbabwe Standard. "US Paper Apologises to Air Zimbabwe." 1 August 1999. The Big Book of Urban Legends. New York: Paradox Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56389-165-4 (p. 150).