The unexpected facts behind this famous ghost story from the 1970s
It was one of the great ghost stories of the 1970s. One of the world’s newest and flashiest airliners, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, was making one of its first flights for Eastern Air Lines on December 29, 1972. It infamously crashed in Florida’s Everglades swamp just before midnight, killing 101 of the 176 people on board. The story goes that parts from it were salvaged and installed in other L-1011s, and almost immediately, the ghost stories began. Air crews reported seeing apparitions of their dead coworkers on board the planes that had Flight 401’s spare parts. Books and TV movies frightened audiences, and this ghost story that had it all became a permanent fixture in great American tales of the paranormal. Surely, pilots and air crew would never make up such stories, would they? To all who shivered at night in fear of this creepy story, it seemed that it must have been true as reported.
The actual crash was, in fact, true as reported; and there’s never been any real doubt over what the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigators determined. Pilot Bob Loft, copilot Bert Stockstill, and flight engineer Don Repo were bringing the plane in to land at Miami International Airport. They got a warning light on the landing gear. Loft told Stockstill to put the plane on autopilot while Repo went below to the avionics bay (called the “hell hole”) to manually check the landing gear. Loft accidentally nudged the control yoke, perhaps with his knee, while turning around to speak to Repo, and the autopilot mode was one which followed whatever pitch the pilot set with the yoke. None of them realized in the dark that they were gradually descending, as their attention was on debugging the landing gear indicator. Stockstill began a turn to follow the airport’s approach pattern, and immediately noticed their altitude — but it was too late. The plane crashed into the swamp; fortunately, it was a relatively gentle angle into a soft surface, and that’s what allowed so many to survive. All three of Loft, Stockstill, and Repo were among the unlucky majority who perished.
The stories began four years later . . .