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The Ghosts of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401


An advert for flying with Eastern Air Lines, showing a cut-away diagram of the Lockheed L-1011 and all of its features. The caption reads "The plane that pampers people,"

Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was a flight scheduled for December 29, 1972, going from New York to Miami The plane was a Lockheed L-1011-1 Tristar, registration number N310EA. Flight 401 took off from JFK Airport in New York on Friday, December 29, 1972, at 21:20 pm EST. It was carrying 163 passengers and 13 crew members, including Captain Robert Albin "Bob" Loft, 55, and Flight Engineer Donald Louis "Don" Repo, 51. Captain Loft had been with Eastern Air Lines for 32 years and had a total of 29,700 flight hours throughout his career, 280 of them in the L-1011. Flight Engineer Repo had 15,700 flight hours total, 53 of them in the L-1011.


The flight was an entirely routine and uneventful one until 23:32 pm, as the plane began its approach to Miami International Airport. Another member of the flight crew, First Officer Bert Stockstill, noticed that the landing gear indicator had not illuminated as it should have. This was due to a burned-out bulb and not a fault with the landing gear; however, the crew decided to do a full check and entered a holding pattern, holding west over the Everglades at 2,000 ft (610m), putting the plane on autopilot while they investigated the issue.


Unfortunately, while the flight crew were attempting to diagnose and fix the issue, the autopilot was accidentally disconnected, and the flight crew didn't notice this for several minutes. The plane began to lose altitude; gradually at first, but eventually enough to trigger the altitude warning chime after descending 250 ft (76m), but this also went unnoticed by the flight crew. It was only when the aircraft was at 1,000 ft and descending more rapidly that First Officer Stockstill noticed the problem:


STOCKSTILL: We did something to the altitude.
LOFT: What?
STOCKSTILL: We're still at 2,000 feet, right?
LOFT: Hey - what's happening here?

Less than 10 seconds later, the plane crashed into the Florida Everglades. 101 people died; 96 of the 163 passengers, two of the 10 flight attendants, and three of the four flight crew - technical officer Angelo Donadeo, who was accompanying the flight crew but was officially an off-duty "nonrevenue passenger", was the only surviving member of the flight crew. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) found that the cause of the crash was pilot error:


...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.

Now, at this point you might be wondering why this story has a place on a blog all about unexplained and weird phenomena. Plane crashes are terrible tragedies, true, but they are also sadly not as rare as to be considered mysterious; and the NTSB had fully investigated and found the cause to be pilot error, which is, again, something not uncommon in plane crashes. So, what makes this particular plane crash special?


Well, four years after the crash, stories started to circulate of ghosts being sighted on board other Eastern Air Lines aircraft - specifically, the ghosts of Captain Loft and Flight Engineer Repo. One story told of the vice president of Eastern Air Lines, who boarded a flight to New York and ended up chatting with who he believed was the pilot of the flight. Only when he learned of his mistake and discovered that the mysterious pilot had vanished, did the VP realise that he had been talking to Captain Bob Loft. On another occasion, a flight attendant found a passenger in First Class in a pilot's uniform, who seemed dazed and confused about where they were. The flight attendant called on the captain for assistance, and the captain, who had known Bob Loft when he was alive, was shocked to see his old friend standing there - and even more shocked when the deceased Captain disappeared right before his eyes.


Two black-and-white pictures of Captain Robert Loft and Flight Engineer Donald Repo
Captain Robert Loft and Flight Engineer Donald Repo

By far the most eerie (and dramatic) event, however, happened when a flight attendant on a flight to Mexico City went into the galley and saw a face staring out at her from the oven door. Then a ghostly voice informed her, "Watch out for fire on this plane." On the flight's return journey, one of the plane's three engines had to be shut down due to a fault, and then one of the remaining two caught fire. Thankfully the flight crew were able to land the plane with just one working engine. Later on, the flight attendant picked out Don Repo as the ghostly face she had seen in the oven door.


Two of the crew of Flight 401 were still flying the friendly skies, it seemed. People said that it was because parts of the ill-fated plane had been in a good enough condition, even after the crash into the Florida Everglades, to be salvaged and used for parts in other Lockheed L-1011s in the Eastern Air Lines fleet, and it was these planes that were now being haunted by Bob Loft and Don Repo.


The ghosts of the two men were said to have been sighted many times, often doing pre-flight checks or warning other flight crews of electrical faults on the planes. After one such sighting, one captain claimed to have heard the words, "There will never be another crash on an L-1011. We will not allow it." Eventually, after flight crews became increasingly distressed by the apparitions though, permission was granted to perform an exorcism. In the galley of the plane where Don Repo's face had appeared in the oven door, crew members recited prayers and sprinkled holy water. It is said that, as they did so, "the anguished face of Don Repo stared despairingly at [them]". This supposedly put the ghosts of Flight 401 to rest.


It's a suitably tragic, noble, and spooky story - the spirits of two men, coming back from beyond the grave to try to prevent what had happened to them from happening to anyone else. In fact, maybe it's a bit too perfect.


Despite the claims made by some that Eastern Air Lines had looked into all these sightings and - depending on who you asked - either confirmed their authenticity or attempted to cover it all up, and that the airline even went to great time and expense to remove every last bit of equipment and material salvaged from Flight 401 and put into other planes to try to stop the ghosts' appearances... there wasn't actually any of the evidence that people claimed there was.


The stories about the ghosts of Flight 401 actually began in 1976, four years after the crash, when John G. Fuller published his book The Ghost of Flight 401. Fuller was quite a prolific author of books on paranormal phenomena (he wrote The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours "Aboard a Flying Saucer" (1966) about the Betty and Barney Hill UFO abduction, which was probably his best-known book). Fuller's book made some very bold claims though - as well as detailing the ghost sightings already mentioned, he went so far as to claim that, as part of the Eastern Air Lines cover-up, the black box recorder in the cockpit of the Mexico City plane had been removed and replaced, because the ghost of Don Repo had in fact appeared in the cockpit and talked the pilots through the emergency landing.


Allegedly, of course. No one would go on the record because of the cover-up by Eastern Air Lines and the removal of all the evidence.


Another author, Robert Sterling, published From the Captain to the Colonel in 1980. His book was primarily about the history of Eastern Air Lines in general, but he also covered Flight 401's crash and the ghost stories that followed.


Not one among the scores of EAL officers and employees interviewed... expressed any belief whatsoever in the ghost story, and they resented what they felt was Fuller's twisting or inventing quotes. "The one accurate quote in the book," [Frank] Borman comments, "was made by Jim Ashlock when he called the whole story 'a bunch of crap'."

Eastern Air Lines were so unhappy with Fuller's book that they actually had considered suing either him or his publisher, eventually deciding not to solely because it would have given the book even more publicity. However, they did look into the claims:


We spent ages trying to locate anyone who claimed to have seen a ghost and couldn't find one person.

A photo showing some of the wreckage of Flight 401. The colour photo seems to show part of the middle of the plane lying atop other parts, presumably having been thrown there when the plane broke up on impact.

The emergency landing after the engine fire on the flight leaving Mexico City did happen, but Don Repo's face didn't appear in an oven to warn them, and he definitely didn't manifest in the cockpit to talk the crew through an emergency landing. The only thing that came even close to the events of the ghost story was that, at a party several weeks later, one of the pilots was asked what it was like to land an L-1011 with only one engine. The pilot's response was to laugh and say, "Scary. For a minute I thought [Don] Repo's ghost was on the plane."


The final nail in the coffin for the story of the ghosts of Flight 401 comes with the truth about the salvaged parts of the doomed flight being installed in other planes. Because that didn't happen, not at all. Flight 401 was completely destroyed in the crash, and there are plenty of photos to prove it. Not one single part of the aircraft was in a condition to be salvaged - certainly not something fragile like an oven. (Although some pieces of wreckage could be found at Ed and Lorraine Warren's Occult Museum - presumably in case Annabelle felt like jetting off somewhere.)


The book became a TV movie, of course, that received modest success. And despite the alleged exorcism that was supposed to have laid the ghosts to rest, as recently as 2019 someone claimed to have met and talked to Loft and Repo's ghosts while flying over the Florida Everglades. But since the facts claimed by the stories are incorrect, and provably so, we can be confident that the sightings of the ghost pilots of Eastern Air Lines are works of fiction as well.


Sources:


Dunning, B. "Grounding the Ghost of Flight 401." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 21 Mar 2017. Web. 13 Jul 2023.

"The Ghosts of Flight 401....." (Confessions of a Trolley Dolly)

Blundell, Nigel "The World's Greatest Ghosts" Octopus Books, London, 1984.



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