The American Airlines flight from LAX to DFW did not go as planned. Emerson Collins, an actor from Los Angeles, remembers the noises started before the plane even took off: strange grumblings, a weird sound like somebody was on the verge of throwing up. They were coming from the plane’s loudspeaker. Flight attendants assured passengers it was a technical mixup. It was presumed that once the flight got underway, the noises would cease. Instead, they continued for hours: weird guttural moans and grunts projected over the intercom, apparently coming from nowhere.
“These sounds started over the intercom before takeoff and continued throughout the flight. They couldn’t stop it, and after landing still had no idea what it was,” Collins later tweeted with a video of the flight, which subsequently went viral, racking up nearly 5,000 retweets and over 30,000 likes.
In an interview with Gizmodo, Collins characterized the noises as a cross between “explosive diarrhea, vomiting, and a weird, vaguely sexual moan.” Having listened to the noises, this writer would add “bad impression of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster” to that list. In general, the noises are weird, uncomfortable, and resistant to easy explanation. You can listen for yourself in the video below.
According to Collins, flight attendants and the pilots were just as stumped as the passengers as to what was going on. The internet has also remained puzzled: online listeners have speculated that maybe the plane’s speaker system might have been hacked or that someone on the flight had been pranking the other passengers. But then, walk yourself through it: how would something like that even happen?
Collins told Gizmodo that, during the flight, he tried to get to the bottom of things himself. He even got up and poked around to investigate whether another passenger had somehow managed to hijack the plane’s speaker system: “I was convinced that someone on our flight was having a great time,” he said, explaining that he had been “fully walking the aisles like Nancy Drew” trying to find the groaner. However, he ultimately realized that someone couldn’t be “making these sounds audibly, or the people around them would notice.” Stumped, Collins returned to his seat and half-expected there to be some sort of big “climax” for the flight’s landing. No culminating moment arrived, though. The noises just stopped, and everybody got off the plane.
Even weirder, it appears this isn’t the first time that the moaning phantom of the skies has haunted an American Airlines flight: the Los Angeles Times reports at least two other recent incidents in which flights were plagued by weird barfing noises. Another website counts a total of five incidents, all of them involving LAX for some reason.
When reached for comment by Gizmodo, American Airlines claimed that the groans from the Sept. 6 flight were caused by a “mechanical issue”—as if that explains anything:
The PA [Public Address] systems onboard our aircraft are hardwired and there is no external access. Following the initial report, our maintenance team thoroughly inspected the aircraft and the PA system and determined the sounds were caused by a mechanical issue with the PA amplifier, which raises the volume of the PA system when the engines are running. Our team is reviewing the additional reports.
That’s all fine, but it doesn’t explain why the noises being amplified were those of a person losing their lunch.
Curious about whether someone could have remotely hijacked the plane’s PA system, Gizmodo reached out to Gary Kessler, a cybersecurity expert who has spoken about security in aviation systems previously. Kessler said that he didn’t have enough information about the incident to speak definitively about it, but found the airline’s claim that its system was hack-proof to be wanting.
“I am always suspicious when someone says, ‘The system is hardwired and can’t be breached.’ That translates to ‘At least part of the system is hardwired and we can’t think of a way right now in which it can be reached.’ Everything’s hardwired at some point, until it’s connected to something that’s not!” he said.
Collins says that American Airlines didn’t reach out to him after the flight to clarify what had happened, so the whole thing remains a mystery—or, as he puts it, an “immersive in-flight entertainment experience unlike any other,” albeit one that he never wants to go through again.