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Death in the Clouds

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A standard mystery plot: someone is murdered on a passenger flight while it is in the air. From a writer's perspective, this has the advantage of providing both a closed setting and a limited suspect pool without either feeling overly contrived. These days it also provides the additional puzzle of how the killer smuggled a weapon on board.

The detective can either be on the flight or brought in once the plane has landed.

The successor to Thriller on the Express (though it still gets used in non-modern settings).

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As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Used in Detective Conan Shinichi's first case and Movie 8 both feature this.

    Comic Books 
  • Occurred in one issue of The Maze Agency ("The Mile High Corpse" ). Jen and Gabe are on a largely empty flight to London when one of their fellow first class passengers—a notorious gangster—is garrotted while he sleeps.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Fugitive in the Sky, a passenger on a Ford Trimotor, with a full compliment of 12 passengers, is stabbed with a souvenir dagger one of the other passengers bought during a stopover in Albuquerque.
  • Sky Murder, a 1940 Nick Carter film. Old friend Cortland Grand summons Private Detective Nick Carter and his friend "Beeswax" Bartholemew to Washington for as meeting with Senator Monrose, who heads a committee investigating subversive groups in the U.S. Nick turns down the Senator's request to assist his committee, and flies back to New York on Cortland's personal aircraft. Joining Nick on the flight are six beautiful models accompanied by their chaperone, detective Christine Cross, and Andrew Hendon, a polo star suspected of being a spy. Upon landing, Hendon is discovered murdered with a nail file belonging to model Pat Evens, in his throat.
  • The Falcon in Danger: At a New York airport, a passenger aircraft coming in from Washington D.C., crash-lands at a crowded airport, however nobody is on board the plane. The aircraft had been hijacked at its previous stop with all but the pilot and two leading industrialists left behind. In addition to the three men, $100,000 worth of securities is also missing.
  • A variant occurs in Snakes on a Plane, though the heroes figure out that the Big Bad would be just as happy bringing down the entire plane.
  • The 2005 film Flightplan is a variant of this plot, although with a kidnapping instead of a murder. The main character's daughter disappears and she can't get anyone to confirm she existed and starts to doubt she existed herself.
  • Non-Stop: A killer threatens to kill someone every 20 min until he gets a ransom and by the end one of the passengers is dead, along with the captain and another air marshal who was also on the flight.
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    Literature 
  • The Trope Namer is the Agatha Christie novel Death in the Clouds first published in 1935. This might also be the Trope Maker. Memorably features Poirot as a possible suspect (according to the jury).
  • The disappearance (and apparent murder) of his wife and daughter from a plane in flight over Lake Ontario in Justice, Inc. delivers the shock that transforms Richard Benson into The Avenger.
  • The Usbourne Puzzle Adventure: Murder on the Midnight Plane.
  • Airframe has three, eventually four, deaths caused by a wild, out of control flight, and the identity of the fourth victim turns out to be the key to unraveling the mystery of what caused it.
  • In Murder in the Air by Peter Tremayne, an executive who was planning extensive downsizing, is found murdered in a locked airplane lavatory. One of the unfortunate employees, who was also the executive's lover, rigged the executive's asthma inhaler to explode.

    Live-Action TV 
  • CSI:
    • In "Unfriendly Skies", Grissom and his team investigate the death of a first class passenger on a flight to Las Vegas. Their investigation is a race against time, because after 12 hours the F.B.I. will take over. To make matters worse, the other first class passengers are very reluctant to co-operate, leading the team to consider that they had some involvement in their fellow passenger's death. Turns Everybody Did It — the passenger was undergoing some kind of neurological disorder making him act like a jerk and eventually making him freak out and try to open the cabin mid-flight, and the whole lot of them ganged up and (accidentally) pummeled him to death to prevent it.
    • In "Forever", the team investigates the death of a horse trainer who was stomped to death by her horse, as they were flying inside of a special private jet that is a flying stable. Turns out that the horse was being used to smuggle diamonds by shoving them inside of her uterus, and complications caused the horse to thrash around in agony, so the trainer was killed by her boss (the horse's vet, who was the one behind the smuggling) to prevent her from getting them out because he didn't had any other place to hide the diamonds.
  • CSI: Miami: When a stewardess is found stabbed on a plane, the CSIs learn all the dirty secrets of air travel in "Flight Risk".
  • CSI NY - "Turbulence": When an Air Marshal turns up dead on a flight on which Mac is a passenger, the victim it turns out, isn't a Marshal at all. The real Marshal was killed earlier and his ID stolen.
  • A twisted version: House needs to find out if a man vomiting with sores and severe headaches is suffering from meningitis, or something else. If it's the former, they're all dead. Turns out, he's got decompression sickness, and everyone else just has mass hysteria.
  • In an episode of Bones where they're taking a plane to China a dead body is found, and they have to discover and arrest the murderer before they touch down or else the case becomes "property" of China.
  • Monk: In "Mr. Monk and the Airplane". The murder occurred at the airport, but Monk was on the plane with the murderer and only had as long as the flight lasted to solve the crime. It turns out that actually, there WAS a murder on the plane. The flight attendant unknowingly got rid of the evidence.
  • A variation appears in the Supernatural episode "Phantom Traveler", where a demon's been causing plane crashes and the brothers have to find out who it's possessing and exorcise it, before it crashes another plane. Unfortunately, they don't manage to stop it getting on the plane, so the climax takes place on a plane. This was the first episode of the show to feature demons.
  • In the Leverage episode "The Mile High Job", someone on the plane has evidence they plan to destroy before it can be used against their company in court. The "evidence" turns out to be another employee, who the company wants assassinated before she can testify. And just to be certain, the company tries to bring down the whole plane...
  • NCIS:
    • In the pilot episode, "Yankee White", the murder occurs on Air Force One—which adds the question of how someone managed to kill someone with the Secret Service all over the place.
    • The episode "Jet Lag" started out as "keep the federal witness from getting murdered" but added "find out who killed that flight's Air Marshall" to the to-do-before-the-flight-lands list.
  • Parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Sir Ian McKellen as a Sherlock Holmes Expy who solves a murder aboard a hot air balloon.
  • The John Doe episode "Manifest Destiny". After John decides to take a holiday, a vicar on his flight is poisoned. John must discover the murderer's identity before more people are killed.
  • Taken a step beyond the clouds in the 1985 series Murder In Space. The crew of an international space mission are on the return leg from Mars to Earth when an explosion occurs on the craft Conestoga, shortly after the murders start. The crew of the returning craft are forbidden to return until the murderer is caught.
  • The pilot episode of Fringe has an aeroplane land with everyone on board dead from a biological weapon. They then have to figure out how the weapon got on board, why, where it came from, and if there is more of it.
    • Similar scenario in the episode "The Transformation".
  • Murder, She Wrote - "The Corpse Flew First Class": While on a flight to London, a wealthy woman's chauffeur dies suddenly, and when the priceless necklace he was carrying turns up missing, it becomes a case of murder.
  • Diagnosis: Murder: In "Murder in the Air", the pilot of an airliner escorting Sloan and Amanda to a medical conference in Europe is killed.
  • Ellery Queen: In "The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger", an elderly amateur criminologist finally figures out how a five-year-old "locked-room" murder was committed, and is murdered by the killer before he can alert Inspector Queen. Ellery takes up the challenge himself. The criminologist had first implicated an airline pilot, because he was flying the plane where the murder was committed and had the opportunity to toss the murder weapon out the window. Nobody else seems to have been able to get rid of the weapon, but Ellery finds that the murder victim had stolen someone else's invention, and that the murderer may have invented the weapon as well.
  • It Takes a Thief (1968) - "Project 'X'" is Ten Little Murder Victims on a plane, complete with a Green Aesop. Al must protect Professor Moses, a nuclear scientist, and his documents, during a special flight with only eight passengers, to Melbourne, where an important conference will be held with five of the world's top scientists. However, when the in-flight film starts, "The Man" in the film, puts all five scientists on trial for murder, for their country's crimes against the Earth, finds them guilty, and sentences them all to die. As the film describes the crimes of each scientist, each scientist dies every hour, on the hour, one by one.
  • Castle - "In Plane Sight." The air marshal is murdered on a trans-Atlantic flight, leaving Castle as the closest thing to an investigator aboard. Unlike most such plots, he is able to take full advantage of in-flight Wi-Fi to obtain assistance from Beckett and the rest back in New York.
  • Hawaii Five-0 Season 2 Episode 15 Mai Ka Wa Kahiko A US Marshal, escorting a prisoner back to Hawaii, is murdered in the plane's lavatory. He was trying to call Danny at the time he was killed. An old friend of Danny's, the Marshal had recognized a dirty cop. The dirty cop had just been released from prison and blamed Danny for putting him there.
  • Recycled In Space in the Blake's 7 episode "Mission to Destiny". The crew of the Liberator come across a space freighter with its pilot murdered, the controls sabotaged, and the crew all unconscious. The Liberator has to take the freighter's valuable cargo to its destination, while Avon and Cally stay to help with repairs and (of course) solve the mystery.
  • Likewise in Star Trek: Voyager episode "Rise", with the protagonists confined to the cabin of a Space Elevator as it ascends into the upper atmosphere.
  • Get Smart. In "Closely Watched Planes", Maxwell Smart manages to lose the courier he's protecting on an airplane in mid-flight. Da Chief is not amused, and puts Max on the next flight so he can solve the mystery or become the next victim.
  • Person of Interest. In "4C", while flying out of the country for his 10-Minute Retirement, John Reese discovers that the Machine has arranged for him to be on the airplane with the next Number. Team Machine have to identify and neutralize a Carnival of Killers sent to bump the Number off.

    Radio 
  • In the Cabin Pressure episode "Paris", a bottle of Talisker whiskey goes missing in flight, with the only possible thieves being the lone passenger and the four crew members.

    Video Games 

    Real Life 
  • Carlos Pizarro, former guerrilla member and Colombian presidential candidate, was murdered on a plane in April 1990. A weapon was concealed in the bathroom of the plane, and a hired thug shot him at point-blank range. He was then taken down by a security agent. Paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño said later that he had planned the crime. During that same campaign, two other candidates were also killed.
  • Munir Said Thalib, an Indonesian human rights and anti-corruption activist, was poisoned by arsenic on a Garuda (the flag carrier of Indonesia) flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam. His case is especially notable in that he was poisoned by the pilot, apparently under the orders of the airline's CEO. The airline was also found to be negligent in failing to divert when it was discovered Thalib was ill.

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