Eastern Airlines Flight 401

At the time our story takes place the Tristar Jet (Lockheed L-1011) was a mere four months old in December 1972 and the height of commercial aviation. In fact, it’s release was just a little later than the equally nascent Boeing 747. On December 29th, 1972 there were 163 passengers abroad along with 10 flight attendants, and three crew members. The Eastern Air Lines flight 401 was headed out of chilly JFK Airport in New York towards Miami. However, most of those aboard this flight would not reach their final destination...and some, they say, still wander the skies.

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Captain Bob Loft was the pilot at the controls and with over 30 years of experience and normal flying conditions, there was no reason this flight wouldn’t be like the hundreds he had flown. Additionally, Donald L. Repo, an aircraft mechanic, and First Officer John Stockhill, a flight engineer were aboard. However, an issue was encountered when the front nose gear was having some issues and despite attempts to lower it, the signal that it was actually down and locked never appeared. Air Traffic Control was alerted and the plane was put into a holding pattern over the Florida Everglades.

The three-man crew worked diligently to solve the problem. Once autopilot was engaged, the malfunctioning light was dismantled by Captain Loft and First Officer John Stockhill, while flight engineer Luis Repo attempted to use a porthole in order to get a visual on the gear. 

Sadly, their driven focus on the interior landing light was so all-consuming that they failed to realize that one of the crew members had accidentally switched off the autopilot. As they steadily lost altitude, the crew nor the people on board were aware that their lives would be in grave danger soon. Because ATC had them in a holding pattern over the Everglades, there were no city lights or other visual cues that could help alert anyone aboard that they were plummeting. 

By the time the crew realized how horribly wrong their flight was going, it was too late. Flight 401 crash-landed into the Everglades as jet fuel engulfed it at over 250mph. The National Transportation Safety Board reported after an investigation that the main fuselage broke into four sections, which killed First Officer Stockhill instantly. 

A mere 67 of the 163 passengers managed to survive the crash, along with 8 of the flight attendants. Repo and Captain Loft died en route to the hospital and during the rescue, respectively. 

The crash of Flight 401 on December 29th, 1972 remains one American aviation’s worst aerial disasters. 

But what does this do with Astonishing Legends (...well, besides the fact that Scott really likes planes, trains, and automobiles?). Well, shortly after the crash rumors and sightings began to swell in the aviation community and beyond.

One of the biggest reasons people attribute to the flight crew and other strange things happening on other Tristar Jets is the fact that the undamaged parts of Flight 401 were used in other Eastern Air Lines planes.

A little over a year later in 1973, an Eastern Airlines Tristar was boarding at JFK to its flight down to Miami. That morning, one of the Vice Presidents of Eastern Airlines was traveling, so he decided to board the airplane quite early. As he moved towards his seat, he noticed a company captain in full uniform in the first class cabin walking around. Excited to have a chat with the pilot, he walked over and the two began to discuss the flight. However, the VP soon realized something was amiss as he realized that not only did he recognize the man, this man was no other than Captain Loft. Stunned and confused, the VP called for a crew member and as he turned his head the apparition of Captain Loft vanished. Seeing this as a sign the VP requested that a full search of the plane be carried out to find either the Captain or something wrong with the aircraft. Nothing was found and the flight had no problems...but maybe that is from Captain Loft’s double-check.

Another story recognizes Repo as the haunter of the Eastern Air L-1011. A flight engineer arrived at the L-1011 and was shocked to see another engineer had beat him there. Thinking there was some kind of confusion, the flight engineer approached the other flight engineer and before he could speak, he recognized the engineer...it was Don Repo. Before the flight engineer could turn or scream or do anything, Repo simply said “You don’t need to worry about the pre-flight, I’ve already done it.” before disappearing.

However, the most infamous sighting of the doomed crew members was on Flight 903 from JFK en route to Mexico City. A Stewardess, Fay Merryweather, was busy in the galley prepping meals for the flight. As she reached for the oven door to put in the next round of food, she screamed as she saw the face of Repo staring back at her. Frightened, she brought another stewardess and the aircraft engineer on board to check the oven. Shockingly, and unlike other sightings of Repo, his face remained...and looked as if it was trying to communicate with them. Finally, after a few seconds, the apparition muttered “Watch out for a fire in this plane” before it disappeared into the ether.

The flight reached Mexico City without any hiccups, except for a few frightened members of the team, however, on the return flight there were problems with the starboard engine. An inspection was done but the flight was cleared for take-off. However, as it rose the engine failed and backfired repeatedly. The engine was shut down right before it caught on fire and no one was injured.

After this incident and the many little stories that had swirled around Eastern Air and beyond, it was rumored that pilots would refuse to fly planes that had parts of Flight 401. Interestingly enough, all of the salvaged parts of Flight 401 were removed from Eastern Air’s L-1011. 

On Eastern Air, at least, there were no other Tristar Jet crashes...and one has to wonder if the crew members were making amends for the problem they couldn’t solve on that night in 1972

Today, the Tristar is the last non-Russian wide-body airliner to enter production that is not manufactured directly by Airbus or Boeing. In popular culture, it remains a popular aviation ghost story...however, it’s more than just words. The airplane prop in the first episode of Lost was directly derived from a dismantled Tristar Jet that had belonged to Delta. 

The above image is of a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar Jet. It is not the same plane as Flight 401, nor is it specifically rumored to have ever contained any of 401’s parts. The above image is of Eastern Airline L-1011, though. It is licensed under CC by 3.0 and was taken by VersaGeek.