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Special Report: Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 

By: Chris Kilroy

December 29, 1972, holds a dark place in American aviation history. On this day, the first crash of a new "next generation" wide-body aircraft took place on U.S. soil. The airline: Eastern. The location: Miami, Florida.

The Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, which had departed some two hours earlier from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, contacted Miami approach control at approximately 11:15pm. In command of the aircraft was Captain Robert Loft, a 30,000 hour pilot who had flown the Tristar since its introduction. Also on the flight deck were First Officer Albert Stockstill and Flight Engineer Don Repo. At 11:29, the flight was instructed to join the ILS localizer to runway 9L. While turning onto final approach, Captain Loft called the tower and instructed Stocksill to lower the landing gear.

23.32:35 RDO-1 Miami Tower, Eastern 401 just turned on final
23.32:45 TWR Who else called?
23.32:48 CAM-1 Go ahead and throw 'em out [drop the gear]
23.32:52 RDO-1 Miami Tower, do you read, Eastern 401? Just turned on final.
23.32:56 TWR Eastern 401 Heavy, continue approach to 9 left.
23.33:00 RDO-1 Continue approach, roger

Shortly thereafter, the landing checklist was performed. When the landing gear item was reached, Loft noticed that only the two main gear lights had illuminated. Stockstill was then asked to check that the lever had been moved into position, which he did, and then replied "no nose gear!"  Loft then called the tower and informed them of the problem.

23.34:05 RDO-1 Well ah, tower, this is Eastern, ah, 401. It looks like we're gonna have to circle, we don't have a light on our nose gear yet
23.34:14 TWR Eastern 401 heavy, roger, pull up, climb straight ahead to two thousand, go back to approach control, one twenty eight six
23.34:19 CAM-2 Twenty-two degrees.
23:34:21 CAM-2 Twenty-two degrees, gear up
23:34:22 CAM-1 Put power on it first, Bert. Thata boy.

During the go around, Repo was troubleshooting the light to see if the problem was simply a defective bulb. Capt. Loft then instructed Stockstill to engage the autopilot so that he himself could check the indicator lights. When it became apparent that jiggling the bulb was doing no good, Repo was instructed to descend into the avionics bay to determine the position of the nose gear visually. Stockstill continued to concentrate on the indicator light, which he had now disassembled and was attempting to remove the bulb from. Repo several minutes later emerged from the avionics bay saying that he could not determine the gear's position. The crew decided that the wheel was, in fact, locked down and they called for a vector back to the airport.

As Stockstill began the turn back toward the field, he noticed that the aircraft's altitude had decreased. The ALT light on his panel, however, was illuminated, indicating that the autopilot was engaged.  

23.42:05 CAM-2 We did something to the altitude
CAM-1 What?
23.42:07 CAM-2 We're still at two thousand right?
23.42:09 CAM-1 Hey, what's happening here?
CAM [Sound of click]
23.42:10 CAM [Sound of six beeps similar to radio altimeter increasing in rate]
23.42:12 [Sound of impact]

The right wing impacted the Everglades swamp which led to the total breakup of the aircraft. Ninety-eight people, including the three flight crew members, were killed in the crash.

It was apparent from analysis of the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the lack of desperate communication with Air Traffic Control that no one in the cockpit that day saw anything unusual until seconds before the crash. The accident investigation began to focus on the final minutes before the accident. It was found on the Flight Data Recorder that the aircraft descended slowly at a rate of approximately 200 feet per minute. This descent rate would be totally un-noticable to anyone not looking at flight instruments. Investigators now needed to know why the aircraft descended.

The autoflight system of the L-1011 aircraft consists of a system which automatically disengages the autopilot if 15 pounds of pressure is placed on either control yoke. In 401's case, the Captain's computer was programmed properly to disengage at 15 pounds, but the First Officer's computer was improperly set to disengage at 20 pounds. Investigators concluded that when Loft turned to speak to Stockstill, he applied an inadvertant force on the yoke which disconnected the autopilot. With Stockstill's computer improperly programmed, his light which indicated autopilot engagement and altitude hold remained lit. The crew believed the autopilot was engaged.

The Ghost of Eastern Flight 401

(File Photo)
Myths about "The Ghost of Flight 401" have circulated among pilots of that airline since the years immediately following the accident. Apparently, parts of the doomed airliner were salvaged and used as replacements in the company's other TriStars. Well-known pilots, flight attendants, and numerous passengers alike reported seeing images of both Captain Loft and Second Officer Repo in various areas of Eastern's L-1011 fleet. One Senior Captain for the airline reported that, during the cruise portion of flight, he turned to the jumpseat to see Repo "sitting there clear as day. I turned around, turned back, and he was gone." Rumors of the sightings eventually led to a book and television movie concerning the accident.

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