Eastern Airlines 401
By Patrick Mondout
Near midnight on December 29, 1972, an Eastern
Air Lines Lockheed L-1011
TriStar crashed in the Florida Everglades 18.7 miles west-northwest of
Miami International Airport (MIA). Of the 163 passengers and 13
crewmembers aboard, 94 passengers and 5 crewmembers died. Two survivors
died over a week later as a result of their injuries.*
Everything about the flight was normal until the crew was going through
the landing checklist. It was then discovered that either the landing gear
for the front of the plane (the "nosegear") was not fully down
and locked into position, or the light indicator for the nosegear was not
During descent into MIA, Captain Robert Loft, a veteran of nearly
30,000 hours of flying, asked air traffic control (ATC) for a "missed
approach." This means that he wished to go over and around the
airport and attempt his landing again, which would buy him time to
determine whether or not he really had a problem with his landing gear.
Following the missed approach, the aircraft climbed to 2,000 feet and
proceeded on a westerly heading (see diagram at the
bottom of this page). The flightcrew eventually became so obsessed
with the malfunction that they did not notice they were flying their new
TriStar and its 163 passengers directly into the Everglades.
Even if the nosegear had not functioned properly on an attempted
landing, it is unlikely there would have been any fatalities; such
landings happen from time to time and, although there is a risk of fire,
emergency crews would have been waiting for them. However, that is not to
blame the crew for not just landing the plane but rather to point out how
unfortunate it was that such a relatively minor problem led to such a
At 11:36:04 p.m., or a little over six minutes before impact, Captain
Loft asks First Officer Albert Stockstill to engage the autopilot and, a
minute later, asks Second Officer Don Repo, a former airline ground
engineer, to enter the electronics bay below the cockpit to visually check
the alignment of the nose gear. The flight data recorder (FDR)
notes the beginning of the fatal descent at this point. It is possible
that Captain Loft accidentally disengaged the autopilot's "altitude
hold" function by bumping the control stick as he turned around to
ask Repo to go below.
An Eastern Airlines L-1011
TriStar - N311EA - the sister ship to Flight 401
as seen in Marana Airpark in Arizona, February
Image courtesy of AirNikon.
Find more of his photos at Airliners.net
As it happened, Angelo Donadeo, an Eastern Airlines maintenance
specialist, was on this flight riding in the observer seat behind the
pilot. He discussed the operation of the nosewheel light with the crew. He
then joined the second officer in the electronics bay.
Then at 11:40:38, or about a minute and a half before impact, a
half-second tone sounded warning the crew of a ±250 feet deviation from
their selected altitude. This tone from a Lockheed L-1011 comes from the
area where the second office sits. But he was down in the electronics bay
and the first officer and captain were wearing headsets. It is possible
that they did not hear it. None of the crewmembers commented on this noise
and no change in flight was recorded on the flight data recorder (FDR)..
At 11:41:40 p.m., or about 32 seconds before impact, the Miami ATC
asked, "Eastern, ah, 401 how are things comin' along out there?"
This query was made a few seconds after the MIA controller noted an
altitude reading of 900 feet in the Eastern 401 alphanumeric data block on
his radar display. The controller testified that he contacted Eastern 401
because the flight was nearing the airspace boundary within his
jurisdiction. He further stated that he had no doubt at that moment about
the safety of the aircraft. Momentary deviations in altitude information
on the radar display, he said, are not uncommon; and more than one scan on
the display would be required to verify a deviation requiring controller
Two seconds later, Eastern 401 replied to the controller's query with,
"Okay, we'd like to turn around and come, come back in, and the
controller granted the request with, "Eastern 401 turn left heading
one eight zero. Eastern 401 acknowledged and started the turn.
With about seven seconds of flight left, the first officer said,
"We did something to the altitude." The captain's reply was,
"What?" Five seconds before impact, the first officer asked,
"We're still at two thousand (feet), right?" and the captain
immediately exclaimed, "Hey, what's happening here?"
With two seconds left, the first of six radio altimeter warning
"beep" sounds began; they ceased immediately before the sound of
the initial ground impact.
At 11:42:12 p.m., while the TriStar was in a left bank of 28 degrees,
it crashed into the Everglades at a point 18.7 miles west-northwest of
Miami International Airport. Local weather at the time of the accident was
clear, with unrestricted visibility. The accident occurred in darkness as
there was no moonlight.
Don't miss our our diagram of
the accident at the bottom of this page!
If there was any good news, it was that 88 passengers missed the fully
booked post-Christmas flight out of New York saving many of their lives.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable
cause of this accident was the failure of the flight crew to monitor the
flight instrument 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.
Source: National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report