Ghost Planes and Spooky Things
I noticed yesterday that the nights were getting longer and there’s a distinct chill to the air. Rudy then mentioned Samhain, the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season, coinciding (not coincidentally) with All Saints’ Eve and Halloween. And what better time to share aviation’s best spooky story, the ghosts of flight 401.
I wrote about Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 years ago, in fact it was probably the first “mainstream” crash that I wrote about. And it shows: I barely referenced the accident report, instead highlighting other online articles, safely hiding behind other people’s words.
Still, the incident is probably known to most of you. On the 29th of December in 1972, Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was on approach to Miami Airport but when they lowered the landing gear, the indicator light did not illuminate, leading the crew to believe that the gear may not have extended correctly. They levelled at 2,000 feet to investigate the problem. The captain, Bob Loft, suspected that it might be a faulty indication, so the flight engineer, Don Repo, climbed down into the forward electronics bay, located under the cockpit, so that he could visually check whether the nose gear was down or not. Someone must have knocked the controls, because the autopilot disengaged and the aircraft entered a slow descent. The first officer accidentally jammed the nose gear light lens assembly, causing more chaos. A maintenance engineer who had come forward from the cabin climbed into the electronics bay to help the second officer visually check the nose gear.
The nose gear had extended correctly; the confirmation light hadn’t illuminated because a bulb had burned out on the dash. However, the problem stole the attention of all four men, who never realised that the aircraft was descending. The last words in the cockpit were the First Officer’s, who asked “We’re still at 2,000 feet, right?” directly before the left wing hit the ground. The flight crew and almost a hundred passengers were killed.
That’s all a matter of public record. The legend begins after the crash. The aircraft, Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, was only four months old and Eastern Airlines had salvaged parts from the downed plane for use as spare parts on their fleet. Which was all well and good until flight and cabin crew reported seeing the ghosts of flight crew of flight 401 on other L-1011s; specifically those L-1011s which were using salvaged parts from the crash.
Sightings of the apparitions became common and aviation forums are filled with descriptions of the ghosts and their warning.
Bob Loft appeared in the left seat in the cockpit, ready to fly, without anyone realising who he was until he disappeared in front of their eyes.
Don Repo, the flight engineer who had climbed into the bay, showed up before a flight to tell the engineer that there was no need to worry about the pre-flight checks, because he had already done it.
One flight crew reported that as they flew over the Everglades, they heard a loud knocking coming from the electronics bay. Someone opened the hatch to see Don Repo staring back at him. One presumes he then slammed it shut again. I would have.
A cabin crew member said that as she was cleaning the galley, she felt a chill. When she glanced up, she saw a man in the reflection of the glass doors of the oven but when she looked behind her there was no one there. When she reported it to the senior cabin crew member, she was told that happened a lot and just to ignore it. Later she discovered that the oven had been salvaged from flight 401.
Most notably, both flight and cabin crew reported seeing Don Repo on board a flight who then warned them to “watch out for fire on this plane”. The aircraft landed safely but the following day, so the story goes, one of the engines flamed out, leading to an emergency landing. One of the pilots, when asked about the landing, said, “Scary. For a minute I thought Repo’s ghost was on the plane.”
Then there was a sighting on a TWA flight, on the same aircraft type, where a pilot in an Eastern uniform warned the flight crew about the number three engine and then stood up and walked out.
Passengers started to report sightings as well, claiming that they’d seen pale and ill-looking flight crew in uniform sitting in the cabin who were recognisable as Bob Loft and Don Repo. One woman was said to be hysterical after claiming that she’d been speaking to a flight crew member for some time before he disappeared before her eyes; cabin crew joked that she’d probably bored him to death.
Intriguingly, there were no reports that the first officer or the maintenance engineer in the jump seat showing up on the L1011s: only Bob Loft and, most commonly, Don Repo.
The sightings of the two ghosts became so prolific that Eastern Airlines made a public statement that their aircraft were definitely not haunted. Eastern Airlines management warned employees that if they were caught spreading ghost stories, they could be sacked. However, at the same time, the maintenance teams quietly made a point of removing the salvaged parts from the active fleet.
One of the most popular stories really bugs me. Internet forums regularly mention Don Repo appearing on the flight deck to promise that the aircraft was safe and no further L-1011 would crash. Although the posts describing this moment all say that he kept his promise and there’s never been another crash of the aircraft type, a quick glance at Aviation Safety Network shows 9 hull losses since flight 401.
I’m not the other one bothered by the details. In 2017, the Skeptoid Podcast ran an episodes called Grounding of Ghost of Flight 401 which goes through the legends and effectively debunks the entire story:
- The parts from the crashed aircraft were never salvaged nor used in other aircraft
- Eastern Airlines say they failed to find a single staff member who claimed to have seen the ghosts
- Most of the ghostly sightings don’t appear until 1976, four years after the event, when an author who wrote about the paranormal published a book about the crash called The Ghost of Flight 401. In 1978, a film was made under the same name and the tales of the haunted aircraft hit the mainstream.
However, on a dark and rainy autumn night (on this side of the world at least), it’s tempting to believe in a flight engineer looking after his fellow crew and a captain who hasn’t quite relinquished the left seat just yet.