It was Christmas 1972 and passengers and crew onboard Eastern Airlines Flight 401 were making the relatively short journey between New York and Florida. They would never arrive.
This tragic air crash was the most deadly ever to have occurred in the US at the time and generated heartbreaking stories of loss, heroism and love. However, it also created a ghost story that has never really been explained to this day. Here, we will take a closer look.
A routine flight
The aircraft assigned to Eastern Airlines Flight 401 that December 29th was an L-1011 from Lockheed, often referred to as a Whisperliner due to its quiet engines.
It had been cleared for a 9PM departure from New York’s JFK airport to Miami, with Captain Robert Loft at the helm and Albert John Stockstill, a former Air Force flier, as his co-pilot.
Also on board were 25-year Eastern veteran Donald Louis Repo as engineer and second officer, maintenance specialist Angelo Donadeo, and Warren Terry, who was off-duty but hitching a ride to return from a duty assignment.
The manifest listed 153 passengers, but there were in fact 160 on board, as well as the close-knit cabin crew that included 25-year-old Beverly Raposa and her colleague Mercedes ‘Mercy’ Ruiz.
The flight was uneventful and had crossed the Palmetto Expressway as it cruised over West Palm Beach to Miami, with the captain already having told his passengers the weather in the beach-side city as he made preparations to land.
Photo by Andrew Scofield
It was then, just before 11:40 PM, that a problem arose in the cockpit. Stockstill voiced his concern that a light had not come on to show the landing gear in the plane’s nose was lowered as it should be.
Loft tried again to lower it, but nothing had apparently happened. The crew made a U-turn and told air traffic controllers they would circle again as they attempted to ensure the landing gear was correctly lowered.
They put the aircraft on autopilot and Loft climbed down into the avionics bay, a space beneath the flight deck, to see if he could personally check what was going on. Meanwhile, the others struggled with the cockpit display to see if the fault lay with one of its tiny light bulbs.
Suddenly, the cockpit voice recorder captured a chilling phrase from Stockstill:
“We did something to the altitude.”
The plane should have been at 2,000 ft, but it had somehow dropped dramatically. A moment later, the voice recorder captured Loft’s voice:
“Hey, what’s happening here?”
The phrase would be the last communication to come from Flight 401.
Devastating crash — and desperate rescue mission
At 11:43 PM, Miami air traffic control got a message from another aircraft to say they had seen an explosion close by. The 401 broke up into several sections upon impact and traveled more than a third of a mile before finally coming to a halt.
Aftermath and investigation
In total, 75 passengers and crew survived. The eventual death toll would be 103, with some succumbing to their wounds after the event. Many drowned in the water of the Everglades before rescuers could reach them.
A sudden descent of 100 ft occurred, followed by two minutes of steady flight. After this, the aircraft began to descend so gradually as to be imperceptible before the pilots saw they were far too low. Although they tried to pull up, it was too late and the wing hit the water.
Investigators realised the confusion in the cockpit over the landing gear light must have been enough to distract the pilots and mean an altitude warning chime wasn’t heard.
As to why the aircraft began to descend at all, other Eastern pilots testified to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that their altitude hold function could be disengaged by bumping the control column.
The NTSB therefore theorised that Loft had probably nudged the control column as he turned to talk to Repo about going down into the avionics bay to check the landing gear, which accidentally nudged the aircraft into a lower trajectory that it then automatically maintained.
In a sad twist, the landing gear was found to be down exactly as it should have been, meaning the crash was effectively caused by two burnt out light bulbs.
Eastern Flight 401 was the first jumbo jet to crash and the loss of life was the worst in US civil aviation history at the time.
Not the end of the story — ghosts in the machine?
Soon after, stories began to emerge that passengers and crew members on other Eastern flights were being visited by some of those who had died. At JFK, a boarding crew saw Loft sitting in the flight deck dressed in his uniform. Not realising who he was, they talked to him for a few moments before he allegedly disappeared in front of their eyes. The crew was so shaken that the flight had to be cancelled.
On another occasion, a flight engineer saw Don Repo and the apparition told him he had already done the pre-flight checks before he vanished. During a flight from Atlanta to Miami, a crew heard knocking coming from the avionics hold and opened it to see the face of Repo looking back out at them.
Perhaps the most startling episode was when a flight attendant on a trip from Mexico City to JFK saw Don Repo’s face reflected in an oven door and heard him tell her to beware of fire. As the plane climbed, the engine indeed caught fire and the pilot was forced to shut it down and make an emergency landing back at the airport. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
All in all, there were more than 20 incidents in which people reported having seen ghostly apparitions of dead Flight 401 crew members. Sightings had become so commonplace during 1973 that a report was published about them the following year in the US Flight Safety Foundation newsletter.
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