Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was a Lockheed L-1011 jet that crashed into the Florida Everglades on the night of December 29, 1972, causing 101 fatalities (77 initial crash survivors, two died shortly afterward). It was the first crash of a wide-body aircraft. The crash was a controlled flight into terrain as a result of the flight crew's failure to monitor the flight instruments during a malfunction of the landing gear position indicator system. It is also known for reported paranormalactivities, supposedly stemming from the salvage of aircraft parts.
The cockpit crew removed the light assembly and the flight engineer, Don Repo, was dispatched into the avionics bay beneath the flight deck to check visually if the gear was down through a small viewing window. Fifty seconds after reaching their assigned altitude, the captain, Robert Loft, instructed Stockstill to put the L-1011 on autopilot. For the next eighty seconds the plane maintained level flight. Then it dropped one hundred feet (30 m), and then again flew level for two more minutes, after which it began a descent so gradual it could not be perceived by the crew. In the next seventy seconds, the plane lost only 250 feet (76 m), but this was enough to trigger the altitude warning C-chord chime located under the engineer's workstation. The engineer, Don Repo, had gone below, and there was no indication by the pilot's voices recorded on the CVR that they heard the chime. In another fifty seconds, the plane was at half its assigned altitude. As Stockstill started another turn, onto 180 degrees, he noticed the discrepancy.The airplane crashed at 25°51′53″N, 80°35′43″WCoordinates: 25°51′53″N, 80°35′43″W. The location was west-northwest of Miami, 18.7 miles from the end of runway Nine Left. The plane was traveling at 227 miles per hour when it flew into the ground. The left wingtip hit first, then the left engine and the left landing gear, making three trails through the saw grass, each five feet wide and more than 100 feet long. When the main part of the fuselage hit the ground it continued to move through the grass and water, breaking up as it went.
Robert "Bud" Marquis, an airboat pilot, was out hunting frogs with Ray Dickinsin when they witnessed the crash. They rushed in to rescue survivors. Marquis received burns to his face, arms and legs, but continued shuttling people into and out of the crash site that night and the next day. For his efforts, he received the Humanitarian Award from the National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation and the "Alumitec – Airboat Hero Award," from the American Airboat Search and Rescue Association. In 2007, the Homestead, Florida resident was given an award plaque.
Cause of the Crash
The autopilot had been switched from Command Mode, to CWS (Control Wheel Steering Mode). In the latter, any small inputs to the flight controls will instruct the autopilot how to alter the airplane's course. In this case, small forward pressure on the steering column would force the plane into a descent. Investigators believe the autopilot switched modes when the captain accidentally leaned against the steering column while turning to speak to the flight engineer, who was sitting behind and to the right of him. Like tapping the brakes in a car that is in cruise control, pressure on the steering column switches the autopilot out of command mode. Investigation has shown (citation needed) that Eastern had installed mismatched control columns on the aircraft. The pilot side auto pilot would disengage at a lighter pressure than the co pilots. The co pilot, who was flying the aircraft, auto pilot indicator stayed lit and would have never displayed that the system had been disengaged inadvertently.
The final NTSB report cited the cause of the crash as pilot error, specifically: "the failure of the flight crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final four minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground. Preoccupation with a malfunction of the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew's attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed." Ninety-four passengers and five crewmembers died in the crash and two more died of injuries during the days following. The series of events leading to the crash of Flight 401 was initiated by two burned-out light bulbs indicating to the flight crew that the landing gear had malfunctioned. The landing gear was found to be in the down and locked position.
The Ghost of Flight 401
The story of the crash and its aftermath was documented in John G. Fuller's book The Ghost of Flight 401 (ISBN 0-425-06234-1).
Over the following months and years, employees of Eastern Air Lines began reporting sightings of the dead crew members on board another L-1011 (N318EA). The story was that parts of Flight 401 were salvaged after the crash investigation and refitted into the other L-1011. "Sightings" of the spirits of Don Repo and Bob Loft spread throughout Eastern Air Lines to the point where Eastern's management warned employees that they could face dismissal if caught spreading ghost stories. Eastern Air Lines CEO Frank Borman called it "garbage" and considered suing the producers of the 1978 made-for-TV movie The Ghost of Flight 401 for libel.
The apparitions of the crew members were allegedly sighted inside a Foster Refrigerator infrared oven that had been in the galley of Flight 401, and was later salvaged and put into another L-1011. After the supposed ghostly sightings, the oven was sent back to Foster Refrigerator in Hudson, New York.
The crash inspired two made-for-television movies. Crash dramatized the crash, rescue efforts and NTSB investigation, while The Ghost of Flight 401 was based on Fuller's book.
The aircraft in question was sold to Cathay Pacific after Eastern Air Lines went bankrupt. It was re-registered in Hong Kong as VR-HOI and served with Cathay Pacific until 1996 when the airline replaced its Tristar fleet with Airbus A330-300 aircraft