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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 working.

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 tragic result.

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.

Eastern TriStar

An Eastern Airlines L-1011 TriStar - N311EA - the sister ship to Flight 401 as seen in Marana Airpark in Arizona, February 1984.

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 action.

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 NTSB-AAR-73-14.

Eastern Airlines 401 at a Glance
AirlineEastern Airlines
DateDecember 29, 1972
Flight number401
Registration NumberN310EA
Crew Fatalities5 of 13
Passenger Fatalities96 of 163
Total Fatalities101 of 176
* Many reports on this crash omit these two deaths which is why our figures differ.

Air Safety References:
Bartelski, Jan. Disasters in the Air: Mysterious Air Disasters Explained. Airlife Publishing: England, 2001.
Beaty, David. The Naked Pilot: The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents. Airlife Publishing: England, 1996.
Cushing, Steven. Fatal Words: Communication Clashes and Aircraft Crashes University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1997.
Faith, Nicholas. Black Box: The Air-Crash Detectives-Why Air Safety Is No Accident. Motorbooks International, 1997.
Gero, David. Aviation Disasters: The World's Major Civil Airliner Crashes Since 1950. Sutton, 2003.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 1). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1995.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 2). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1996.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 3). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1999.
Krause, Shari Stamford. Aircraft Safety: Accident Investigations, Analyses & Applications. McGraw Hill, New York, 1996.
Macpherson, Malcolm. The Black Box : All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts Of In-flight Accidents. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Macpherson, Malcolm. On a Wing and a Prayer: Interviews with Airline Disaster Survivors. Perennial, 2002.
Owen, David. Air Accident Investigation, 2nd Edition. Motorbooks International, 2002.
Stewart, Stanley. Emergency! - Crisis on the Flight Deck, 2nd Edition. Airlife Publishing, England, 2003.
Walters, James M. Aircraft Accident Analysis: Final Reports. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2000.
Wells, Alexander T. Commercial Aviation Safety, 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2001.

 

Share Your Memories!

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Your Memories Shared!

"I have put up a website about the Tristar L 1011 crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401. It is a very educative story and I have told it using material from the Black Box. It highlights how poor cockpit resource management caused a tiny light bulb to crash a Tristar."

--Prasanna


 

DISASTER DETAILS

Airline: Eastern Airlines

Location: Florida Everglades

Aircraft: Lockheed L-1011 TriStar

Date: December 29, 1972

Total Fatalities: 101 of 176



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1. Flight 401 requests a go around.
2. Request approved.
3. Second Officer Repo enters the electronics bay.
4. Altitude deviation alert (
11:40:38 p.m.).
5. Begins turn back towards MIA. Captain Loft: "Hey! What's happening here?!"