“The boundaries between life and death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where one ends and where the other begins?” — Edgar Allen Poe
By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
Unlike many ghost tales, this one – which originated at Kennedy Airport’s Terminal 1 – is based on an actual event from 1972.
At 7:45 p.m. on December 29 that year, an Eastern Air Lines jet out of Tampa, Fla. arrived at Kennedy Airport, one of the airline’s hubs, for routine maintenance. After a few minor issues were resolved, the plane was cleared for a 9 p.m. departure to Miami, as Flight 401 with 176 passengers aboard.
In the cockpit was Capt. Robert Loft, 55, a seasoned pilot with 32 years under his belt. The aircraft he flew that night was a state-of-the-art Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, one of a dozen new wide-body “Whisperliners” delivered to the airline that year.
Hours later, the flight plunged into the alligator-laced Everglades at 227 miles per hour, just 19 miles short of the runway at Miami International Airport. Loft and Flight Engineer Don Repo, 51, were among the 101 souls who perished in the crash, which was later blamed by the National Transportation Safety Board on pilot error.
The details of this Portfolio story were collected from news accounts at the time and from a definitive non-fiction book written 40 years ago.
It’s perhaps inevitable that the gruesome nature of the crash would inspire stories about restless souls that refuse to crossover – the walking dead who don’t realize they’re dead. More than 20 encounters with Loft and Repo were described in the aftermath of the crash by so-called credible sources associated with Eastern Air Lines – passengers, flight attendants and pilots.
In another bizarre twist to the story, these lifelike apparitions apparently appeared only on Eastern planes that had been fitted with recycled parts cannibalized from the wreckage of Flight 401.
Among the reported sightings were a vice president of Eastern who claimed he engaged in a lengthy conversation with a pilot who he assumed was in charge of his flight before realizing he was speaking to the deceased Loft.
A flight captain and two flight attendants claimed to have spoken to Loft before take-off and then watched as he vanished before their eyes – an experience that left them so shaken the captain cancelled the flight.
On another occasion, a female passenger supposedly became concerned about a pale quiet man sitting next to her wearing an Eastern Airlines uniform. Fearing that he might need medical attention, she informed a flight attendant. To their horror, the unresponsive gentleman disappeared in front of the two women and several nearby passengers. The man was later identified from a photograph as Repo. Eastern Flight Attendant Faye Merryweather claimed she saw Repo’s face peering out at her from the airplane’s oven.
Eastern Airlines maintained radio silence, refusing to publicly discuss tales of ghostly sightings. But they continued to circulate in the airline community. Frank Borman, CEO of Eastern and the former Apollo astronaut, denounced the stories as “garbage.” Assertions of a cover-up by Eastern executives finally grew so persistent that the airline was forced to remove all of the recycled 401 parts from its fleet.
Flight 401 has been the subject of books; newspaper, magazine and newsletter articles; including an article published by the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent aviation organization that conducts research, education and publishing in the field of aviation safety.
The story also inspired numerous books and two made-for-television movies, including a primetime Emmy-nominated film in 1978 starring Ernest Borgnine and Kim Basinger.
John Fuller, author of The Ghost of Flight 401, was sued by Loft’s family for invasion of privacy and for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but the lawsuit was dismissed, and the dismissal was upheld by the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal. The most journalistic account was written by Rob Elder of the Miami Herald. His 1977 book, Crash, tells the story of many of the passengers, the investigation and its aftermath. He later became an editor at the San Jose Mercury News.
“As a kid, I enjoyed The Ghost of Flight 401, and the story has certainly become one of the more enduring legends in the industry, “said Shea Oakley, Executive Director, New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame, who began his career as an aviation intern at the Port Authority. But, Oakley added, “I’m afraid my belief system doesn’t include spectral cockpit crew members returning to haunt jetliners after they leave this world.”