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.
||Miami Tower, Eastern 401 just turned on
||Who else called?
||Go ahead and throw 'em out [drop the
||Miami Tower, do you read, Eastern 401? Just
turned on final.
||Eastern 401 Heavy, continue approach to 9
||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.
||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
||Eastern 401 heavy, roger, pull up, climb
straight ahead to two thousand, go back to approach control, one twenty eight
||Twenty-two degrees, gear up
||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
||We did something to the altitude
||We're still at two thousand right?
||Hey, what's happening here?
||[Sound of click]
||[Sound of six beeps similar to radio altimeter
increasing in rate]
||[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
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.