The history of aviation is replete with innumerable crashes, disasters, and loss of life. Many instances are results of deliberate terrorism, such as Lockerbie, 9/11, or the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes. Many other instances are accidents under challenging circumstances or factors beyond human control, such as bad weather or mechanical failure. Some instances are, however, just pure negligence caused by complete obliviousness to the circumstances. The fate of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was one of the latter.
Fifty years ago, on December 29, 1972, the United States suffered one of the worst disasters in its aviation history. Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, flying from New York JFK to Miami, was a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, a relatively new model of plane that had been put into production only four years prior. This is the story of that flight, the crash, and the eerie aftermath.
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401: Bugs in the Systems
Aircraft fleet number 310 was one of a dozen L-1011s delivered to Eastern Air Lines in 1972, and it was the best of the bunch, having logged fewer problems than its sister aircraft. Nevertheless, there was the stain of production issues that dogged the series of aircraft.
Rolls Royce, which was owned by Lockheed and provided the engine for these planes, went into bankruptcy during the production of this series of aircraft. The financial fortunes threw the project into disarray, and many small faults entered the system. None of these faults were serious, but the planes would need constant maintenance to iron them out. The fault involved in Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was, as others had been, a minor glitch, but the combination of its existence with the obsession of the crewmembers would be the catalyst for the disaster that would follow.
The Crew & Passengers
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Captain Robert Albin (Bob) Loft was in command of the flight. He was 55 years old. With 32 years of experience working for Eastern Airlines, Captain Loft had accumulated 29,700 flight hours throughout his flying career. His flight crew included First Officer Albert John “Bert” Stockstill, 39, and Flight Engineer Donald Louis “Don” Repo, 51, both of whom had logged considerable hours in the L-1011 relative to it being a new addition to the fleet. Engineer Angelo Donadeo, a company employee, was officially off-duty but accompanied the crew.
Adrianne Hamilton was the senior flight attendant. She was 27 years old, from Texas, and was the senior attendant in charge of a ten-woman flight attendant crew. All working together, they planned to catch Eastern Air Lines Flight 401. Their incoming flight was delayed, and by the time they landed, they only had 26 minutes to catch the flight that would, for some of them, end up being their last.
Of the 163 passengers, each had their own story. Evelyn de Salazaar managed an art gallery in Manhattan. Traveling with her was her constant companion, a poodle named Tina.
Gustavo and Xiomara Casado were flying to Miami to visit their relatives. With them was their two-month-old baby girl, Christina.
Cuban-born Lilly Infantino was with her new husband Ronald and was traveling to Miami to spend New Years’ Eve with Lilly’s family. They had gotten married less than three weeks earlier.
Jerrold Solomon, 24, was a young businessman flying to Miami to visit his girlfriend and a former college roommate.
After attending the Modern Language Association conference in New York, Joseph Popson was returning to Florida. He would be receiving his Ph.D. in English soon.
After the flight took off, Edward Ulrich, 44, proposed to Sandra Burt, 32. She accepted. He was an ex-college football player who was a salesman for a copper company, and she was a secretary in a bank.
There was nothing spectacular about the takeoff of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 on December 29, 1972, at 21:20 EST. Everything went smoothly for almost the entire flight. Ahead of them, virtually the whole way, was National Airlines Flight 607, a DC-10, which suffered landing-gear problems upon approaching Miami – perhaps a portent of what was to come.
At 23:32, Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 began its approach. The landing gear went down, but the light for the nose landing gear did not illuminate. Had the malfunction been with the actual landing gear, it could have been lowered manually, but the cockpit crew recycled the landing gear, repeating the procedure. The light still didn’t come on. Loft radioed the tower, and the flight changed its course to a holding pattern over the Everglades until the problem could be resolved.
The cockpit crew fiddled with the light fixture, trying to locate the panel through which it could be checked and changed. Eventually discovering the location, they had trouble understanding the process and inserted the replacement bulb in the wrong way. Then they realized their mistake and tried to rectify it.
Eventually, growing annoyed with what they knew was a minor issue, Captain Loft ordered the landing gear to be checked physically. Loft sent Repo down into the nose cone to check, but it was too dark to see anything. Loft leaned over to help.
Nobody realized they had knocked the autopilot off and were losing altitude.
The tower attempted to contact the plane. “Eastern, ah, 401, ah, I’ve lost you, ah, on the radar there, your transponder. What’s your altitude now? Eastern 401, Miami.”
There was no answer.
After a few moments of static, the tower received a radio message. “Ah, Miami tower this is National 611, we just saw a big explosion, looks like it was out west. I don’t know what it means, but I thought you should know.”
The left wing hit the water first, and the rest of the plane followed suit. The aircraft skidded across the marshy water and sawgrass for a third of a mile, breaking up as it went.
One hundred and one people died in the crash, while 75 survived. The survivors each had their own tale to tell. Beverly Raposa, in the rear of the plane, had her view blocked by the service console and a coat closet. She recalls being jolted around like a rag doll and seeing a ball of flame near the front of the plane.
Adrianne Hamilton, in the front of the plane, felt the nose rotate violently to the right before everything went dark. She remembered smelling fuel and being concerned about fire.
A passenger in seat 14E recalls briefly thinking it was a normal landing before realizing the entire plane in front of his row was gone.
Gustavo Casado was sitting next to his wife with their two-month-old daughter on her lap. On impact, their infant was thrown forward and disappeared in the wreckage. The couple searched in the debris for twenty minutes after the crash and miraculously found her among a twisted mess of wires and bushes.
Jerrold Solomon survived. He remembered taking his seatbelt off and walking around the marsh in a daze. Joseph Popson woke up in a pool of water, struggling to breathe. The engine was still going, and the roar of it momentarily deafened him as he woke up next to it. Like many other passengers, some of his clothes had been ripped off in the crash.
Ron Infantino survived the crash, but sadly for the newlyweds, Lilly Infantino drowned. Evelyn de Salazaar’s body was found still in her seat, which had come loose and landed fifty feet from the cockpit. Her poodle, Tina, survived. Ed Ulrich and his fiancée, Sandra Burt, both survived the crash.
Luckily for the survivors, help was on its way. Robert Marquis and Ray Dickinson were out fishing in a flyboat when they noticed the crash. They immediately sprang into action, ferrying the survivors to safety. Marquis received burns all over his body from the spilled jet fuel as he rescued people one by one until more help could arrive in the form of helicopters.
Eight of ten flight crew survived, while of the cockpit crew, only Angelo Donadeo survived.
The Aftermath of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401
Official reports concluded that pilot error had been the cause of the crash. Rumors spread that salvaged parts from Eastern Air Lines flight 401 were used in other planes, fuelling stories of ghosts. People reported seeing Don Repo and Bob Loft sitting on board other L-1011s. Books and documentaries were published that dealt with the subject of these reports. Eastern Air Lines even considered legal action, but the reports eventually died down.
As a result of the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, protocols and safety measures were put in place to avoid distractions for the cockpit crew. Many airlines now have crew resource management courses designed to make problem-solving in cockpits more streamlined, efficient, and much safer.
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 has gone down in history as one of the most infamous airplane crashes in history. And although the victims paid for human error with their lives, the impact of their deaths resulted in airlines developing more protocols to keep their flights safe.