December 29, 1972
401 was a Lockheed Tristar
bound from John F. Kennedy International Airport
in New York
to Miami International Airport
, with 162 passengers and 14 crew on board.
At 11:30 PM, as the aircraft was turning to intercept the ILS approach into Miami, the pilots began going through the approach checklist. They had to stop, however, when they discovered that the indicator light for the plane's nose gear wasn't on. Unsure of whether the light was burned out or the nose gear simply hadn't come down, the flight engineer, Don Repo, began fiddling with the light to try and make it come on.
When this didn't happen, Repo decided to go down to the avionics bay, a hole located under the flight deck from where he would be able to figure out whether or not the landing gear was actually down or not: he took an Eastern technician with him, who happened to be conveniently riding in the cockpit's jump seat.
Captain Robert Loft told First Officer Albert Stockskill to turn on the plane's autopilot as they cruised at 2,000 feet over the Everglades, so that the pilots could work on the light themselves.
Eventually, the pilots managed to ascertain that the landing gear was, indeed, down, and the aircraft was safe for landing. As air traffic control gave them a vector back toward Miami, Stockstill looked at the altimeter and said, "We did something to the altitude!" This was followed by a brief, confused conversation, and then the beeping of radio altimeters as the left wing sliced into the ground and the plane fell into the swamp. 98 people were killed in the crash.
The cause of the crash, as you might have guessed, was pilot error: neither of the men in front were paying any attention to the plane's altitude. It is believed, although not proven, that Stockskill may have accidentally shut off the autopilot by inadvertently pushing too hard on the control yoke.
But here's where it all gets weird. Many parts off the aircraft were salvaged and fitted to other Eastern Tristars. After the crash, the "ghosts" of both Repo and Loft were sighted by crewmembers on more than twenty different Eastern Tristars, most of which had salvaged parts from 401. John G. Fuller interviewed the many witnesses to these ghosts, and published a book called The Ghosts of Flight 401 in 1978, which was also made into a TV movie. In most of the cases, the captain and flight engineer appeared sitting in the cabin in full uniform, and after the witness would speak to them, they would disappear. Repo was sighted on several occasions fixing minor mechanical problems on aircraft in flight.
One captain claimed to have heard Loft say "There will never be another crash. We will not let it happen." This story seemed to corroborate with other stories to indicate that Loft and Repo had become, in a sense, the guardian angels of the Lockheed Tristar. Since flight 401 went down in 1972, there have been five more Tristars written off, all of them due to pilot error or inclement weather: not one of the aircraft has crashed because of a mechanical failure. Are Loft and Repo really watching over the world's Tristars as they fly? We may never know for sure...