July 20, 1970
The favor was strange, but simple enough. Still, as Tom pulled up on the throttle, glancing quickly to his right at the body bag belted into the copilot’s seat, he shuddered almost imperceptibly. The whole process had initially seemed so clinical: fly the body from Salt Lake City, where the deceased had lived, to Las Vegas, where the funeral would be held, as a favor to a mortuary whose account he worked on. It was an odd request for the CPA (aviation was his hobby-turned-passion, not his career), but the flight was only a few hours long. As an admitted workaholic, he knew that the time in the air would be relaxing. He didn’t know the specifics of why it wasn’t possible to put the body on a commercial flight, but he hadn’t asked, either – Tom preferred to mind his own business.
There wasn’t room for a coffin in the back seat of his Cessna 210, so instead, the corpse was zipped into a body bag, and Tom was transporting one very cold, very silent passenger. He tried to avoid looking too often; his father had died when he was young, and ever since the open-casket funeral, dead bodies made him feel intensely unsettled—had it really even been his father that day? The face had been tight and waxy, like a fraternal twin that resembled Tom’s father, but still some of the proportions were wrong.
Having made the flight dozens of times before, Tom knew that he was approaching the city. The sky outside was pale gray, streaked with only remnants of a fading, inky blue. A hazy glow behind the distant mountains indicated that soon the horizon would be black. Tom strained to see any sign of city lights in the unnatural twilight stillness then grabbed the radio, knowing it was time to descend.
“Las Vegas Approach, Cessna One-Six-Nine-Two X-Ray, 20 miles north of Mormon Mesa, VOR, eighteen-thousand feet,” he said, then paused, waiting. The only response was the steady hum of the engine. “Las Vegas approach, One-Six-Nine-Two X-Ray, over,” he repeated, more slowly, chewing and enunciating each word. Again, no reply, not even the crackle of empty airwaves. Third time’s the charm, he thought, and once again hailed approach. Nothing. His radio, it seemed, had picked an extremely inconvenient time to die. Still, he had no other options; it was time to descend.
He made the proper adjustments on the instruments and continued on toward the city, trying to block the memories of his father’s long-distant funeral from his mind. He remembered sitting in a chair in the corner of the funeral home parlor, his legs dangling over the edge as he silently watched his mother dab her eyes with a tissue and exchange hugs with people he’d never seen before . . . after his father’s illness, had they put him in a black body bag too?
Although he commanded himself not to look, his head turned quickly to stare once more at the bag sitting upright in the passenger seat. As he did, the plane dipped wildly, the result of, as any flight manual would say, “irregular fluctuations of air”―something Tom knew well and normally wouldn’t have concerned himself with. But tonight, in the suffocating stillness of the plane, the turbulence made him shake long after the plane resumed its smooth pace. After the funeral, the house that young Tom and his mother shared had been filled with this same stillness. He had often sat at his small desk and stared out the window, waiting for his father to return home from what must have been simply a long business trip. The body in the funeral parlor couldn’t have been his father, Tom used to think. It didn’t even look like him. Surely it was all a mistake and someday he’d come home, and Tom’s mother would understand why he never spoke about his father’s death (because, of course, he couldn’t have died). Then she’d stop saying, “Tommy, it’s okay to talk about your father. It’s okay to be sad.”
The last of the dusky light had faded, leaving Tom and the unbreathing passenger together in the blackness, thousands of feet above the ground. He still couldn’t see the pinpricks of light that indicated he was nearing the city that never slept, but experience told him that within minutes, they would appear all at once out of the bleak desert. Sure enough, only moments later, his searching eyes seized on millions of glowing white-and-yellow dots on the unseen ground below. Relief instantly engulfed him. What if he hadn’t been able to find the city in the dark? Someone might have found a plane crash in the desert, two corpses—one already in a body bag—strapped inside.
Despite his relief, his inability to contact approach left him in a predicament: he was descending, he had no choice, but he still hadn’t been given permission. Impatiently, he grabbed the radio again, snapping out his information. He closed his eyes in grateful relief tinged with surprise as the radio crackled to life and the response came: “Cessna One-Six-Nine-Two X-Ray, Las Vegas Approach, go ahead.”
Per protocol, Tom responded. “Las Vegas Approach, Cessna One-Six-Nine-Two X-Ray, 50 miles north of Las Vegas, landing Las Vegas.”
A low moan pierced the normally-soothing hum of the engine. It started out soft, swelling and growing in intensity until, had the plane been on the ground and the engine switched off, it would have been loud as a yell. The hair on Tom’s arms bristled, and in a moment of terrifying clarity, he realized that the moan was not mechanical and definitely not his own. The only other option was the unknown passenger strapped in the chair next to him. He whirled around, half-expecting to see the body encased in the bag writhing against its confines. It sat as still as before, but as Tom stared, eyes wide, he thought he saw the bag pucker slightly around the spot where the head was.
Panicking, he clutched at his seatbelt, intent on unlatching the passenger door and pushing the body outside. Instinctively he knew, without a sliver of doubt, that the unnatural moan was coming from the body. Logically, he knew the consequences of ridding himself of the passenger would be disastrous: what would he tell the grief-stricken family when he arrived at the Las Vegas airport? That he’d shoved the body of their loved one from his plane somewhere outside the city limits? But perhaps that would spare them the memory of a waxy, pale body in a dark coffin; they’d never have to bridge the gap between knowing that he was really gone, but wondering deep down if there’d been some mistake and that unfamiliar yet well-known face didn’t belong to their relative at all.
The moan stopped but only briefly, not even long enough for Tom to enjoy the silence. He snatched at the radio, pressing it to his lips, but he replaced it when he realized that there was nothing the air traffic controller could do. What would they think when, ignoring all air protocol, he gasped out, “The body I’m transporting is alive!”? That was the only explanation; the dead didn’t moan. Even the houses they left behind were silent, entombed in grief and confusion. Instead, Tom gripped the yoke until his knuckles shone pearly-white in the faint glow of the instruments in the cockpit. The descent was rapid, but the moaning continued, at times nearer a scream than a moan. At any moment, he expected to hear the slow unzipping of the bag faintly above the whining of the engine. The dead were silent, they made no sound . . . so this was no dead body.
Thankfully, there were no cross-winds, no traffic, no need to continue in a holding pattern waiting for his turn to land. The plane seemed to dive toward the landing-strip, leveling out at the last possible second. Even so, the rear wheels hit the asphalt roughly, the front following a sickening half-second later. Tom slowed the plane until it tapered to a stop at the end of the runway, but instead of taxiing to his designated tie-down, he ripped off the seatbelt and allowed another glance to the right. The bag had shifted. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought, in the light afforded by his glowing instruments, he could see a several-inch-long gap where the zipper was gaping open.
“Tommy?” he heard above the still-whirring engine. Or had it been a real voice at all? Might it have been the voice of a memory?
Tom pushed himself from the plane. The door gaped open after him as he ran toward the General Aviation Terminal, disappearing into the warm Las Vegas night.
Detective Jack O’Neil looked up from the notepad he was scribbling in. “You’re sure no one was out here when he landed?”
The young airport employee nodded. “He landed and just stopped at the end of the runway. When we came out here to see what was going on, he was gone.”
“I’m assuming you can look up who the plane is registered to?”
“Yeah, we can. But can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” The young man shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced at the Cessna 210, its doors flung wide open and the various dials and screens on the dashboard glowing faintly.
“Why do you think he’d have an empty body bag strapped in the seat?”
Author’s Note: This story is based on an actual event that happened to my grandad. He (a CPA with a love for flying) was transporting a body to Las Vegas for a client. As he began to descend, it started to moan loudly (which we are assuming was pretty terrifying; Grandad wasn’t a man of many words, so he never gave me too many details on his thought process). Later he realized that there was a scientific explanation: the change in air pressure resulting from the descent had forced the remaining oxygen from the body’s lungs, causing the moan, which is probably the only reason I could sleep as a kid after hearing the story. This event is really the “ghost story” of my family, told over and over (possibly embellished occasionally, although not to the extent that I’ve done here) and enjoyed by all.