Phantoms of Flight

By Samantha Michaels 22 August 2014

YANGON — Myanmar’s grim air safety record can be blamed on many causes: an undeveloped air traffic management system, antiquated aircraft and poor pilot training, to name a few.

But sometimes, officials at the country’s airports point their fingers to more spiritual—even supernatural—culprits.

Local ground crews, baggage handlers and tower communications workers have been known to cite ghosts and spirits as occasionally interfering with aviation logistics, while linking fatal accidents to the poor karma of airline owners, according to Southeast Asia scholar and anthropologist Jane M. Ferguson, who wrote a report titled “Terminally Haunted: Aviation Ghosts, Hybrid Buddhist Practices, and Disaster Aversion Strategies Amongst Airport Workers in Myanmar and Thailand.”

Ghosts have reportedly been spotted everywhere from immigration halls to aircraft cockpits.

“On two separate occasions, Myanmar Airways pilots reported that the auto-start was already engaged, even though they had just entered the cockpit and hadn’t touched the instruments,” Dr. Ferguson cited as an example of ghostlore in her report, published earlier this year in The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology. “This was very disturbing for the Myanmar Airways pilots, but they were not allowed to leave the cockpit, or abort the flights. In both cases, the flights went as planned and without incident.”

In Myanmar and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, ghosts are a common theme in travel stories. Many Buddhists believe they have the best chance of being reborn to a higher status if they die at home, surrounded by caring family members. If they suffer a violent death while traveling outside the home, they miss out on the proper send-off.

Along roadsides in Myanmar, shrines can be found, often at particularly dangerous curves, to appease the lingering spirits of those who have been killed in car crashes. On the so-called Death Highway, a hastily built road stretching from Mandalay to Yangon that has seen more than 430 accidents over the past four years, Buddhist monks and activists have even organized spiritual interventions, including merit-making ceremonies to prevent more crashes.

Similar stories carry over to air travel, in a country whose air accident rate is reportedly nine times higher than the global average, according to an official with the Department of Civil Aviation. At Mandalay International Airport, an official for a regional airline recounted to Dr. Ferguson the time she came upon a phantom in the immigration hall. “I saw a man standing next to me at the counter, not doing anything but looking at me. …It must have been a thayay [ghost] because nobody else saw him but me,” the official was quoted as saying.

Sometimes airport workers point to karmic explanations for accidents, such as on Christmas in 2012, when a 24-ton Air Bagan aircraft crashed into and killed a motorbike driver while approaching Heho Airport in Shan State. “Air Bagan is unlucky from the beginning. Tay Za has done so many bad deals to become the richest man in Myanmar,” an official was quoted as saying by Dr. Ferguson. U Tay Za is a crony who owns the airline and made much of his wealth through deals with the former military regime.

Of course, Myanmar is not the only source of supernatural aviation tales. Before Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport opened in 2006, the director of the state-owned airport enterprise saw a large cobra slither in front of his car in a parking garage, which he took as an omen, according to Dr. Ferguson. Before the airport’s launch, at a merit-making ritual attended by monks and hundreds of airport staff, a parcel inspector was then said to have become possessed by a guardian spirit that warned of future problems if shrines were not erected in his honor. His warning was heeded and shrines were promptly built, with statues of snake deities placed inside them for good measure.

The airport’s construction also led to ghost stories, Dr. Ferguson says. According to one local legend, a female airport worker from Myanmar fell into the molding of a column being built in the customs hall, and she died a gruesome death as concrete was poured inside. Today, airport workers still visit the column—distinguished by its uneven surface—and they bring offerings such as snacks to appease the woman’s ghost.

“Different cultures offer a different set of symbolic tools to understand danger and uncertainty,” Dr. Ferguson told The Irrawaddy, adding that folklore or spiritual beliefs were not symptoms of irrationality. Most people understand that car crashes are due to driver error, bad weather or poor road construction, she said, but they turn to ghost stories in a bid to explain why these unfortunate happenings occurred exactly when they did, or how they did, to harm somebody.

Even in the United States, where the average person is perhaps less likely to link mishaps with the workings of spirits, alleged supernatural sightings do crop up from time to time. After an Eastern Air Lines flight crashed during its approach to Miami International Airport in 1972, killing 101 people, airline officials claimed to see the ghosts of flight crew members that had died in the accident. In another incident at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in 2006, about a dozen United Airlines employees said they saw a metallic saucer-shaped object hovering over a concourse, prompting speculation of UFOs. The story was picked up by major news networks, though the Federal Aviation Administration dismissed the sightings as a weather phenomenon.

Whether or not phantoms are actually haunting roads and airports is beside the point, said Dr. Ferguson. More important, she said, is studying how people talk about ghosts and what these stories say about their culture.

“Ghost stories come across as strange to international eyes, but there’s very much a logic to them,” she said. In Myanmar, airport officials “can successfully operate all the machines, and they know the culture of international civil aeronautics. The tower operators know the NATO alphabet and can operate all the radar successfully.

“But just because they are operating international machinery doesn’t mean they have abandoned their local cultures. And that’s true everywhere, it’s not unique to Southeast Asia.”

A version of this story first appeared in the August 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.