In December 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing 101 aboard including the captain and flight engineer. Not long after, several employees and passengers began seeing the two men on flights.
By Rudy Klancnik from Unsolved Mysteries
A faulty light bulb forever changed the lives of 163 passengers and 13 crew members on the night of December 9, 1972. But it did much more than just start a chain reaction of events that caused the tragic crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401. It also started one of the most bizarre and unexplained ghost stories ever told.
The Lockheed L1011 was coming out of New York's John F. Kennedy Airport bound for Miami. The flight was uneventful until the Tristar, as the plane was known, neared its final approach. A wheel indicator light failed to illuminate indicating to the crew that the nose wheel did not deploy. The crew had no way of knowing that the nose wheel actually had lowered and it was the bulb that had failed.
Captain Robert 'Bob' Loft believed that it was just a faulty light bulb. First Officer Albert John Stockstill struggled to remove the bulb, while Flight Engineer Donald "Don" Repo went down into the avionics bay, or 'hell hole' as it was referred to, situated below the flight deck to visually check if the gear was down. As the pilots struggled to deal with the unfolding drama, they failed to notice that the autopilot had disengaged and the jet was now gradually descending towards the Florida Everglades.
The cockpit conversation, later recovered from the black box, told of the chilling problem right before it was too late. Stockstill: "We did something to the altitude."
Stockstill: "We're still at 2,000 feet, right?"
Loft: "Hey, what's happening here?"
Less than 10 seconds later, the jetliner crashed. The Tristar was travelling at 227 miles per hour when it slammed into the alligator-infested swamp just outside of Miami. Many of the passengers were killed instantly and those that did survive faced an agonizing wait for rescuers to reach the crash site. In all, 101 perished.
The ones who did survive suffered terrible injuries. First officer Stockstill died upon impact, but both Repo and Loft survived the initial crash. Repo was rushed to a hospital, but later succumbed to his injuries. Tragically, rescue was too slow coming for Captain Loft, who died at the scene.
The subsequent investigation into the crash cited pilot error as the main cause. The crew failed to monitor the altitude as they tried in vain to deal with the undercarriage problem. Although the majority of N310EA was destroyed, certain parts such as the galley ovens were salvageable. Eastern and Lockheed agreed that these parts could be re-used and fitted into other Tristar's on the production line.
And that's where this story takes a very unusual turn. Seems that deceased Captain Loft and flight engineer Repo started showing up on aircraft in which parts from Flight 401 were used. On more than 20 occasions, Eastern crew members, some of whom had known Loft and Repo, reported seeing lifelike images of the two men on flights.
The unexplained tales happened so often and presented themselves to so many different crew members and passengers that the entire airline community started believing them. These ghost stories became the focus of John G. Fuller's book "The Ghost of Flight 401" and a popular made-for-TV movie starring Ernest Borgnine.
While Eastern Airlines strongly denied these ghost stories, chief executive and former astronaut Frank Borman refused to sue the book's author so as not to attract more attention to Fuller's work. Meanwhile, it seems that Loft and Repo kept returning to redeem themselves for the mistakes they obviously made on the tragic night in '72.
Testimonies of sightings came so often and came from such varied people, including a vice president at Eastern Airlines, that they certainly gained in credibility.
One female passenger made a plea to the flight attendant about a quiet, unresponsive man in a flight officer's uniform sitting next to her. The man then reportedly disappeared in full sight of the woman and the flight attendant. The passenger went into hysterics. Later, she identified Repo as the officer she had seen.
Repo did much more than just show up in the passenger cabin. On one flight he spoke to the flight's engineer telling him that he had already run the requisite safety checks on the plane. Repo once showed up in the reflection of a galley oven, which had parts that came from Flight 401. The flight attendant who first noticed Repo, Faye Merryweather, sought two colleagues who also saw the image. Repo told the engineer to beware of a fire on this plane. Ironically, the plane did encounter engine trouble bad enough that the flight from Mexico City was cancelled.
During a flight from Atlanta to Miami onboard N318EA, the flight deck crew were enjoying their meal as they cruised at 39.000 feet.
Suddenly, there was a loud knocking coming from the so-called Hell Hole. By now the ghostly stories had been circulating around Eastern Airlines employees and the crew on-board was reluctant to look. But the knocking continued and as the flight engineer opened the hatch, he was horrified to see the face of Don Repo staring back at him. Repo had been in the Hell Hole on Flight 401 when it crashed.
Another encounter involved a vice president of Eastern Airlines who boarded a Miami-bound TriStar at JFK Airport. He began speaking to a uniformed captain sitting in First Class when he suddenly realized he was looking at Bob Loft. Before he could say anything else, the apparition simply vanished.
Despite Eastern Airlines' official protests that included threatening employees with their jobs if they came forward with any more reported sightings, the accounts were coming so often and by so many trustworthy sources in the airline industry that an official industry newsletter could not ignore them. "We consider them (the stories) significant. The fight engineer confirmed that what he saw was former flight engineer Repo," the report said.
Not surprisingly, Eastern Airlines decided to remove all parts recovered from Flight 401 from any other planes. Yet the sightings still occurred on the Ll011s until the airline retired the model. Of course, the entire company eventually disappeared as well.
Captain Loft and Engineer Repo were never seen again. But their ghostly goal was evidently achieved. Never again had an L1011 crashed.
Source: Unsolved Mysteries