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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).

Compare Death Flight.

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


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Case Closed:
    • The Locked Room in the Sky: Shin’ichi Kudo's First Case: On a plane ride, Ran falls asleep and remembers Shin’ichi's first case which also took place aboard a plane. The Detective Boys are given a tour of the police station by officers Wataru Takagi and Miwako Sato. They learn of a bank robbery, but when the bank president's wife is murdered, Conan joins Takagi and Sato on the case.
    • Detective Conan Film 08: Magician of the Silver Sky: A stage actress, Julie wants to use her star sapphire for her upcoming play and asks for Mouri Kogoro help to protect it after showing Kogoro a letter from the Kaito Kid. On the day of the theft, Kid appears at the theatre disguised up as Shinichi Kudo but ends up fleeing in the end without the jewel. To thank them, Julie invites Kogoro and everyone to Hakodate, and they all travel on an airplane to get there. In the air, one of the show actor, Shinjo, who was supposed to be elsewhere and Ran's mother, Eri, joins them on the plane. As the plane takes off, Julie comes in physical contact with most of the individuals she invited, making them all suspects in the case of her death.

    Comic Books 
  • Detective Comics #435: In "Case of the Dead-On Target!", Private Detective Jason Bard investigates when a skydiver is seemingly stabbed in midair during a team jump. Bard eventually determines the victim was actually stabbed In the Back by the pilot as he prepared to bail out (he was the last jumper out the plane) and shoved out so it appeared he had exited the plane with the others.
  • 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 
  • 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.
  • Flightplan (2005) 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.
  • In Fugitive In The Sky, a passenger on a Ford Trimotor, with a full complement of 12 passengers, is stabbed with a souvenir dagger one of the other passengers bought during a stopover in Albuquerque.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A Biggles short story featured a variation on the theme. A light aircraft whose owner was supposedly trying to beat the speed record for a trans-African air route is found crashed and burned out, with a body in the cockpit. Biggles happened to know the pilot personally, and insists on Identification by Dental Records because something seems off about the whole thing for reasons he can't fully explain even to himself. He's right: Not only is the body not the plane's registered owner and pilot, but the cause of death was a bullet to the back of the head. Turns out the guy was Faking the Dead so he'd have the ultimate alibi for a robbery, and the dead body belonged to some young aviation fanboy he'd met in an airport bar and lured aboard with the promise of a joyride.
  • 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 Hercule Poirot as a possible suspect (according to the jury).
    • One of the suspects (a detective writer) intends to make it the plot of his next book, and avoid libel by making the murderer a complete unknown who hides in an airplane seat, releases knockout gas while wearing a gasmask, and once the deed is done, parachutes to safety.
    • An early plot point is the idea that the murderer used a blowpipe to propel the murder weapon (a poisoned dart) at the victim unnoticed. To test this theory, an inspector walks down the aisle raising a six-inch pipe to his mouth every few steps, by the end of which test just about every passenger is staring at him (and adding insult to injury, an actual blowpipe is 6 feet long). The murderer actually dressed in his dentist's clothes, which looked like an airline steward's uniform, and jabbed the dart into the sleeping victim's neck.
  • 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.
  • The Usbourne Puzzle Adventure Murder on the Midnight Plane: A passenger passes away mid-flight, and then someone finds a bottle of poison at the bottom of a jar of toffees. A surprisingly complex whodunnit story for a children's book ensues, involving international intrigue and high-stakes crime.
  • Combined with Locked Room Mystery in "The Problem of the Tin Goose" by Edward D. Hoch. A Ford Trimotor touches down and the pilot is found stabbed to death at the controls, alone in the locked cockpit. He was murdered by his wife, who'd hidden onboard the plane while another stuntman was playing her part, although he didn't know what she was planning.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • 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 will come under Chinese jurisdiction.
  • In the Castle episode "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.
  • 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 out 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: In "Turbulence", 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.
  • Diagnosis: Murder: In "Murder in the Air," the pilot of an airliner escorting Sloan and Amanda to a medical conference in Europe is killed.
  • Doctor Who: The Teaser of "Spyfall" involves three spies across the globe being attacked by alien creatures. One of those spies is an MI6 agent on a passenger plane over the Pacific an hour away from Tokyo, who goes into the bathroom to check a toiletry bag containing a message from an informant, and is just finishing up when a creature emerges from the wall. As the head of MI6 explains to the Doctor and her companions later, she was later found unconscious in the bathroom. The Doctor discovers that the agent's DNA has been corrupted and rewritten, making her effectively a shell with a human appearance.
  • Elementary: In "Flight Risk," Sherlock and Joan investigate a plane crash and Sherlock deduces that that once of the passengers had been murdered with a wrench. He initially believes the passenger had been murdered while the plane was in flight, but soon discovers that the plane had been sabotaged and deduces that the victim had been killed when he walked in in on the saboteur, who then hid the body on the plane so it would be lost with the others. The killer actually wanted to kill the pilot and have the plane lost at sea, but the extra weight of the body caused it to crash while still over land.
  • 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.
  • Hal Jessup in The Felony Squad episode "Image of Evil" tries to blackmail his boss Virgil Haney, but Haney's goon Baker pushes him out of a moving plane to his death.
  • Fringe:
    • The pilot episode 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.
    • There's a similar scenario in the episode "The Transformation".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In 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.
  • 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...
  • Life (2007): In "Re-Entry," the team investigates the death of a retired NASA pilot in mid-flight. The suspects are the pilot's son, and the pilot's business partner.
  • Monk: In "Mr. Monk and the Airplane", the murder occurs at the airport, but Monk is on the plane with the murderer and only has as long as the flight lasts to solve the crime. It turns out that there actually was a murder on the plane; the flight attendant unknowingly got rid of the evidence.
  • 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.
  • In the Murder, She Wrote episode "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.
  • 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.
    • "Jet Lag" starts out as "keep the federal witness from getting murdered", but adds "find out who killed that flight's Air Marshall" to the to-do-before-the-flight-lands list.
  • 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.
  • Millionaire Sam Horton is killed in the Petrocelli episode "Death In High Places" when his plane explodes in mid-air.
  • 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.
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Rise", Tuvok, Neelix and several survivors must use an orbital tether to escape a planet under meteor bombardment. Unfortunately, one of the survivors is a murderer.
  • A variation appears in the Supernatural episode "Phantom Traveler", in which 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 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 
  • Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth has a murder mystery occur on an airplane in the second case, "Turnabout Airlines".
  • Just Ignore Them: Happens to at least three people during the Plane section of the game - an unlucky passenger, whose corpse Brea finds, one of the pilots, whose death was recorded, and Neason. The fate of the rest of the passengers and the co-pilot is never explicitly stated, but it is implied that Spine Eater and Kopikat ate them all.
  • Murder On The Zinderneuf, an early Electronic Arts game originally for Atari 8-Bit Computers, begins with a randomly selected victim taking a 5000-foot plunge off the titular zeppelin into the Atlantic Ocean. The player has twelve game hours to interrogate the fifteen surviving passengers and figure out why.

    Real Life 
  • Averted in the case of Alexei Navalny, a Russian politician and anti-corruption activist. During a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, he became ill, and the plane made an emergency landing at Omsk. Quick treatment with atropine saved his life, and two days later he was taken to Berlin for further treatment and investigation. It was found that he was poisoned with the chemical warfare agent Novichok, which he ingested before the flight, possibly at the Tomsk airport cafe. Although blame has never been officially determined, it is considered most likely that he was poisoned at the direction of Vladimir Putin.
  • 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.