Forty years ago on the 29th of December in 1972, Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades. It was an uneventful flight from JFK until shortly before they were at the approach at Miami Airport. When the flight-crew lowered the landing gear, they did not receive confirmation that the nose wheel was down and locked. The indicator light did not come on. The flight crew investigated the problem as jet circled west over the Everlades at 2,000 feet.
A lightbulb had burned out in the cockpit. That was all. But the issue distracted the crew completely.
The Captain recycled the landing gear but the green light did not come on. The flight crew confirmed they were climbing to 2,000 feet to investigate the problem. They were unsure if the indicator light was faulty or the landing gear had failed to deploy. There was a manual override on the landing gear, so that even if the hydraulics were faulty, the landing gear could still be lowered.
The Captain, the First Officer and the Second Officer were joined by a passenger sitting in the jumpseat, a maintenance engineer returning to Miami. Four qualified aviation professionals were now looking at the problem. The Second Officer descended into the forward electronics bay to check on the nose gear. All four men in the cockpit focused on trouble-shooting the problem and not a single one was watching the flight instruments. No one was flying the plane.
In unison, we looked up to see the silhouette of a Lockheed L1011 flying westbound at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. It was somewhere between 11:30 pm and 11:35 pm, a fact that I specifically remember because I took the time to look at my wristwatch and comment to Bill. The underside of the L1011 was reflecting the ground lighting from the airport and the surrounding city which made it easy to identify the aircraft type although we couldn’t identify the airline. (The largest L1011 operators then at MIA were Eastern Airlines and Delta Airlines, but I don’t recall seeing any airline markings when the L1011 was overhead.)
What was so strange was that it was there in the first place. It was rare for commercial airliners to fly westbound directly overhead Opa locka Airport at such a relatively low altitude. The control tower at Opa locka shut down at 11pm each evening back then so the L1011 had to be in contact with Miami Approach Control, since we assumed it was ultimately being vectored for an approach to MIA.
The Captain leaned against the yoke while turning to speak to the flight engineer. This pressure on the control stick caused the aircraft to enter a slow descent. The autopilot – inadvertently set to control wheel steering mode – held the pitch attitude as set by the pilot, continuing the gentle descent while the crew continued to investigate the possible nose gear malfunction.
The First Officer jammed the nose gear light lens assembly when he was trying to replace it. As the Captain and the First Officer discussed the jammed assembly, a chime sounded to alert the crew that they had descended below 2,000 feet but no one paid any attention.
The Second Officer complained that he couldn’t see anything in the dark. The maintenance specialist who was in the jump seat entered the electronics bay to help him.
There was nothing wrong with the nose gear. A $12 lightbulb in the control panel had burnt out.
The Lockheed L-1011 began a stealth descent. No one in the cockpit noticed. In the cabin, all readied to land.
Ruiz, seated facing the back of the plane, walked over to flight attendant Pat Ghyssels and wondered why the aircraft was flying away from the city lights.
“She said to me: ‘Oh, Mercy, stop complaining. It’s the holidays. If we’re a little late, it’s overtime,’‚” Ruiz said.
The approach controller asked how they were doing, noticing that the flight was at 900 feet on his radar display. He wasn’t sure if it was a display issue or the aircraft but he said he wasn’t worried.
Captain Loft, finally convinced that the problem was simply the bulb, told the controller that they were ready to turn around and come back in. At 23:41:47, the approach controller confirmed their clearance. The aircraft started the turn back towards Miami.
The flight-crew noticed something amiss seconds before impact. The First Officer’s final words were “We’re still at 2,000 feet, right?” That’s when the left wing hit the ground.
The aircraft disappeared from the controller’s radar screen at 23:42:10.
Out in the darkness, Bud Marquis and a friend were hunting frogs.
He’d launch his airboat at the Miccosukee Indian Reservation on the Tamiami Trail and race north into the river of grass.
On a moonless night, in the beam of his head lamp, the frog eyes would glow like rubies. He’d cruise up on the frog, spear the frog with the 3-pronged gig, knock the frog off the gig into a sack, all the while moving forward in the airboat while getting ready to gig another frog. Mama, heat up the frying pan. We’re having legs tonight.
Bud Marquis had experienced better nights of frogging. But he and his helper had 30 pounds of legs.
“Then I saw this great big fireball and the whole ‘glades lit up. Then zip, the light was out.”Bud revved up the engine and headed northwest.
That section of the Everglades is a tangle of sawgrass, tree islands, canals and levees. Fortunately, Bud was an expert. With the engine dangerously wide open – the boat slipped over the grass at 35 mph – he maneuvered around all obstacles.
Then wham! Aground. When he stopped the engine to push the boat back into the water, he heard a chorus of terrified human voices, hollering, moaning, shrieking.
He cranked up the engine and moved toward the sound. He shut down the engine again to listen. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Someone had seen his frogging light.
In the narrow beam of his head lamp he now saw enormous strips of torn metal. He saw openings in the sawgrass created by sliding chunks of broken airplane. He saw a man standing, shocked, in knee-deep water.
Bud was first on the scene. He burned his face, his arms and his legs but he never stopped trying to rescue the passengers from the burning aircraft, all that night and the following morning. As a direct result of his efforts, seventy-seven people survived the crash. The maintenance engineer, the passenger in the jumpseat, broke his back in the impact but survived.
Ninety-nine people, including the flight crew, died that night. Two more died as a result of injury or infection.
Over the following months and years, employees of Eastern Air Lines began reporting sightings of the dead crew members, captain Robert Loft and second officer (flight engineer) Donald Repo, sitting on board other L-1011 (N318EA) flights.
Parts of Flight 401 were salvaged after the crash investigation and refitted into other L-1011s.The reported hauntings were only seen on the planes that used the spare parts. 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.
While Eastern Airlines publicly denied some of their planes were haunted, they reportedly removed all the salvaged parts from their L-1011 fleet. Over time, the reporting of ghost sightings stopped. An original floor board from Flight 401 remains in the archives at History Miami in South Florida.
The source of the ghost stories appears to have been an issue of Flight Safety Foundation, who interviewed a pilot who had lost an engine, making for a challenging landing. He joked that he “saw the ghost of Don Repo” which was later presented by a best-selling author as fact in his book, The Ghost of Flight 401.
An Eastern Air Lines Lockheed L-1011 crashed at 2342 eastern standard time, December 29, 1972, 18.7 miles west-northwest of Miami International Airport, Miami Florida. The aircraft was destroyed. Of the 163 passengers and 13 crew-members aboard, 94 passengers and 5 crew members received fatal injuries. Two survivors died later as a result of their injuries.
Following a missed approach because of a suspected nose gear malfunction, the aircraft climbed to 2,000 feet mean sea level and proceeded on a westerly heading. The three flight crew-members and a jumpseat occupant became engrossed in the malfunction.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the failure of the flightcrew to monitor the flight instruments during the final 4 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.