The Crash of Flight 401
On December 29, 1972, 101 people were killed aboard a Lockheed L-1011 passenger jet when Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed while on route to Miami, Florida.
At the time, the crash of Flight 401 was the first loss of a wide-bodied passenger jet in the United States. Additionally, the crash of Flight 401 was then considered to be the worst accident in the history of aviation in the United States.
Flight 401 took off from New York’s JFK Airport at 9:20 PM on December 29, 1972 with 163 passengers and a crew of 13, bound for Miami. The flight was commanded by Captain Robert Loft, his first officer, Albert Stockstill and a flight engineer, Second Officer Donald Repo. The flight was routine, until Flight 401 began to approach Miami International Airport.
As Loft and Stockstill began going through the pre-landing checklist, Stockstill noticed that the landing gear indicator light had not come on. Puzzled, Loft ordered Stockstill to cycle the landing gear again. When the indicator light still did not come on, Loft ordered Repo to confirm visually that the landing gear had lowered properly.
Loft was working the radio and informed the control tower that they were having problems with their landing gear. He asked for instructions to circle the airport while they sorted out the difficulties. The airplane levelled off at 2,000 feet and headed west over the Everglades.
At the same time, Loft and Stockstill began to remove the indicator light from the console in an attempt to discover the problem, perhaps thinking that it had simply shorted out.
The airplane maintained this altitude for approximately 80 seconds, then despite the fact that the plane was on autopilot, Flight 401 dropped 100 feet. It continued to fly at this altitude for another two or three minutes. At this point in time, Flight 401 began a more gradual descent, so gentle that the crew probably didn’t notice it right away. By the time they responded, it was too late.
Flight 401 crashed in the Florida Everglades at 11:32 PM on December 29, 1972, 18.7 miles west-northwest of Miami International Airport.
Among the first to arrive on the scene were Robert “Bud” Marquis and his companion Ray Dickinsin, who had been out that night hunting for frogs. Marquis received burns on his face and hands trying to reach the survivors. He would later receive numerous awards for his efforts that night.
Of the 176 people onboard, 101 were killed. 99 died in the crash and another two died a few days later in hospital as a result of complications from their injuries.
The Flight 401 Crash Investigation
The NTSB investigation revealed that the autopilot had been accidentally switched off. The final NTSB report put the cause of the crash down to pilot error for failing to properly monitor their instruments.
The Flight 401 Ghost Sightings
This was not the end of the story, however. Parts from Flight 401 were salvaged and used in other Eastern L-1011 airplanes. This resulted in numerous ghost sightings by staff and passengers, including one memorable incident in which, the dead pilot’s face was seen an infrared oven. Eastern Airlines employees were warned that such reports could mean dismissal.
The sightings also resulted in the production of a book The Ghost of Flight 401, by John G Fuller, which in turned spawned a song of the same name, as well as two TV movies, one of which was based on Fuller’s book. The producers of The Ghost of Flight 401 were sued for libel by Eastern Airlines CEO Frank Borman, who dismissed the sightings as “garbage.”
NTSB Accident Summary. National Transportation Safety Board. Feb.17/09
Fuller, John G. The Ghost of Flight 401. Berkley.1983
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- February 18, 2009 / 6:22 pm
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