Ghost fliers from Eastern 401

Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, a fairly new Lockheed L-1011-1 Tristar jet, crashed into the Florida Everglades on 29 December 1972, claiming 101 lives. There were 75 survivors.

The plane, known as a “Whisperliner,” could carry 229 passengers. On this particular flight plane number 310 carried 163 passengers and 13 crew.

The jet lifted off in bitterly cold weather from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport at 9:20 pm for the short-haul flight to Miami.

According to surviving passengers and crew, no one in the cabin noticed anything unusual as the flight headed over the Atlantic Ocean towards Miami International Airport.

The Tristar was the latest generation of wide-body commercial aircraft and had entered service only four months before.

As the plane began its final landing approach to Miami International, a cheerful voice of the captain over the cabin’s loudspeaker address system announced: “Welcome to sunny Miami. The temperature is in the low 70s, and it’s beautiful out there tonight.”

Captain Bob Loft and Second Officer Don Repo were ready for a routine landing. But suddenly a warning light flashed. There was a problem with the landing gear.

At 11.32 pm, Captain Loft, then 55 years old with 30 years’ experience and 29,700 flight hours, tried to lower the landing gear. A light on the instrument panel failed to illuminate green to confirm the nose landing gear was extended and locked.

Two minutes later, Flight 401 called the air traffic control tower. “Tower, this is Eastern … 401, it looks like we’re going to have to circle. We don’t have a light on our nose gear yet.”

“Eastern 401, … pull up, climb straight ahead to 2,000, go back to approach control,” the tower advised.

The plane climbed to 2,000 ft (610 m), and the captain ordered the first officer to turn the autopilot on. He hoped the circling delay would give them time to fix the problem.

The crew tried to insert a replacement bulb, a small all-in-one light assembly unit covered by a translucent green plastic lens. But it kept jamming. At some point someone inadvertently bumped the control wheel, knocking the autopilot partially off. The unintentional jar apparently caused the plane’s nose to tilt down a few degrees.

The altimeter showed a decrease in altitude, but none of the crew noticed. The plane was dropping from the sky at a rate of just over 60 m a minute. An alarm drew attention to the drop.

At 11:42 p.m., the first officer said, “We did something to the altitude.”

“What?” asked the captain.

“We’re still at 2,000, right?” the first officer asked.

“Hey, what’s happening here?” the captain shouted.

The plane had lost altitude rapidly. The crash was inevitable and the plane slammed into the marsh at 360 km/h.

 Wreckage of 401

It was the first crash of a wide-body aircraft and, at the time, the second deadliest single-aircraft disaster in the US.

Investigators determined that the flight crew became preoccupied with the indicator light and did not notice the autopilot had been disconnected.

Captain Loft and Second Officer Repo survived the initial impact, but both died of their injuries soon after.

The cause of the crash was determined to be pilot error linked to a couple of minor design faults in the controls that Lockheed rapidly corrected.

The website Flight 401 – The Black Box Story provides an account of the crash as told using material from the Black Box.

The real story of Flight 401 should have been the heroic rescue of the survivors. And that was the case until Eastern Airlines began fitting salvaged parts to other planes.

The ghosts of Loft and Repo were seen on more than 20 occasions by crew members on other Eastern Tri-Stars, particularly planes which had been fitted with parts salvaged from the Flight 401 wreckage.

The ghosts of the two men were never seen together on any one flight, and sightings of Don Repo were much more common than of Bob Loft. There were also several reports of the two flight attendants who had died in the crash being seen on various Eastern Airlines flights.

The apparitions of Loft and Repo were invariably described as being extremely lifelike. They were reported by people who had known Loft and Repo, but amazingly their ghosts were also identified from photographs by people who had not known the men.

The incidents prompted probably the most exhaustive research into the phenomenon of ghosts.

Although Eastern Airlines would not discuss the sightings or the salvaging of parts, researchers interviewed many people who claimed to have encountered the pair on L-1011 flights.

A captain checking the instruments before a flight from Miami to Atlanta reported the apparition of Reop staring in the face and he claimed he distinctly heard the words “There will never be another crash on an L1011. We will not let it happen.”

The conclusion was that Loft and Repo devoted their after-lives to watching over the passengers and crew on the planes.

Several Eastern crew members reported seeing Repo in the cockpit and the galley of some flights.

They said he was particularly concerned with flight safety, and even once pointed out a potential fire hazard and a hydraulic leak.

In another reported sighting a flight engineer was carrying out the routine pre-flight inspection when Repo appeared to him and said, “You don’t need to worry about the pre-flight, I’ve already done it.”

In yet another report, a flight attendant who saw a man in a flight engineer’s uniform (later identified as Repo) fixing a galley oven. The plane’s own flight engineer insisted he had not fixed the oven, and that there was no other engineer on board. Repo was also seen in the compartment below the cockpit by a flight engineer who had entered it to investigate a knocking he heard.

It is claimed Captain Loft’s ghost was also seen on some flights, sitting in first class or in the crew cabin.

A flight attendant is said to have confronted Loft, asking what he was doing on the plane as she had not seen him board and could not identify him on the passenger manifest. Receiving no reply, she reported it to her flight captain. He walked back with her and recognised Loft, who disappeared immediately in front of a dozen people.

On another occasion, Faye Merryweather, a flight attendant, saw Repo’s face looking out at her from an oven in the galley of Tri-Star 318. Alarmed, she called two colleagues, one of whom was a flight engineer who had been a friend of Repo and recognised him instantly. All three heard Repo warn them to, “Watch out for fire on this airplane.” The plane later encountered serious engine trouble and the last leg of its flight was cancelled. The galley had been salvaged from flight 401.

The sightings were reported to the Flight Safety Foundation (an independent authority) which commented: “The reports were given by experienced and trustworthy pilots and crew. We consider them significant. The appearance of the dead flight engineer (Repo) … was confirmed by the flight engineer.”

The airline remained sceptical but is understood to have ordered all the salvaged parts of the ill–fated Flight 401 be removed from the planes that had received them.

Airline sources said once that happened, all sightings stopped. Eastern Airlines ceased operations in 1991.

The ghost stories became a best-seller by author John G. Fuller, The Ghost of Flight 401.

  • Based on an article in Vanished, Planes that Disappear, by Chris McLeod and published by Wilkinson Publishing, Mystery Series.

    For ghost story of a different kind, see “The Guyra Ghost” on this site.