Grounding the Ghost of Flight 401
It was one of the great ghost stories of the 1970s. One of the world's newest and flashiest airliners, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, was making one of its first flights for Eastern Air Lines on December 29, 1972. It infamously crashed in Florida's Everglades swamp just before midnight, killing 101 of the 176 people on board. The story goes that parts from it were salvaged and installed in other L-1011s, and almost immediately, the ghost stories began. Air crews reported seeing apparitions of their dead coworkers on board the planes that had Flight 401's spare parts. Books and TV movies frightened audiences, and this ghost story that had it all became a permanent fixture in great American tales of the paranormal. Surely, pilots and air crew would never make up such stories, would they? To all who shivered at night in fear of this creepy story, it seemed that it must have been true as reported.
The actual crash was, in fact, true as reported; and there's never been any real doubt over what the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigators determined. Pilot Bob Loft, copilot Bert Stockstill, and flight engineer Don Repo were bringing the plane in to land at Miami International Airport. They got a warning light on the landing gear. Loft told Stockstill to put the plane on autopilot while Repo went below to the avionics bay (called the "hell hole") to manually check the landing gear. Loft accidentally nudged the control yoke, perhaps with his knee, while turning around to speak to Repo, and the autopilot mode was one which followed whatever pitch the pilot set with the yoke. None of them realized in the dark that they were gradually descending, as their attention was on debugging the landing gear indicator. Stockstill began a turn to follow the airport's approach pattern, and immediately noticed their altitude — but it was too late. The plane crashed into the swamp; fortunately, it was a relatively gentle angle into a soft surface, and that's what allowed so many to survive. All three of Loft, Stockstill, and Repo were among the unlucky majority who perished.
The stories began four years later with the publication of John G. Fuller's 1976 book The Ghost of Flight 401, which revealed that those four years had been filled with incidents of flight crew being startled by apparitions of Loft and Repo appearing on board other Eastern Air Lines planes. It all started — according to the book — when a later L-1011 owned by Eastern Air Lines was on a flight to Mexico City. One of the flight attendants happened to glance at the window of an oven in the galley, and saw the face of a man looking back at her! She went and got another flight attendant, who came and saw the same thing. Frightened, they called the flight deck, and the flight engineer came down to have a look for himself. He not only saw the face too, but recognized it as none other than Don Repo, the engineer who died on Flight 401. The image of Repo said "Watch out for fire on this airplane," and then disappeared.
Sure enough, once arrived in Mexico City, it was discovered that one of the three engines was damaged and would have to be replaced. A ferry crew was assigned to fly it back home empty for repairs. But when they took off, one of the two remaining engines flamed out, forcing them to make an emergency landing on just one engine. From an aviation perspective, this was no small feat.
Author Fuller noted that, mysteriously, the cockpit voice recorder was also replaced when the repair work was finally done, which struck him as odd. In his investigations talking with various airline employees (which occupy most of the book), he discovered the likely reason: According to the flight crew, who were highly reluctant to discuss it, Don Repo had appeared in the cockpit and talked them through the landing.
This just the beginning. Pilots and flight attendants frequently saw Don Repo after that, and always he gave them some valuable maintenance note about the aircraft. Captain Bob Loft was also seen on a few occasions, but never as often as Repo. The explanation soon became clear: the apparitions were always on aircraft that contained equipment salvaged from Flight 401. The L-1011 was new, parts were scarce, and any non-structural components that passed scrutiny — said Fuller — went into Eastern's spare parts pool. In particular, an oven and the elevator (for the L-1011 had an elevator leading to a spacious downstairs galley) were salvaged from Flight 401 and installed on another L-1011 in the fleet, on which Repo usually appeared. It was, in fact, the same plane that had the trouble in Mexico City.
Fuller's book was soon made into a popular TV movie, also called The Ghost of Flight 401, notable for having creeped people out for years. The haunted aircraft components that harbored the flight engineer's benevolent ghost entered the hall of fame of 1970s urban legends.
Fuller wrote that the airline was apparently trying to cover this up. He said that every time an appearance of the ghosts had been entered into a plane's logbook, the logbook was suddenly replaced with a new blank one. He told of an unidentified mechanic who came upon a whole stockroom of equipment, all in perfect working condition, that Eastern had ordered to be removed from various aircraft. They were all the pieces that had been salvaged from Flight 401, including the oven and elevator, but many other pieces as well. Whenever someone told Fuller such a story, they frequently asked him not to use their real name, out of fear of reprisal from the company; thus, the book is full of untraceable sources and unverifiable claims.
This becomes less surprising when you look at Fuller's publishing history. The Ghost of Flight 401 was not much of a departure for him. He usually wrote UFO books, and was best known for The Interrupted Journey about the Betty and Barney Hill case. Obviously, this is a red flag waving at us vigorously that we should be sure to take this tale with several good grains of salt. But fortunately, it is not the only source available to us.
Robert Serling's 1980 book From the Captain to the Colonel tells the complete history of Eastern Airlines, from 1935 when it was headed by World War I ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, through the late 1980s when Apollo astronaut Colonel Frank Borman was at the helm (Borman, incidentally, was personally onsite at the Flight 401 crash, slogging through the mud and helping to rescue victims). Fuller's claims that Eastern executives tried to bully their employees into silence about the ghosts led them to nearly file suit against the publisher, but Borman nixed the plan, rightly feeling that doing so would give the book even more publicity.
An Eastern representative told Serling that, while pondering whether to sue Fuller or his publisher:
Serling also tracked down the Mexico City emergency landing, and found, predictably, that there was no truth whatsoever to the story of a face appearing in an oven window. The breakdown and subsequent emergency landing did in fact happen, and was covered in a tongue-in-cheek brief in the journal of the Flight Safety Foundation. In it, at a party a few weeks after the emergency landing, someone asked one of the pilots how it had been to land an L-1011 on only one engine. The guy laughed and said "Scary. For a minute I thought [Don] Repo's ghost was on the plane."
This one quip appears to be the genesis of the entire story. Perhaps Fuller read it, and was inspired to concoct the rest of the story. But one other very important thing we learn from Serling's history of Eastern Air Lines is that the central claim of Fuller's book — that ghosts accompanied the salvaged pieces of Flight 401 installed in other planes — is false. Not a single usable part was salvaged from the wreckage, and not a single component that crashed with Flight 401 was ever installed in another aircraft. This crux of the story was completely made up out of whole cloth. In fact, do a Google image search for "flight 401 wreckage" and you'll see at a glance that the aircraft was completely destroyed. The idea that a large, boxy, relatively delicate component like an oven or an elevator could have survived undamaged is immediately ludicrous at face value. In the 1970s, searching for images on Google did not yet exist. Four years after the crash, there was no such thing as convenient access to the photos for the average person. Fuller could have said whatever he wanted about the condition of the wreckage, and nobody would have any reason to doubt him.
And so, with no actual ghost reports having been made by any actual people, and no haunted components from Flight 401 having been installed in other planes, it follows that the alleged orders from Eastern Air Lines management to remove said components never happened either; as didn't the mechanics who performed the work and made cautious reports of it to Fuller. The Ghost of Flight 401 was a book of nearly pure fiction, as was the TV movie that followed it. Like so many such cases, its exploitation of a tragedy for financial gain and publicity was disrespectful to both the victims and the survivors.
The crash of Flight 401 highlighted a number of deficiencies in flight safety that, I'm happy to say, were soon implemented. Flashlights became part of the standard equipment; flight attendants now have shoulder harnesses whether their seats face forward or backward; the acoustic alerts given to pilots to advise them of changes to the autopilot settings were dramatically improved; and the groundwork was laid for what later became the science of Cockpit Resource Management, which aims to minimize human error by codifying communication, leadership, and decision making in the cockpit. Some may have tried to turn this actual human tragedy into a fictional ghost story, but it was the efforts of the real people involved who used it to extinguish a few real ghosts in the form of safety flaws, to reduce the chances of the same type of accident happening again.
To this day, more than four decades later, the survivors mark each December 29, and some still gather at the crash site to remember those who were lost.
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