Grafton Tanner / June 25, 2020
“Really nothing there, is there?”
—from Duck Pimples (1945)
Classic episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) follow a simple formula. An ordinary person experiences something extraordinary, and we follow along as they figure out what is happening. Very often, the story ends with a twist: the cross-country traveler has been dead all along, the aliens are actually astronauts from Earth, To Serve Man is a cookbook. But not every episode adheres to this formula. In fact, the very best of Rod Serling’s visionary series aren’t so simple.
“And When the Sky Was Opened,” from the first season, is one of the very best. Based on the Richard Matheson short story “Disappearing Act,” the episode tells the story of three pilots—U.S. Air Force Colonel Ed Harrington (Charles Aidman), Colonel Clegg Forbes (Rod Taylor), and Major William Gart (Jim Hutton)—who return from the first voyage into space only to be erased from existence, one by one. The story begins after the pilots have crash landed, but Rod Serling’s opening monologue includes a bit of crucial exposition: the pilots vanished from radar and lost all contact with mission control for twenty-four of the thirty-one hours they were in flight.
After the mysterious and sudden disappearance of Harrington upon landing, Forbes desperately tries to convince Gart that something has taken Harrington from this world, that perhaps “somebody or something made a mistake” and let the three pilots return when they shouldn’t have. Gart, confined to a hospital bed, has no memory of Harrington, and Forbes comes to realize that no one else remembers the pilot. The story ends with Forbes arriving at the horrific realization that he is next to disappear. Begging for his life, he runs screaming from Gart’s hospital room and vanishes. When the nurse fails to remember Forbes, Gart then understands the colonel was telling the truth, and Gart, the aircraft, and the mission disappear without a trace.
The episode is a success for many reasons. The acting is palpable; you can feel the existential horror of the pilots as they come to terms with their absurd fate. As the panicked Clegg Forbes, Rod Taylor gives a dynamic performance of a man splintering into madness, and when the supporting cast gawks at him with pity, you start to wonder whether Forbes is really delusional. The episode also refrains from ending with a twist. There is no grand surprise at the end, only eerie ambiguity. Something has disappeared the pilots from existence. Without a conclusive reveal, all we’re left with is a lingering cosmic horror—the bizarre, nauseating suspicion that the universe operates according to unknown logic. Perhaps there’s no logic at all.
Like every Twilight Zone episode, “And When the Sky Was Opened” reflects both modern and timeless human anxieties. It can tell us quite a bit about memory and information loss, about the politics of disappearance both in postwar culture and in today’s time of social amnesia, when too much information inevitably causes some things to be remembered and others to be forgotten. And the episode uses aviation to reveal the politics of social forgetting, exposing the truth that only those who remember the past disappear.
“And When the Sky Was Opened” is not the only Twilight Zone entry to feature disappearing aircraft. The third season also-ran “The Arrival” tells the story of a commercial flight that lands mysteriously without anyone on board. A detective with a perfect record is assigned the case, and he slowly comes to believe the plane isn’t real. When he attempts to prove this by placing his hand in the path of a spinning propeller, the plane vanishes. The twist? The detective does not actually have a perfect record. In his entire career, there was only one case he couldn’t solve: a missing airplane that disappeared mid-flight years earlier. The empty plane is merely a ghost that has come back to torment him. And in the brilliant “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” a routine flight encounters a strange tailwind that accelerates it past the speed of sound. When the plane slows, the pilots attempt a landing—only to realize they have traveled backwards in time to some prehistoric era. They successfully pick up the tailwind again, hoping to travel back to the present. This time they stop in 1939. The episode concludes with the pilots preparing to ride the tailwind back to the present one last time before the plane runs out of fuel.
“Now, most airplanes take off and land as per scheduled,” Rod Serling reminds us in his opening to “The Arrival.” “On rare occasions, they crash. But all airplanes can be counted on doing one or the other.” Except when they don’t. Serling wrote Twilight Zone plots around vanishing airplanes because he knew they shake our faith in a thinkable world. How can something so huge and with so many people involved simply vanish?
It’s a question asked in the wake of every major aviation mystery, from Flight 19 to the recent disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The commercial flight took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and headed to Beijing on March 8, 2014. It never landed. Shortly after takeoff ATC lost contact, and the plane, with its 239 people on board, disappeared from radar. The search for it became the most expensive in aviation history, but nothing was found. Some say it crash landed; others have speculated it was hijacked. There is no consensus among investigators.
James Bridle calls aviation a “site where technology, scientific research, defense and security interests, and computation converge in a nexus of transparency/opacity and visibility/invisibility.” But it’s more than that. For over a century, aviation has been the engine of information science, as well as the proof that once-impossible dreams can come true with the help of mighty computing power. Along with the realization of human flight came unprecedented connectivity, which in turn caused an explosive outbreak of information: projections, predictions, models, and data. Over the twentieth century, technology progressed at a dizzying rate. Planes, along with everything else, got faster. “At such an exponential rate,” David Graeber writes, “it must have seemed reasonable to assume that within a matter of decades, humanity would be exploring other solar systems.”
And then something strange happened. Technological advancement slowed in some areas, and planes were no longer quite as fast. While aviation slowed, however, information science did not. Today, futurity is measured not by the speed of an airplane but by the speed of WiFi. A technology today seems futuristic if it provides us with a steady drip of information, of which there is more than could ever be analyzed by anyone. The so-called infodemic—a viral outbreak of information and misinformation—did not start with the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19. It’s been ongoing since the birth of the information age, and it’s only gotten worse.
Without aerospace science, funded largely by the military, there would be no information age, for aviation is only possible via advanced information technologies. The disappearance of planes, such as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, proves that information can vanish too—a shocking truth almost too horrible to bear in our control society. “For everything that is shown,” Bridle writes about plane-tracking, “something is hidden.”
Information loss is a natural occurrence, and it’s especially prevalent—and dreadful—in a society obsessed with eliminating unknowns. But sometimes, disappearance is artificially induced to serve certain interests. Ideas that challenge ruling ideologies, the ones that resist capital especially, are erased. Memories of radical events are written out of history, consigning non-normative knowledge to the margins—very often deleting them from the official account altogether. If they do survive, traces of these events hunker underground, or they hide beneath the cover of normativity, passing as “appropriate” but occasionally winking from behind the veil at those who also know. If they are eradicated, stamped out of the cultural script, radical memories will always return as ghosts, terribly inconvenient reminders of an alternative future that was foreclosed by capitalism. This act of hauntology, of the forgotten past haunting the present with visions of lost futures, is crucial for collectives to combat the neoliberal “eternal” present—if only we could remember.
When American soldiers returned from World War II, they came back bearing secret knowledge: the horrors of warfare and the absurdity of power. Waking up as civilians, the returned had their memories wiped by the burgeoning postwar consumer society, which promised pleasure through purchasing and fixed gender roles as binary, locking into place a suffocating bureaucratic rationality that extended from the corporate sector to the body. Like the pilots in “And When the Sky Was Opened,” those who remembered had to disappear for the postwar dream to persist. Rod Serling served in WWII and witnessed the carnage of war firsthand in the Philippines. He grew familiar with the randomness of death during his service. He saw a fellow private decapitated by a falling food crate while telling a joke. The collision of comedy and death stunned Serling, who was eventually awarded the Purple Heart but experienced difficulty returning to civilian life—how far removed it was from war’s chaos. To cope, he filtered his knowledge through the medium of television, encountering fierce resistance from studio executives as he created The Twilight Zone, itself an indictment of unbridled power disguised as a fantasy series.
By the time Serling died in 1975 from a series of heart attacks, Augusto Pinochet was forcefully disappearing thousands of political opponents in Chile. Animated by American free-market ideology, Chile began a neoliberal conversion in the 1970s, and anyone who opposed it was punished. Some were thrown from helicopters into the ocean; others simply vanished. Decades later, the United States would wage its own regime of disappearance. Conducting “extraordinary rendition” in the wake of 9/11, CIA agents abducted so-called enemy combatants, transported them to makeshift prisons, and tortured them for information about global terror cells. Forty of these combatants remain at Guantanamo Bay, a concentration camp operated by the United States. The prisoners kept there are “ghost detainees”: neither dead nor alive, liminal, in between the cogs of a ruthless penal machine beholden to no one. Their flickering presence/absence haunts the American imaginary.
Living with the knowledge that things will disappear is a dreadful existence, made all the more horrible when we understand that not all disappearances are accidental. Realizing something erased his co-pilot and lifelong friend from existence, Colonel Forbes is sick with dread. He knows that erasure is an act of historical violence. It is a singularly cruel feat to exterminate every last memory of a person, especially if they carry a truth that reveals the hideous countenance of injustice. Capitalism is a disappearing act. Work is contingent; markets, volatile. Things are stable until they aren’t—which means they never truly are. When the sky opens, only the privileged survive. Only the amnesiacs are left alive.
Grafton Tanner is the author of The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech and Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. His writing has appeared in The Nation and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
2 thoughts on “Falling Into The Sky: Disappearance, Aviation, and ‘The Twilight Zone’”
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The reason Rod Serling had so many aviation stories on The Twilight Zone may be a bit more prosaic: Serling’s brother, Robert, was an aviation writer, the aviation editor for press syndicate United Press International (UPI), and an aviation safety lecturer and consultant. Throughout his career, Robert Serling wrote many fiction and non-fiction books on aviation and was the aviation consultant on his brother’s works, including his Twilight Zone episodes.
In short, Serling wrote on aviation because he had easy access to that world.