Ghost Planes and Spooky Things

25 Oct 19 5 Comments

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.

Recreation of Eastern Airlines flight 401 by Anynobody

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.

Recreation of Eastern Airlines flight 401 by Anynobody

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.
Recreation of Eastern Airlines flight 401 by Anynobody

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.

Category: Fun Stuff,

5 Comments

  • Sylvia is known for scary stories, but backed up by official reports. This time she excels herself with a Halloween entry.
    Spooky !
    Do you believe it ? Maybe, maybe not but it is catchy !
    Oh, P.S. Samhain also heralded the start of winter in the calendar of the old Celts. Many celebrations are still held here in Ireland and if you have time I recommend visiting Trim or the Hill of Ward at Athboy.
    On the Hill of Ward traces have been found of ceremonies of festivals, dating back thousands of years. No, this is archeological evidencenot something made up. So is there something out there? And if spooke things happened a few thousands of years ago, why not in the more recent past, even to-day?
    Thank you Sylvia !

  • It sounds to me as if the ghost stories are bogus, but that crash is enough to give anyone the willies, even without the paranormal. The first item on any emergency checklist if Fly The Airplane. That is the direct legacy of Flight 401.

    Flight 401 is the first crash I remember reading about and certainly makes for interesting reading. Had they landed with the nose gear up, it would have been a bad day, but not a tragic day. But the nose gear was just fine and it would have been a routine The captain was exercising prudence but distraction won out in the end. After all the cussin’ and discussin’ is through, it’s a typical accident; many minor problems culminating in a large problem which far exceeds the sum of its parts. In retrospect, the solution is simple, appoint one person to fly the plane while the others troubleshoot the problem, but that didn’t happen here and the legacy is the first line of the Emergency Checklist.

    When I read about aviation accidents, I do it because I’m trying to learn why the “system” broke down. Not a system on the aircraft itself, but the system of everyone that is involved in the effort to produce a flight, being a student hop in a 150 or a wide body with hundreds of souls on board. While it’s not much comfort to grieving family members, I would like to think that the lives lost in the accidents we study help to produce the improvements in aviation safety that we’ve seen over the decades. I sure hope so.

  • Excellent post for this time of year. I’d heard about the haunting before, and thought at the time that the idea of reuse of elements from the crash sounded a bit suspect. Hard to believe things like a food trolley would have enough value, or that any more significant component would be in certification after a crash.

    Can we maybe expect coverage of the final MAX 8 report next week? I read it, and it seems a fair report, but not good reading for Boeing…

    • If you mean the Lion Air flight 610 report, it’s got a LOT in it. I’m going through it piece by piece but I don’t think I’ll have something for you next week or the week after, to be honest. I *am* working on it though!

  • Having followed Sylvia for quite some time now, I am sure that she will dig up any interesting aviation news and put it on this forum. She always provides excellent, well researched background information so Colinto need not worry.

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