The “Plane Ride from Hell” is a legendary story within WWE, a wild tale that combined 1980s excess, 1990s addictions, and the corporate reality of the 2000s in one interminable flight. A lot has been written about this famous plane ride, so we’ll examine everything, separate fact from fiction, and evaluate the ugly aftermath.
Date: May 5, 2002
Location: In the air, above the North Atlantic Ocean
Source: Wrestling Observer Newsletter, YouShoot w/ X-Pac, No-Kayfaben w/ Justin Credible
The Monday night wars in the mid and late 1990s led to a huge boom period for WCW, which had the WWF badly on the ropes in 1997. The WWF roared back on the heels of a red hot Steve Austin, and then the Rock, as WCW imploded from sheer stupidity and mismanagement. WCW was out of business by 2001, while the WWF had record business years in 1998, 1999, and 2000.
2001 was also a strong year for the WWF, although they suffered huge financial losses from the XFL venture. They also saw business decline after WCW (and ECW) disappeared, made worse when Steve Austin turned heel at WrestleMania 17, and the inept booking of the WCW/ECW invasion that squandered what should’ve been the hottest angle in pro wrestling history.
By the time 2002 rolled around, business was continuing to decline. While TV ratings, house show attendance, and PPV numbers were still considerably higher than they are today, they were still way down from the record levels of the late 90s boom period. Much of this was inevitable, and much of it was due to poor creative decisions.
The key move in early 2002 was Vince McMahon bringing back the original nWo, the heel faction that had turned business around for WCW in 1996. Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall were brought back and made a key part of the pre WrestleMania booking. Hogan headlined with a memorable match against the Rock that revitalized his in-ring career one last time. Nash continued to be wrought with injuries. Hall, meanwhile, ended up in bad shape as many had feared, with his substance abuse problems still plaguing him.
As this was all going on, the WWF lost a court battle that forced them to no longer use those initials. In early May, the decision was made to re-brand the company as WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), a move that to this day some people still haven’t gotten used to.
As had been the case for years (and still is), the WWF toured Europe after WrestleMania. The WWF had run shows in Europe since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until around 1992 (when Davey Boy Smith caught fire in the UK) when it became a major revenue driver for the company that really saved their balance sheets in some years. To this day, European tours continue to make millions of dollars for WWE even when domestic business is way down.
Beginning in 2000, the WWF would run a PPV exclusively for the UK called Insurrextion. The 2002 version was also broadcast in the US, and it was the final show of a long, grueling overseas tour before flying home for Raw on Monday.
The show was held at the Wembly Arena in London, England. The next day, a plane was chartered for all WWE personnel to fly from London to New York. This was a non-commercial flight, and included everyone from the road crew, production crew, and the wrestlers themselves.
The mistake the WWF made was having an open bar on the plane, which the company paid for. At the end of a long tour, tensions and stress were high, even with the sellout crowds most nights. The boys wanted to party extra hard, and with an open bar, it was open season.
What contributed to this party attitude were two things: #1, Vince McMahon was NOT on the plane and did not go on the tour (contrary to popular belief). #2, Scott Hall was still employed despite his own problems, which led many to believe they could do what they want and go unpunished. Right or wrong, that was the prevailing attitude among the boys on this trip.
Alcohol alone was not the problem, as X-Pac later revealed that so many of the guys were abusing GHB. We’ve already detailed a previous GHB incident in the WWF that Curt Hennig allegedly instigated, and ironically, he’s a big part of the Plane Ride from Hell too. The GHB, alcohol, and other assorted pills and painkillers all added up to a recipe for disaster while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.
Today’s wrestlers are sobered up squares compared to the guys on the WWF roster at the time. Obviously many wrestlers still party today, as evidenced by the Bo Dallas situation. Still, compared to the guys on this plane, today’s wrestlers are extremely tame and don’t abuse alcohol or drugs to the extent they did in previous generations. That is a major understatement.
The truth is, stories like the Plane Ride from Hell used to happen all the time in the 1980s. The only difference is back then, there was no internet or social media to publicize them. The 90s were just as bad in some cases, and that’s when we started to see the premature deaths from all the excess. Once the WWF went public, though, the company had shareholders to answer to and it became far more corporate. It had to be. Eventually there was going to be a conflict between the new corporate responsibilities of a public company and the excesses of wrestlers from a generation where this behavior was tolerated.
There are a few major stories from the Plane Ride from Hell, so we’ll break down each one separately.
Curt Hennig vs Brock Lesnar
Probably the most famous incident stemming from the Plane Ride from Hell was the skirmish between “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig and future superstar Brock Lesnar.
Hennig had returned to the company in January, which itself was a controversial move. Hennig performed well at the Royal Rumble and was given another chance, although he would pass away the following year due to his own addictions. Lesnar was groomed for superstardom since he was still in college, and the WWF was very careful about handling him. He was signed very young, trained in OVW, and officially brought to the main roster in 2002 and protected. While today he’s the biggest star in the business and an excellent big match performer, he was still somewhat green in 2002 and still very young.
Hennig and Lesnar were both from Minnesota, and had trained together at Brad Rheingans’ school before Lesnar even went to OVW. They knew each other well. Hennig was a very competitive person by nature, and on this flight, got the bright idea to challenge Lesnar to take him down in an amateur wrestling match. On the plane.
Stories have grown over the years to call this a “fight,” which it was not. It was a friendly challenge, instigated by an inebriated Curt Hennig and reluctantly accepted by a naïve Lesnar. If it happened today, Lesnar would’ve immediately gotten up and gladly welcomed the challenge. Back then, however, the young Lesnar didn’t really know how to handle the situation. He didn’t want to do it, but was told by those around him that if he didn’t get up and do it, he’d develop a reputation as a chicken (so ironic in hindsight).
Lesnar got up, and since he wasn’t as inebriated as Hennig (he may have been completely sober), he took him down. More than once. While it’s an exaggeration to say it turned into a “fight,” it did turn more and more serious with each takedown. Hennig was a jokester and kept egging him on to take him down. Lesnar is competitive by nature as well. Eventually, it got to the point where David Finlay and Paul Heyman had to intervene and stop them.
A key part of the story is that they tussled near the emergency exit door. Stories that Lesnar was ramming him against the door were exaggerated, although there were some on the plane who definitely got scared it would burst open in mid flight, which would have been fatal and disastrous. The reality is that those doors are virtually impossible to open without intervention from the staff, and it wasn’t going to open even with someone the size of Lesnar (or Hennig, for that matter) ramming against it.
Hennig was later fired for the incident. He was also spraying shaving cream on people on the flight, including Big Show.
Michael Hayes vs JBL
Michael Hayes, a legendary drinker, was out of control on the plane. He was belligerent, loud, obnoxious, and so wasted that at one point he attempted to urinate on Linda McMahon. Not on purpose, he just thought he was in the bathroom stall.
JBL, also a notorious drinker, was surprisingly calm on this flight. That’s probably because he was all busted up from a match with X-Pac at the PPV in which his head hit the unpadded turnbuckle. He had a sizable gash on his forehead that was all bandaged up.
Hayes, in his infinite wisdom, was swearing at everyone. At one point he even tried to fight the much larger Scott Hall. For whatever reason, he turned his attention to JBL. He called him a redneck, and his hand made contact with JBL’s head, causing the bandage to come off and JBL’s wound started bleeding everywhere. He was wearing a suit and the blood got all over it.
This is the one part of the story that remains in dispute. One version has JBL knocking Hayes out, which, along with the intoxicants, made him unconscious for a period of time. Another version is they did get into a scuffle, but that it wasn’t really serious, and that Hayes was unconscious later simply because he fell asleep.
Whatever the case, JBL wasn’t punished because it was felt Hayes provoked it (how about that, someone bullying JBL for once?). JBL may have been hesitant to act because Hayes was considered management. Also, this was long before JBL was a headliner, and was still wrestling as Bradshaw as part of the APA. He was in good standing, but not untouchable like he’d become years later.
As Hayes was out cold, either from JBL’s fist or from the alcohol, X-Pac took it upon himself to get scissors and chop off Hayes’ hair. When he did this, people on the plane popped huge. It was reminiscent of the time X-Pac put feces in Juventud Guerrera’s bag, causing the locker room to pop huge.
Michael Hayes is a very smart man when it comes to pro wrestling history, booking, and psychology, which is why he’s in the position he’s in (and has been for many years). He’s also done match layouts for some of the most famous matches in modern WWE history. At the time, however, he was extremely unpopular backstage among the boys.
X-Pac in particular had heat with him because he felt Hayes buried him in booking meetings. He also resented Hayes for forcing the Hardys, Edge, and Christian to do all those high-risk bumps and spots with tables, ladders, and chairs on some of the Raw shows (as opposed to the PPVs, which were less frequent and thus less taxing on the body).
Hayes is also well known, dating back to the mid 1980s, for loving his long, blond hair. He really hated that he had to cut it when the WWF hired him for the role of Dok Hendrix, and immediately grew it back once he got an office position. Even though Hayes’ hair has receded greatly, he still maintained his long hair in the back. We find that admirable, although one has to wonder why Hayes never sought hair replacement given how much he loved it.
Ironically, X-Pac is in a position today where he too is receding and has a bald spot, but still keeps his hair long. Again, we find this admirable and it helps make him look younger. It also makes him hypocritical, however, given he used to knock Hayes for doing the same.
One version says Hayes woke up on the plane, noticed his hair was gone, and wanted to challenge everyone to fight over it (nobody ratted out X-Pac to him). Another version, far more likely, says Hayes noticed his hair was gone while in customs, and then made a scene. Either way, he was understandably pissed over it.
At Raw the next night, X-Pac taped Hayes’ hair to the wall and auctioned it off.
Goldust was already on the bubble at the time, given his own issues with management. While he’s clean today and in great shape for his age, this was not always the case. This was also well before Dusty Rhodes became a beloved backstage legend at WWE and NXT.
On the Plane Ride from Hell, he began to serenade Marlena, his real-life ex-wife who was an on-air character with the WWF. Knowing Goldust, it was probably a big joke, as he is known to be very jovial backstage. Still, it made Marlena uncomfortable and he continued to do it even after she asked him to stop. Jim Ross had to sit him down and get him to stop.
Goldust was also named in a lawsuit by some of the stewardesses (allegedly telling one of them that he and her were going to “f*ck”), which was either dropped or settled out of court. He did not lose his job over this plane ride, but he did himself no favors and he was eventually let go the following year.
Ric Flair Disrobes
Ric Flair is no stranger to partying, even at this or any age. He’s infamous for getting naked and showing off his private parts in bars and hotels. On the plane, he got naked and only wore his robe. He’d go around and Wooo at the stewardesses, acting much like he does on television and much like you’d expect him to. Perhaps more than anyone else, Flair is from a generation where stuff like this was an almost nightly occurrence.
Flair was asked to calm down by Jim Ross, and did so. However, he was named in a lawsuit as well, and stewardesses claimed he placed their hands on his private parts and even sexually assaulted them. They claim he also whirled his penis around in front of them. Flair denied the charges, although one has to suspect there is at least some truth to them. The suit was settled out of court.
Scott Hall, whose alcohol problems are well known, was asleep for some of the plane ride. He did, however, cause scenes before he was out. As part of the lawsuit, one stewardess claimed he licked her, and then said he’d love to lick her vagina. He also allegedly asked one of them to perform oral sex on him. Hall remembers none of this, insisting he was too pilled up to recall.
Jim Ross later noted that Hall didn’t cause a disturbance on the plane, which is odd since he had to fire him a day later. According to Hall, he welcomed the firing because he was miserable with the WWF and would’ve rather been miserable at home. Hall was apparently a mess the entire tour, and Justin Credible said later that once the Plane Ride from Hell landed, he had to wheel Hall around in a wheelchair because he was passed out and unresponsive. He even had to wheel him through customs right past Jim Ross, who looked and shook his head in disgust. At one point Hall was so out of it that people were checking his pulse to see if he was still alive.
As noted, Hennig and Hall were fired for their behavior on the flight.
Vince and Stephanie McMahon were absolutely furious with Michael Hayes and Arn Anderson. Both were in management positions, and with Vince not on the tour, they were tasked with keeping the boys in line. Instead, they were part of the problem (both have histories of drinking heavily). It’s not an exaggeration to say they got their asses chewed out by Vince at Raw. Jim Ross also disciplined both, and Steve Austin was angry with Hayes for letting things get out of control. Undertaker, who had to have been on the flight, was also furious.
It was also the final time an open bar was made available on chartered flights. Jim Ross was upset as well, saying the plane was filled with millionaires acting like 9th graders on a field trip. He was tasked with firing Hall and Hennig, which couldn’t have been easy for him. While Ross was the voice of Raw, he was also the head of Talent Relations at the time. Unlike Hayes, Ross was popular among the wrestlers even though he was often the bearer of bad news (and bad payoffs).
While Hall later said he was happy to be filed, there were initial reports the following week that he was considering suing WWF for wrongful termination. The case would’ve gone nowhere, as there were numerous witnesses who saw him inebriated on the tour. Hall was eventually signed by TNA after this, which led many to shake their heads in disbelief.
While it’s easy to brand everyone here as drunk misfits, and that’s partially true, this is hardly an isolated incident. Jim Ross himself was fired a decade later for saying things after consuming too much alcohol. Vince himself got drunk and playful before, most notably the time at the strip club in 1991 where he took a lot of bumps and wanted to take down the Warlord.
The difference here again is that it happened while the company was public, and the nature of the times is that it got reported more widely due to the internet. This was before cell phones all had videocameras, and if that were the case, it’s possible some of these incidents may have been filmed.
It’s an ugly story that has grown out of proportion in years, and it’s the kind of story that just had to be documented here.