Eastern Air Lines Flight 401
N310EA, the aircraft involved in the accident, in March 1972.
|Date||29 December 1972|
|Summary||Controlled flight into terrain due to pilot error and loss of situational awareness|
Miami-Dade County, Florida
|Aircraft type||Lockheed L-1011-385-1 TriStar|
|Operator||Eastern Air Lines|
|Flight origin||John F. Kennedy Int'l Airport|
|Destination||Miami International Airport|
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was a scheduled flight from New York to Miami. On December 29, 1972, the Lockheed L-1011-1 Tristar operating the flight crashed into the Florida Everglades, causing 101 fatalities. The pilots and the flight engineer, two of 10 flight attendants, and 96 of 163 passengers died; 75 passengers and crew survived. The crash occurred while the entire cockpit crew was preoccupied with a burnt-out landing gear indicator light. They failed to notice that the autopilot had inadvertently been disconnected and, as a result, the aircraft gradually lost altitude and crashed. It was the first crash of a widebody aircraft and, at the time, the second-deadliest single-aircraft disaster in the United States.
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was a regularly scheduled flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, to Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida. On the day of the crash, Flight 401 was operated using a four-month-old Lockheed L-1011-1 TriStar (registration N310EA,), which had been delivered to the airline on August 18, 1972.:30:99 The aircraft was number 310 in Eastern's fleet, and the tenth Tristar delivered to the carrier.
The flight was under the command of Captain Robert Albin 'Bob' Loft, 55, a veteran pilot ranked 50th in seniority at Eastern. Captain Loft had been with the airline for 32 years and had accumulated a total of 29,700 flight hours throughout his flying career. He had logged 280 hours in the L-1011. His flight crew included First Officer Albert John Stockstill, 39, who had 5,800 hours of flying experience, and Second Officer (flight engineer) Donald Louis 'Don' Repo, 51, who had 15,700 hours of flying experience.:27–29 A company employee—technical officer Angelo Donadeo, 47, returning to Miami from an assignment in New York—accompanied the flight crew for the journey, but was officially an off-duty "non-revenue passenger".:98
The flight was routine until 23:32, when the plane began its approach into Miami International Airport. After lowering the gear, First Officer Stockstill noticed that the landing gear indicator, a green light identifying that the nose gear is properly locked in the "down" position, had not illuminated.:3 This was later discovered to be due to a burned-out light bulb.:9 The landing gear could have been manually lowered nonetheless.:101 The pilots cycled the landing gear, but still failed to get the confirmation light.:3
Loft, who was working the radio during this leg of the flight, told the tower that they would discontinue their approach to their airport and requested to enter a holding pattern. The approach controller cleared the flight to climb to 2,000 feet (610 m), and then hold west over the Everglades.:3
The cockpit crew removed the light assembly,:102 and Second Officer Repo was dispatched to the avionics bay beneath the flight deck to confirm via a small porthole if the landing gear was indeed down.:4 Fifty seconds after reaching their assigned altitude, Captain Loft instructed First Officer Stockstill to put the L-1011 on autopilot.:4 For the next 80 seconds, the plane maintained level flight. Then, it dropped 100 feet (30 m), and then again flew level for two more minutes, after which it began a descent so gradual it could not be perceived by the crew.:4 In the next 70 seconds, the plane lost only 250 feet (76 m), but this was enough to trigger the altitude warning C-chord chime located under the engineer's workstation.:4 The engineer (Repo) had gone below, and no indication was heard of the pilots' voices recorded on the CVR that they heard the chime. In another 50 seconds, the plane was at half its assigned altitude.:5
As Stockstill started another turn, onto 180°, he noticed the discrepancy. The following conversation was recovered from the flight voice recorder later:
- Stockstill: We did something to the altitude.
- Loft: What?
- Stockstill: We're still at 2,000 feet, right?
- Loft: Hey—what's happening here?:5
Less than 10 seconds after this exchange, the jetliner crashed. The location was west-northwest of Miami, 18.7 miles (30.1 km) from the end of runway Nine Left (9L).:5 The plane was traveling at 227 miles per hour (365 km/h) when it hit the ground. With the aircraft in midturn, the left wingtip hit the surface first, then the left engine and the left landing gear,:8 making three trails through the sawgrass, each five feet (1.5 m) wide and more than 100 feet (30 m) long. When the main part of the fuselage hit the ground, it continued to move through the grass and water, breaking up as it went.
The TriStar's port outer wing structure struck the ground first, followed by the No. 1 engine and the port main undercarriage. The disintegration of the aircraft that followed scattered wreckage over an area 1,600 feet (500 m) long and 330 feet (100 m) wide in a southwesterly direction. Only small fragments of metal marked the wingtip's first contact, followed 49 feet (15 m) further on by three massive 115 feet (35 m) swaths cut through the mud and sawgrass by the aircraft's extended undercarriage before two of the legs were sheared off. Then came scattered parts from the No. 1 (port) engine, and fragments from the port wing itself and the port tailplane. 490 feet (150 m) from the wingtips initial contact with the ground, the massive fuselage had begun to breakup, scattering components from the underfloor galley, the cargo compartments, and the cabin interior. At 820 feet (250 m) along the wreckage trail, the outer section of the starboard wing tore off, gouging an 59-foot-long (18 m) crater in the soft ground as it did so. From this point on, the breakup of the fuselage became more extensive, scattering metal fragments, cabin fittings, and passenger seats widely. The three major sections of the fuselage—the most intact of which was the tail assembly—lay in the mud towards the end of the wreckage trail. The fact that the tail assembly—rear fuselage, No. 2 tail-mounted engine, and remains of the empennage—finally came to rest substantially further forward than other major sections, was probably the result of the No. 2 engine continuing to deliver thrust during the actual breakup of the aircraft. No complete cross section of the passenger cabin remained, and both the port wing and tailplane were demolished to fragments. Incongruously, not far from the roofless fuselage center section with the inner portion of the starboard wing still attached, lay a large, undamaged and fully inflated rubber dingy, one of a number carried on the TriStar in the event of an emergency water landing. The breakup of the fuselage had freed it from its stowage and activated its inflation mechanism.:107–109
Rescue and aftermath
Robert "Bud" Marquis (1929-2008), an airboat pilot, was out frog gigging with Ray Dickinsin (1929-1988) when they witnessed the crash. They rushed to rescue survivors. Marquis received burns to his face, arms, and legs—a result of spilled jet fuel from the crashed TriStar—but continued shuttling people in and out of the crash site that night and the next day. For his efforts, he received the Humanitarian Award from the National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation and the "Alumitec – Airboat Hero Award", from the American Airboat Search and Rescue Association.
In all, 75 survived the crash—67 of the 163 passengers and 8 of the 10 flight attendants. Despite their own injuries, the surviving flight attendants were credited with helping other survivors and several quick-thinking actions such as warning survivors of the danger of striking matches due to jet fuel in the swamp water and singing Christmas carols to keep up hope and draw the rescue teams' attention, as flashlights were not part of the standard equipment on commercial airliners at the time. Of the cockpit crew, only flight engineer Repo survived the initial crash, along with technical officer Donadeo, who was down in the nose electronics bay with Repo at the moment of impact.:102,108 Stockstill was killed on impact, while Captain Loft died in the wreckage of the flightdeck before he could be transported to a hospital. Repo was evacuated to a hospital, but later succumbed to his injuries.:107–108 Donadeo, the lone survivor of the four flightdeck occupants, recovered from his injuries.
Most of the dead were passengers in the aircraft's midsection. The swamp absorbed much of the energy of the crash, lessening the impact on the aircraft. The mud of the Everglades may have blocked wounds sustained by survivors, preventing them from bleeding to death. However, it also complicated the survivors' recuperation, as organisms in the swamp caused infection, with the potential for gas gangrene. Eight passengers became infected; doctors used hyperbaric chambers to treat the infections. All the survivors were injured; 60 received serious injuries and 17 suffered minor injuries that did not require hospitalization.:108 The most common injuries were fractures of ribs, spines, pelvises, and lower extremities. Fourteen survivors had various degrees of burns.:6[a]
Cause of the crash
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident.
The NTSB investigation discovered that the autopilot had been inadvertently switched from altitude hold to control wheel steering (CWS) mode in pitch.:23 In this mode, once the pilot releases pressure on the yoke (control column), the autopilot maintains the pitch attitude selected by the pilot until he moves the yoke again. Investigators believe the autopilot switched modes when the captain accidentally leaned against the yoke while turning to speak to the flight engineer, who was sitting behind and to the right of him. The slight forward pressure on the stick would have caused the aircraft to enter a slow descent, maintained by the CWS system.:110
Investigation into the aircraft's autopilot showed that the force required to switch to CWS mode was different between the A and B channels (15 vs. 20 lbf or 6.8 vs. 9.1 kgf, respectively). Thus, the switching to CWS in channel A possibly did not occur in channel B, thus depriving the first officer of any indication the mode had changed (Channel A provides the captain's instruments with data, while channel B provides the first officer's).:13
After descending 250 feet (76 m) from the selected altitude of 2,000 feet (610 m), a C-chord sounded from the rear speaker.:4 This altitude alert, designed to warn the pilots of an inadvertent deviation from the selected altitude, went unnoticed by the crew.:23 Investigators believe this was due to the crew being distracted by the nose gear light, and because the flight engineer was not in his seat when it sounded, so would not have been able to hear it.:110 Visually, since it was nighttime and the aircraft was flying over the darkened terrain of the Everglades, no ground lights or other visual sign indicated the TriStar was slowly descending.
Captain Loft was later found to have an undetected tumor in his brain, in an area that controls vision.:6:16 However, the NTSB concluded that the captain's tumor did not contribute to the accident.:22:109
The final NTSB report cited the cause of the crash as pilot error, specifically: "the failure of the flight crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final four minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground. Preoccupation with a malfunction of the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew's attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed.":23–24
In response to the accident, many airlines started crew resource management training for their pilots. The training is designed to make problem solving in a cockpit much more efficient, thus causing less distraction for the crew. Flashlights are now standard equipment near jumpseats and all jumpseats are outfitted with shoulder harnesses.
In popular culture
The story of the crash and its aftermath was documented first in John G. Fuller's 1976 book The Ghost of Flight 401. Fuller recounts stories of paranormal events aboard other Eastern aircraft, and the belief that these were caused by equipment salvaged from the wreckage of flight 401. Eastern Air Lines CEO (and former Apollo astronaut) Frank Borman called the ghost stories surrounding the crash "garbage". Eastern considered suing for libel, based on assertions of a cover-up by Eastern executives, but Borman opted not to, feeling a lawsuit would merely provide more publicity for the book. Loft's widow and children did sue Fuller, for infringement of Loft's right of publicity, for invasion of privacy, and for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but the lawsuit was dismissed and the dismissal upheld by the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal. All parts that were cannibalized from flight 401’s airframe were eventually removed from other Eastern Airlines aircraft.
The crash was also documented in Rob and Sarah Elder's 1977 book Crash.
Two made-for-television movies based on the crash were aired in 1978: Crash, aired in October, was based on Elder's book, and dramatized the crash, rescue efforts, and NTSB investigation; The Ghost of Flight 401, aired earlier in February, was based on Fuller's book and focused more on the ghost sightings surrounding the aftermath.
- Aeroflot Flight 593, a 1994 accident in which an inadvertent change to the autopilot settings went unnoticed by the crew
- Lady Be Good, a B-24 which was similarly reputed to be cursed after salvaged parts from it were reused in other aircraft
- List of accidents and incidents involving commercial aircraft
- LOT Flight 7, a 1980 accident which began with a burnt-out gear indicator lightbulb
- Northwest Airlines Flight 705, a 1963 accident in which an aircraft broke up and crashed into the Florida Everglades
- Scandinavian Airlines System Flight 933, a 1969 accident in which the crew were distracted by possible landing gear problems
- United Airlines Flight 173, a 1978 accident in which the crew were distracted by possible landing gear problems
- United Airlines Flight 232, a 1989 accident in which an aircraft crash-landed in a shallow angle like Flight 401 crashed
- ValuJet Flight 592, a 1996 accident in which an aircraft crashed into the Florida Everglades not far from where Flight 401 crashed
- The NTSB classified the injuries of one non-revenue passenger and one other passenger as non-fatal as their deaths occurred more than seven days after the accident. The death toll per the final accident report was 99.
- "Fatal Distraction". Mayday. Season 5. 2007. Discovery Channel Canada / National Geographic Channel.
- Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved on June 9, 2012.
- "FAA Registry (N310EA)". Federal Aviation Administration.
- "Aircraft Accident Report, Eastern Airlines, Inc. L-1011, N310EA, Miami, Florida, December 29, 1972" (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board (report number AAR-73/14). June 14, 1973. Retrieved February 8, 2016.
- Job, Macarthur (1994). "Chapter 12: Hey - what's happening here?". Air Disaster Volume 1. Aerospace Publications Pty Ltd. pp. 98–111. ISBN 1-875671-11-0.
- "Robert "Bud" Marquis's Obituary on San Francisco Chronicle". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved December 10, 2017.
- "Crash Survivors Honor Everglades Hero". PRWeb. December 7, 2007. Retrieved December 10, 2017.
- Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
- Yanez, Luisa. 'PART TWO: THE CRASH "It felt like a wild rollercoaster ride..."' The Miami Herald. Retrieved on December 30, 2012. Archived October 12, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
- "Lessons Learnt from the Crash of Eastern 401". Retrieved December 31, 2013.
- "The Ghost of Flight 401". Goodreads. Retrieved July 22, 2017.
- Serling, Robert J. (1980). From the Captain to the Colonel: An Informal History of Eastern Airlines. Doubleday. pp. 490–491. ISBN 0-385-27047-X. OCLC 5447734.
- Loft v. Fuller, 408 So. 2nd 619 (Fla. App. December 16, 1981).
- Air Crash Investigations (March 4, 2015), Mayday Air Crash Investigation S05E09 Fatal Distraction Who's at the Controls, retrieved July 3, 2016
- Elder, Rob; Elder, Sarah (1977). Crash. Atheneum, New York. ISBN 0-689-10758-7.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Eastern Air Lines Flight 401.|
- NTSB Summary
- Flight 401 Survivors
- Flight 401 Survivors Tribute Fund
- CVR transcript
- The Crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401
- "Eastern Flight 401 The Story of the Crash." The Miami Herald. Multimedia presentation on flight 401.
- The Crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401-Epilogue
- Crash on IMDb
- The Ghost of Flight 401 on IMDb
- ASN Aircraft accident Lockheed L-1011-385-1 TriStar 1 N310EA Everglades, FL