Saturday, October 20, 2012

Eastern Airlines Flight 401

By Julie Rahm
Eastern Airlines Captain Robert “Bob” Loft, age 55 was a veteran of Eastern Air Lines. He was ranked 50th in seniority at the airline. On Friday, December 29, 1972 Captain Bob Loft was the pilot-in-command of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 from New York’s JFK Airport to Miami International Airport. The aircraft was a four-month-old Lockheed L-1011. The aircraft carried 163 passengers and 13 crew members.  Captain Loft was assisted by First Officer Albert Stockstill, age 39, and Flight Engineer Donald Repo, age 51.
     The flight from New York to Miami was routine. The airliner arrived over Miami and began its approach into Miami at 11:32 PM. After lowering the landing gear, First Officer Stockstill noticed the “nose landing gear down” indicator light did not illuminate green. Green indicates the nose landing gear is down and in a locked position. So, the airliner discontinued its approach and circled the Miami airport at 2000 feet. Captain Loft engaged the autopilot holding the aircraft in level flight while they troubleshot the faulty indication. Was the nose landing gear down or not? Maybe the green bulb had simply burned out.
     As the airliner circled, the crew removed the light assembly from the dashboard to examine the bulb. Second Officer Repo was sent to the avionics bay beneath the flight deck to visually check the nose landing gear. There was a small viewing window in the avionics bay through which the nose landing gear could be seen. As the pilots troubleshot the indication, the airliner began a decent so gradual it could not be perceived by the crew. In three minutes the airliner was at half its assigned altitude. The altitude warning chime located under the engineer’s station sounded. However, Flight Engineer Repo had gone below to visually check the landing gear and the other two pilots failed to hear the warning. As the pilots turned the aircraft, First Officer Stockstill said, “We did something to the altitude.” Captain Loft replied, “What?” Stockstill questioned, “We’re still at 2,000 feet, right?” Captain Loft’s last words were, “Hey-what’s happening here?”
Eighteen miles from the end of the runway, the jetliner flew into the ground at 227 miles-per-hour. Of the 176 people onboard, 101 were killed. Seventy-five survived the ordeal. Eight of 10 flight attendants survived. Of the cockpit crew, only Flight Engineer Repo survived the initial crash. He was down in the nose electronics bay at the moment of impact. Repo was evacuated to a hospital, but later succumbed to his injuries. Stockstill was killed on impact, while Captain Loft died in the wreckage of the flight deck before he could be transported to a hospital. Investigation revealed the autopilot was inadvertently disengaged. And, a faulty bulb distracted the pilots. The pilots failed to monitor their altitude. I tell you this awful story to make this point.
Do not be distracted by the minor glitches in life. Focus on what is truly important. Read more about Eastern Flight 401 next week!

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