Dark Side of the Ring: The Plane Ride From Hell

A re-enactment from Dark Side of the Ring.

The Plane Ride From Hell is an infamous scandal in the annals of pro wrestling history. The eighth episode of Dark Side of the Ring, which is a TV series reviewing such infamy in the pro wrestling world presented by Vice, covers the 2002 event inasmuch as it can without some of the principal players.

A short version of events is this: WWE, the top professional wrestling promotion in the country, often has a post-WrestleMania United Kingdom tour. That is, around May each year, they fly off to the UK to give those fans a chance to see WWE live. To make it easier on the company and the talent, WWE chartered a private flight to traverse the Atlantic Ocean in May 2002. That private 757 company, SportsJet, also provides flights for other professional teams, like for the NBA and such.

The flight to the UK and live event tour were uneventful. However, on the return flight, the plane itself didn’t take off from the tarmac for seven hours due to weather back in the states. That gave the wrestlers the opportunity to partake in copious amounts of alcohol (and apparently, other illicit drugs), including three flight carts of liquor, prior to the actual takeoff. By the time the plane does get clearance to fly, the wrestlers are hammered and chaos ensues.

A few of the notable events include:

  • Ric Flair, a legendary professional wrestler since the 1970s, who was known by other wrestlers for putting his classic, stylish robe on without anything else underneath. He apparently would “helicopter his penis.” He did this in full sight of the flight attendant. Worse, he then backed her into the galley of the plane (where the food is prepared) and made her touch his penis.
  • Scott Hall, another legendary professional wrestler, who mostly made his name as part of the New World Order in WCW in the late 1990s, has had a long, noted history with substance use. That reared its head here, where he grabbed the same flight attendant as above and told her he wanted to “lick her.” And wouldn’t let go of her shirt. Fortunately, he passed out and she was able to get away.
  • RVD, a professional wrestler from ECW and WWE, hinted at even worse conduct he’s known about or perhaps witnessed: That wrestlers would routinely date rape girls. That is, slip them some sort of drug to impair her and then “pass her around.” So, the above two incidents with Flair and Hall are bad enough, but it seems merely the tip of the iceberg as far as some of the awful conduct that we will likely never know about over the previous 40 years of professional wrestling.

Otherwise, the Plane Ride From Hell also featured wrestlers brawling, bleeding, playing pranks on each other, taking the flight attendant’s PA microphone and in general, acting like drunk fools on the plane. Once the plane finally landed back in the states, the plane was trashed with empty beer cans, food, syringes and the like.

So, I mentioned that some of the pivotal players aren’t available for the documentary, but there are two notable exceptions: Jim Ross and the flight attendant herself, Heidi Doyle.

Jim Ross was the executive vice president of talent relations at the time of the incident in 2002. So, he’s a rather good authority to talk on the issue because he was both the one in charge of the talent and on the plane ride. Jim is embarrassed and exasperated by the entire story and scandal. And he has no good answer for why certain wrestlers were terminated for the events, like Hall, but others, such as Flair, were not. He only notes that Flair was a “made man,” meaning, untouchable.

I do agree with Jim that even as the EVP of talent relations, he’s not supposed to babysit a bunch of grown adults. He can’t follow them around. That shouldn’t be his job. However, the culture of the wrestlers comes from the top and from leadership, so there’s still some culpability at his, and Vince McMahon’s (the owner) feet.

Wrestling fans aren’t exactly surprised by the Ric Flair story or the Scott Hall one, for that matter, but it will always hit differently when you hear from and see the victim involved. In this case, that’s the brave Heidi Doyle. That makes her experience hit harder than us just hearing second-hand about Flair flashing women and such, which is bad enough.

Doyle and another flight attendant, Taralyn Cappellano, ended up suing the WWE for what happened on the plane. Unfortunatley, we can’t see the documents involved in federal district court case, only that Flair, Hall and another wrestler, who goes by the name of Goldust or Dustin Runnels, were named as defendants among a slew of unknown others, in the case. Then, that a settlement was reached two years later in 2004.

Two years later, Doyle filed a suit against her company, SportsJet, whom also allegedly bears culpability because they apparently told her to stay hush-hush about what happened so as to not offend potential clientele. In her complaint, she accuses SportsJet of sex discrimination and retaliation against her.

“In February or March 2002, Plaintiff and other female flight attendants heard that Defendant Sport Jet/Luxury Air’s Director of Airline Services, Carl Rodrigue, had said that Defendant Sports Jet pays for all their flight attendants’ “boob jobs,” that all flight attendants had to have “bikini waxes” and that he was in charge of “crotch checks.” When Plaintiff and other flight attendants told Mr. Rodrigue that we were offended by what he said, his response was “can’t you girls take a joke?”

Yikes, if true. It’s not surprising that SportsJet didn’t step up to defend its employees after the Plane Ride From Hell incidents.

And then here’s the Plane Ride From Hell pertinent information, “The harassment consisted of, inter alia, demands for sexual favors, name calling, prancing around the aircraft practically naked, inappropriate touching and groping.”

When they went to Rodrigue with that information, he allegedly threatened their jobs if they filed any official complaint.

I’m not sure what happened with the case. It was “dismissed” in 2007, but it’s unclear to me if it was dismissed because another settlement was reached, if it was moved to another Court, or if it was outright dismissed without prejudice and why. Which is why I have to preface everything above with “alleged.”

Nonetheless, the other big item to come out of the Vice episode is not the events of the plane ride itself, but another wrestler, Tommy Dreamer, and his comments on the events, particularly what Ric Flair did. He basically brushed it off! He castigated Doyle for reaching a settlement. In other words, he victim-blamed and insinuated that everyone is easily offended. That what Flair did was a ha-ha gag. It was funny!

No, Dreamer, it’s not good. It shouldn’t have been acceptable then and it’s not acceptable now.

Aside from direct disgust and condemnation of the events that transpired on that plane, as well as Dreamer’s comments, my other big takeaway from the episode is that I’m so glad that the wrestling culture seems to have improved by leaps and bounds in the nearly 20 years since.

Wrestlers of today take care of their bodies better, which means most wrestlers aren’t taking steroids anymore. Most wrestlers aren’t abusing pills anymore. Most wrestlers aren’t hitting up the bars anymore getting drunk every night.

It’s cliché at this point, but it’s more of a blessing than something worthy of mockery: Wrestlers these days are more apt to play video games than play games at the bar.

And the culture itself in the locker rooms seems far better and importantly, far more hospitable to women, as they’ve gained a better foothold and status within the professional wrestling world over the last half decade.

Finally, our reaction to the Plane Ride From Hell as fans, as fellow wrestlers, as officials within the company and as a culture more broadly is a lot different now than I suspect it would have been 20 years ago. That’s another positive step in the right direction.

I’m so glad for that. The generation of wrestlers today have seemingly learned from the mistakes of the past in a myriad of ways.

If you’re a wrestling fan, the Vice episode on the Plane Ride From Hell is crucial viewing and even if you’re not a fan, it’s an eye-opening microcosm of what the entertainment world and sports world has long allowed as acceptable behavior.

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