The Lady Dicks are back in business, and it’s time to talk haunted airplanes. In 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed into the Everglades during it’s landing in Miami. But it’s not the high death toll that makes this particular crash memorable, it’s the fact that some of the people who died on that fateful day continued to fly.
In this episode, we’re dick-tecting the story of Flight 401. What happened and what ghost continued to live on, despite the loss of their lives on that fateful day.
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Eastern Airlines Flight 401
Airline accidents get big coverage—especially because when they happen they can be catastrophic but it’s important to note that taking a commercial flight is 19 times safer than getting into your car. In 2019, under 200 airline incidents were reported and only 13 of those were fatal. There were 257 deaths related to these incidents, which is a small number considering the Ethiopian Air crash happened in 2019.
But just because airline travel is comparatively safe and the next time you jump on a plane you’re unlikely to end up in a fiery crash, doesn’t mean it never happens.
And one of the most famous crashes is that of Eastern Air Flight 401. At 9:20 PM on December 29, 1972, Eastern Air Flight 401 took off from New York’s JFK with 163 passengers and 13 crew members on board. The flight went well that evening and at 11:30 PM, as the plane started its descent, Captain Bob Loft came over the speaker to welcome passengers to Miami. Twelve minutes later at 11:42 PM, the plane crashed into the Everglades at 225 miles per hour.
But the crash isn’t infamous because it was so big, it’s because the ghosts of Flight 401 lived on long after the crash…
At the time of the crash, the plane, fleet number 310, had only been in-service for a few months. It was a Lockheed L-1101 a.k.a the “Whisperliner”, a medium-to-long-range, wide-body trijet airliner. A model that has a history of usage in both commercial and military flights.
This particular plane was delivered to Eastern Airlines on August 18, 1972 and had been flying for four months, one week and two days. It was built by Lockheed California to hold 229 passengers comfortably, though it could fit 400 if needed. And it was a true luxury plane, in fact it was the most luxurious plane at the time.
It featured eight foot ceilings, individual temperature controls and provided headsets—it boasted the delivery of “living room comfort.” Not only that, but it featured a stand-up bar in the back, a chandelier in the front and a kitchen in one of the below decks that was accessible by two elevators in the main cabin that could serve up to 324 people.
While most of the Lockheed L-1101 models that were built at this time didn’t have issues, 310 was the exception. It’s short life was filled with small issues here and there. However, at the time of the 1972 crash only minor issues were logged, and the first officer’s “mach meter” had recently been replaced.
As far as they knew, at the time of the flight, the plane was in tip-top shape.
The December 29th flight had a pretty seasoned crew.
Captain Bob Loft, a vetran pilot of over 32-years of service at Eastern Airlines was joined by First Office Albert John Stockstill (AKA Bert) and Second Officer, Donald Luis Repo.
Bob Loft was seasoned to say the least. At 55-years-old, he had 29,700 hours of flight time logged, 280 of those were specifically in the L-1101. Not only that, but out of all Eastern Air’s 4,000 pilots, Loft carried the seniority rank of 50. So, he was no first timer. He spent the morning before the flight working in his yard.
However, as experienced as Loft was, the most experienced flier of the crew with the L-1101 was First Officer Albert John Stockstill, 39, who had 306 hours in one. Bert was formerly an Air Force Pilot. His morning was spent rolling out of bed late before getting to work on building a “light airplane.”
They were joined by the least-experienced of the pilots, Second Officer Donald Luis Repo—also sometimes referred to as the Flight Engineer. Repo, 51, had 15,700 hours, with 53 of those in the L-1101.
Along with the Officers, there were ten flight attendants—Pat Ghyssels, Trudy Smith, Adrianne Hamilton, Mercy Ruiz, Sue Tebbs, Dottie Wornock, Beverly Raposa, Stephanie Stanich, Patty George and Sharon Trensue. Trensue was not a member of their regular crew, she was called in to replace stewardess Irene Pratt who had arrived to the airport only to find out that she had exceeded her flight time and wasn’t going to be needed that day.
The stewardess team actually took a picture together on an early flight, Flight 26, that day on fleet number 310 because it was going to be their last day together due to it being the end of the month. Patricia Ghyssels and Stephanie Stanich would not make it through the crash.
Just before 9 pm, Bert slipped into the co-pilot seat. Shortly after which the crew started up the plane. At 9:20 pm, they were given the go-ahead that it was time for them to take off and Flight 401 made its way onto the runway. And with all-systems-go, at the direction of Captain Loft, the plane took off.
It was close to the holidays so the flight had been booked solid, but even with 163 passengers and 16 crew members on board there were still 68 seats empty.
The flight went as planned: south over Norfolk, Virginia, jumping onto Jet Airway 79 to Wilmington, North Carolina, then over water. Normally, they would have flown passed east of Jacksonville, Florida, at a point 155 miles out to sea but on that particular day, air traffic control directed them to west of “Barracuda,” an invisible navigation checkpoint over the ocean. From there, a computer-generated flight plan would take them to Miami.
Just before starting their descent into Miami, Loft came over the speaker and said “Welcome to sunny Miami. The temperature’s in the low seventies, and it’s beautiful out there tonight.”
At around 11:19 pm, the flight ahead of Eastern Airlines 401, National Airlines Flight 607, was experiencing landing gear difficulties as it approached Miami International Airport so at 11:32 pm, Flight 401 was given direction to switch radio frequencies and initiate contact with the local controller.
They checked-in with the tower on the new frequency, and were given instructions that they were going to touch down on runway Nine Left at Miami. Then the flight crew started their landing checklist.
Everything was going well until they tried to lower the nose gear, and at 11:34 pm, Loft got on the radio with the local controller and said: “aaaah, tower this is Eastern, umm, 401, it looks like we’re gonna have to circle; we don’t have a light on our nose gear yet.” The controller gave them the go-ahead to “climb straight ahead to two thousand and go back to approach control, 128.6.”
At this time, the local controller used an internal channel to radio approach radar controller who had just dealt with Flight 607’s issues, the approach controller laughed at the irony and said: “I can’t, I… only need one more of those, heh.”
Angelo Donadeo was in the cockpit’s jumpseat. He wasn’t there working but observing as a deadhead passenger. He was a maintenance specialist for Eastern Airlines. Warren Terry, a fellow off-duty co-pilot was chilling in first class—he had been in the jumpseat earlier in the flight. At this time he observed the flight team that had already started the descent pull back up—four seconds later they were back up at 2,000 feet.
At 11:35 p.m., Loft radioed the approach controller and said: “Alright, ahh, Approach Control, Eastern 401, we’re right over the airport here and climbing to two thousand feet. in fact, we’ve just reached two thousand feet and we’ve got to get a green light on our nose gear.”
The controller responded with: “Eastern 401, roger. Turn left heading three six zero and maintain two thousand, vectors to 9 Left final.” Loft acknowledged the new instructions and the plane started making a u-turn. Passengers in the cabin noticed this change, one approached flight attendant Pat Ghyssels and asked why the plane was flying away from the Miami lights.
Inside the cockpit, Bert was fiddling with the light fixture that indicated the status of the landing gear while Loft was manning the plane. Bert managed to get the light fixture out of the instrument panel but inserted it back incorrectly and it was jammed. At that point, Captain Loft instructed Repo to go down to the forward avionics bay, a space beneath the flight deck sometimes called the hell hole that could be accessed via a small trap door in the cockpit, to see if the nose landing gear was down, despite the fact that the light didn’t indicate it.
Captain Loft was getting frustrated and the black box recorded him saying “to hell with this! Go down and see if it’s lined up…that’s all we care. Fuck around with that goddamned twenty-cent piece of light equipment we got on this bastard!” Shortly before the crew laughed. It’s clear they were more annoyed than in a state of emergency.
At 11:38 p.m. Loft spoke to air traffic control saying “Eastern 401 ‘ll go ah, out west just a little further if we can here and, ah, see if we can get this light to come on here.” It was acknowledged by control.
As Flight 401 flew over the Everglades, also at 11:48, flight 607 that had been having issues was finally given the OK to land. Fire trucks were on the runway standing by—unlike the pesky light on Flight 401, 607’s issues were seen as a real emergency. It landed shortly after that with no issues.
Right after Flight 607’s landing, Loft and Bert agreed that the light was faulty, something they knew from their pre-flight check, and Repo ducked his head out of the hell hole and said he couldn’t confirm the gear was down because he couldn’t see anything. It was too dark. Loft threw a switch on the overhead panel to let in some light and told Repo to look again. This time off-duty mechanic Donadeo joined him.
As Donadeo left the flight deck, he noticed Bert’s hand was still on the plane’s yoke and he was fiddling with the light fixture with his left.
Back at the airport, the controller noticed that while Flight 401 was supposed to be at 2,000 feet their height actually read 900. He radioed the plane: “Eastern 401, how are things coming along out there?” Loft answered, “Okay, we’d like to turn around and come back in.”
The controller told them to “turn left heading one-eight-zero.” They gradually began their turn. That’s when they noticed the altitude. The recording picked up a short exchange between Loft and Bert:
Bert: “We did something to the altitude.”
Bert: “We’re still at two thousand, right?”
Loft: “Hey, what’s happening here?”
Back at the airport, the controller noticed that Flight 401’s data block read “CST”. This means “coast” and is typically shown when a beacon target is lost or becomes too weak to correlate for three sweeps of the radar antenna. He radioed Flight 401 again: “And, ah, eastern 401, are you requesting the equipment?” There was no response, he radioed again: “Eastern, ah, 401, ah, I’ve lost you, ah, on the radar there, your transponder. What’s your altitude now? Eastern 401, Miami”
A few seconds of silence were heard before another flight, National 611, radioed at 11:43 pm with: “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.”
Flight 401 was travelling 227 miles per hour when it hit the ground west-northwest of Miami, 18.7 miles from the end of runway Nine Left in the Everglades on flat marshland. The left wingtip hit first, then the left engine and the left landing gear.
According to our main source, “A passenger in seat 14E thought the jetliner was making a normal landing; then he realized that all of the airplane forward of his row was gone. Lorenzo Zetlin, a New York interior designer, was in seat 15H. He had been talking to the man next to him, an auto parts dealer from Hialeah. “The plane started shaking, violent shaking like a cardboard box. It started coming apart. water and oil were everywhere.” Zetlin looked up. The man from Hialeah “seemed to be on the ceiling.”
It was the highest death rate of a single plane crash at the time with a total of 101 deaths, including those that survived the initial crash and died later. By some miracle 75 people actually survived, some of them miraculously uninjured.
Side Note Bitches: To date the highest plane crash involving one plane happened in 1985 when 520 people died in the crash of Japanese Airline Flight 123. But the highest air accident of all time happened when two Boeing 747s collided on a runway in Tenerife in 1977, 583 people died.
Two minutes after Flight 401 disappeared from the radar screen, a call was made to the US Coast Guard Station at Opa-Locka. By 11:45 pm, they were airborne in a white Sikorsky Sea Guard helicopter.
At the same time Robert Marquis and friend were out on an airboat riding through the swamp catching frogs. At 11:40 he saw the lights of a jet and though he couldn’t hear it over the engine of his airboat he could see the flashing lights on the wings so he knew it was much too close. Moments later he saw a “a ball of fire, an orange, orange glow that just lit up and spread out for about eight thousand feet across the Glades; looked like maybe it went up a hundred foot high, just for a short duration of eight or ten seconds.” He put the pedal to the metal and the pair rushed towards the crash.
Beverly Raposa survived the crash. She instructed survivors to move towards her voice if they could manage it, and to calm their nerves she did the only thing she could think of—lead them in singing Christmas carols.
As Marquis’ airboat made its way toward the crash they could hear screams from the passengers. They arrived on the scene about 15 minutes after they’d seen the crash. A few minutes after their arrival, he noticed a helicopter in the area clearly looking for the crash—but they were looking in the wrong area. He got his helmet light from the boat and started swinging it around, trying to get their attention.
The Coast Guard saw the light and tried to land at the crash but struggled, there were bodies everywhere. Coast Guard Petty Officer Don Schneck was deposited on the scene and jumped into Marquis’ airboat for a ride closer to the scene, was dropped off about 50 yards from a large section of wreckage, and started to help passengers.
Ambulances came screeching on to the scene a while later. While the closest road to the crash scene was 8 miles away, they quickly discovered that they could get emergency vehicles closer by driving them single file along the top of the flood control levee to within one hundred yards of the scene. That same levee also became a makeshift helipad. There was mass chaos as soon as help arrived, confusion about who was in charge of the situation. Everyone was called—Miami police, state troopers, the coast guard, military and volunteer doctors. Survivors were airlifted to nearby hospitals, and the search and body recovery started.
Don Repo and passenger Braulio Corretjer both lived through the initial crash, but died in hospital later. Two more passengers would pass after them, leaving the death total at 101.
The answer to what actually happened came much later, during the 1973 public hearings.
According to reports: “Eastern captain Daniel Gellert testified to the NTSB on February 6th that he had noticed that the altitude hold function could be disengaged by bumping the control column.” While he was initially doubted, his testimony was backed up by fellow pilot, Thomas Oakley, one of the first people to train on this model of plane. According to his report, “He had the altitude hold function disengage on a flight on January 8th, ten days after the crash of flight 401. Oakes testified that he and the co-pilot noticed the malfunction and proceeded to reset the autopilot and then trip it off by bumping the control column several times. They noted this behavior in their log book. Although these seemed to be freak occurrences, Eastern took it seriously enough to send a printed notice to all it’s L-1011 pilots on January 15th.”
Given the information provided by Gellert and Oakley, the NTSB concluded that “Loft had probably bumped the control column when he turned to tell flight engineer Repo to “get down there and see if that goddamn nose wheel’s down.”” While the autopilot didn’t
fully turn off, it moved into “Control Wheel Steering” which meant the altitude wasn’t locked in at 2,000 feet. “From this point on, even a slight nudge would be enough to edge the plane up or down.”
The ironic thing about the whole situation is that the landing gear was found down, full-engaged. Meaning flight 401 could have landed safely on their first approach.
Flight 401 Hauntings
According to an article on Ozy.com, during a 1973, Eastern Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Miami, Florida, a passenger not included on the manifest was “deadheading” —that is when airline staff is flown, free of charge, on their own airline. The passenger was dressed like an Eastern Airlines pilot. The passenger hadn’t responded to any of the flight attendant’s questions and because he wasn’t on the manifest, the Captain was asked to check in on him. Upon approaching the passenger in question, the Captain was overheard to say, “My God — it’s Bob Loft.” Only, Bob had died in the 1972, plane crash.
You see, when Flight 401 crashed, parts from the plane were recovered and reused in a number of other Tristar planes. And, from the stories that are told, it wasn’t just the repurposed parts that could be found on those flights. Apparently, some of the passengers were hitching rides as well, most notably the ghosts are that of Don Repo and Bob Loft.
It’s reported that some of these encounters were so traumatizing to crew, that flights were even cancelled. One stewardess reported speaking with Loft when he vanished, likewise a passenger lost it when she sat down next to Repo and witnessed him vanish. On a third flight with a damaged galley, one stewardess reported seeing Repo fixing the oven—which, by the way, was working by the end of the flight.
And on Flight 903, flying from JFK to Mexico City, Fay Merryweather, a stewardess, reported seeing Repo staring at her from the galley oven. She went and grabbed three other crew members who all reported seeing him—then Repo warned them of a fire on the flight. The flight landed safely in Mexico City, but during the second leg of the trip the plane’s engine malfunctioned—it managed to land safely, but had it kept going the plane would have caught on fire.
The good news about these ghosts is the last commercial TriStar flight operated on January 7, 2019, so you probably won’t come face-to-face with Loft or Repo… hopefully.
The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with the information for A Ghostly Flight: Hautned Flight 401 themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:
- Eastern Air Lines Flight 401
- 47 Years Ago Eastern Flight 401 Crashed in the Everglades. Did Cockpit Crew Haunt The Airline?, Geff Leff, View From the Wing.
- Marc Hoover: The ghosts of flight 401 still haunt, The Claremont Sun.
- The Ghosts Of Flight 401, Confessions of a Trolley Dolly.
- Ghosts of Flight 401, Near-Death.com.
- The Ghosts That Followed Flight 401, J. Bennett, Ozy.
- Plane crash fatalities fell more than 50% in 2019, BBC News.
The Lady Dicks Podcast was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion, Nikki Kipping and Tae Haahr. “A Ghostly Flight: Haunted Flight 401” was research, written, edited and produced by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.
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