A horrific plane crash and some possible poor practices by an airline led to haunted plane parts being installed in multiple planes. Continue Spooktober with the chilling story of Flight 401 and the subsequent hauntings of Don Repo and Bob Loft in our friendly skies.
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On December 29th 1972, a tristar L 1011 plane with Eastern Airlines took off from New York around 9:20 in the evening and was headed to Miami. This was a very advanced aircraft that was equipped with high end flight control systems and even a kitchen below deck that was connected to the cabin via elevators. The tristar that was used for flight 401 was roughly 4 months old and on this fateful evening there were 160 passengers on board and about 70 empty seats.
There were three crew members in the cockpit, two pilots and a flight engineer who sat behind them. The captain, a highly experienced 55 year old named Robert Loft, who had nearly thirty thousand hours of flying experience, sat in the left hand seat, and the co-pilot, a 39 year old named Albert Stockstill, who had previously flown with the air force and had nearly six thousand hours of flight experience. Although the captain is the one with the responsibility and final authority of the aircraft, flight 401 was being flown by the co-pilot and the captain was acting as the supporting pilot.
The flight engineer that sat behind them, also referred to as an F/E, did not fly the aircraft, instead he was in charge of the aircraft systems such as the engines, hydraulics, electrical, and fuel. The engineer involved was a 51 year old named Donald Repo, who had roughly sixteen thousand hours of flight experience. (it’s worth noting that modern aircraft today do not have an engineer since all of that is done through a computer now.)
Cockpits are also equipped with an extra seat called a jump seat, depending on the airline policy these seats are used to transport off duty staff members, on this flight, a ground engineer was riding back home and was also in the cockpit, this engineer managed to survive and would later help shed light on the events that led to the disaster.
About the black box
Soon after a plane crash, investigators will locate the black box that all airplanes have, these black boxes are cockpit voice recorders and can pick up the conversations of the crew as well as any other useful sounds such as alarms or the sound of switches being flipped. A plane’s cockpit may be equipped with up to 4 microphones that are connected to the black box.
Older planes, like the one used for flight 401, used magnetic tape to store the last half an hour of audio prior to a crash while newer designs use electronic memory boards that don’t have any moving parts and record about two hours of pre crash audio.
Along with the audio black box, there is another box called the flight data recorder that records other useful information such as altitude, speed, engine performance, hydraulic pressure, electrical systems, fuel, and much more, modern boxes that are used today can record over 700 different parameters.
The portion of the box that contains information is reinforced with metals such as aluminum and titanium and are well insulated with thick layers of silica. The recordings can survive an impact force roughly 3400 times its weight (3400 G’s) and is still useable even if 5000 pounds per square inch of crushing force is applied, they are still useable if fully submerged in water or if placed in a fire with temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or 1,100 Celsius for one hour.
Although they are called black boxes, they’re actually painted a bright orange color so investigators can easily locate them, if they’re submerged underwater, it automatically emits a locator signal once per second for 30 days. Upon locating a black box, the investigators will then take it to a lab where they can unload the data and attempt to recreate the events that led to the accident, usually a team of experts is brought in to interpret the voice recordings, this group of experts may also include a language specialist.
The Problems Start for Flight 401
It’s a little after 11:30 and the pilots are making their final adjustments as they’re nearing their destination, the following is an adaptation of the black box transcript that recorded the pilots’ conversations.
Captain: Go ahead and throw ’em out (telling co-pilot to lower the wheels)
Capt to air traffic controller: Miami Tower, do you read, Eastern 401? Just turned on final (telling the control tower that they are on the final path to land)
Air traffic controller: Eastern 401 Heavy, continue approach to 9 Left (Heavy = large aircraft) (continue approaching runway number 9)
Capt to air traffic controller: Continue approach, roger (acknowledgement of the instruction)
So far everything is going according to plan so they begin their pre-landing checklist, for reference, the wheels of a plane are known as landing gear or gear
Flight Engineer: Continuous ignition. No smoke (they are doing their landing check list)
Captain: Coming on
Flight Engineer: Brake system
Flight Engineer: Radar
Captain: Up, OFF
Flight Engineer: Hydraulic panels checked (the hydraulic systems are functioning okay)
Co-pilot: Thirty-five, thirty three
Captain: Bert, is that handle in?
xxxx ? * * * (not everything recorded by the cockpit voice recorder makes sense)
Flight Engineer: Engine crossbleeds are open
xxxx ? Gear down (wheels down)
An aircraft’s smooth shape offers minimum airflow resistance and to help maintain this smooth shape, the wheels are retracted after takeoff and when they’re needed again for landing, the doors on the underside would open to allow the wheels to lower. A common arrangement of wheels in aircraft like flight 401 is to have two at the back on either side and one at the front.
A little light with big consequences
When 401 pulled the lever to lower the wheels, three green lights should have lit up to indicate to the crew that all of the wheels were down and locked into position, however the light for the front wheel didn’t light up. The process was repeated but still no green light. At this point there are two possibilities, either the front wheel was stuck and unable to lower properly, or the front wheel was down and locked but the indicator system was faulty. Being unsure of what the issue was, they decided to avoid landing until the problem was taken care of. The control tower instructed them to abandon the landing and climb to 2,000 feet.
Captain: I gotta raise it back up
Captain: Now I’m gonna try it down one more time
Co-pilot: All right
[sound of altitude alert horn]
Co-pilot: (Right) gear.
Co-pilot: Well, want to tell ’em we’ll take it around and circle around and # around? (telling the Captain to contact the control tower)
Capt to air traffic controller: Well ah, tower, this is Eastern 401. It looks like we’re gonna have to circle, we don’t have a light on our nose gear yet
Air traffic controller: Eastern 401 heavy, roger, pull up, climb straight ahead to two thousand (feet), go back to approach control, one twenty eight six
Co-pilot: Twenty-two degrees.
Co-pilot: Twenty-two degrees, gear up
Captain: Put power on it first, Bert. Thata boy.
Captain: Leave the # # gear down till we find out what we got
The crew talked about testing and shaking the light fixture hoping that it was just a faulty light and a simple fix, the captain informed the tower that they were not landing and were in the process of climbing to 2000 feet.
Flight Engineer: You want me to test the lights or not?
xxxx ? * * seat back
Captain: Check it
Co-pilot: Uh, Bob, it might be the light. Could you jiggle tha, the light?
Flight Engineer: It’s gotta, gotta come out a little bit and then snap in
xxxx ? * *
xxxx ? I’ll put ’em on
34:21 Captain to air traffic controller: Okay, going up to two thousand, one twenty-eight six
They reached the requested altitude of 2000 feet and the co-pilot asked the captain if he should continue flying while the captain took the supporting role, he allowed the co-pilot to continue flying and then asked the flight engineer about the hydraulic system pressure, meanwhile new instructions came from air traffic control, asking them to maintain the 2000 feet altitude. The captain would then ask the co-pilot to activate the autopilot system.
Co-pilot: We’re up to two thousand
Co-pilot: You want me to fly it, Bob?
Captain: What frequency did he want us on, Bert?
Co-pilot: One twenty-eight six (frequency 128.6 MHZ)
Captain: I’ll talk to ’em (the Captain saying that he will talk to the air traffic controller & implying that the co-pilot should continue to fly the plane)
Flight Engineer: It’s right ………..
Captain: Yeah, …………
Flight Engineer: I can’t make it pull out, either
Captain: We got pressure? (have we got hydraulic pressure in the hydraulic systems?)
Flight Engineer: Yes sir, all systems
Captain: # #
Captain to air traffic controller: All right ahh, Approach Control, Eastern 401, we’re right over the airport here and climbing to two thousand feet. In fact, we’ve just…
Air traffic controller: Eastern 401, roger. Turn left heading three six zero and maintain two thousand, vectors to 9 Left Final (the air traffic controller gives further instructions. Eastern Airlines Flight 401 is asked to turn left, towards North, maintaining the altitude at 2000 feet)
Captain to air traffic controller: Left three six zero (confirming that he will turn left towards North)
Captain: Put the … on autopilot here
At this point the autopilot is doing its job and the co-pilot has removed the faulty light from its holder and gave it to the engineer so he could examine it. Unfortunately the co-pilot put the indicator light in the wrong way and got it jammed.
Captain: See if you can get that light out
Captain: Now push the switches just a … forward.
Captain: You got it sideways, then.
xxxx ? Naw, I don’t think it’ll fit.
Captain: You gotta turn it one quarter turn to the left.
Air traffic controller: Eastern 401, turn left heading three zero zero
Captain to air traffic controller: Okay.
Captain to air traffic controller: Three zero zero, Eastern 401
This particular aircraft had an alternate way to check if the front wheel was down. There was a hatch that led to the area underneath the cockpit called the “hell hole”, this area had a visual system that would allow a crew member to check and see if the front wheel was down. The captain sent the flight engineer down into the hell hole to check on the wheel and clear up any confusion on whether or not it was a faulty light or not. Meanwhile the co-pilot was attempting to correct the indicator light that got jammed.
Captain: Hey, hey, get down there and see if that damn nose wheel’s down. You better do that. (telling Flight Engineer go under the cockpit floor to see visually , with a special system, if the front wheel was actually down or not)
Co-pilot: You got a handkerchief or something so I can get a little better grip on this? Anything I can do with it? (trying to repair the wheel down indicator light)
Captain: Get down there and see if that, see if that # thing … (telling the Flight Engineer again to go down to check if the wheel was down)
Co-pilot: This won’t come out, Bob. If I had a pair of pliers, I could cushion it with that Kleenex
Flight Engineer: I can give you pliers but if you force it, you’ll break it, just believe me
Co-pilot: Yeah, I’ll cushion it with Kleenex
Flight Engineer: Oh, we can give you pliers
Air traffic controller: Eastern, uh, 401 turn left heading two seven zero
Captain to air traffic controller: Left two seven zero, roger
Captain: To # with it, to # with this. Go down and see if it’s lined up with the red line. That’s all we care.
Microphone : * * *
A stubborn light, a stubborn flight 401 crew
The captain then spoke to air traffic control via radio and requested more time to check on the faulty light as well as performing a check on how much fuel they had left. They returned their focus on the faulty light and had guessed that the wheel was down but the fact that the light wasn’t on still had them confused so they kept discussing it. At this point the low altitude alarm went off for a moment but since this alarm was located at the engineer’s seat, which was now empty since he had gone down into the hell hole, no one heard the alarm. The co-pilot was still attempting to repair the light and informed the captain that it was stuck, the captain then told him to leave it alone.
Captain to air traffic controller: Eastern 401 ‘ll go ah, out west just a little further if we can here and, ah, see if we can get this light to come on here
Air traffic controller: Alright, ah, we got you headed westbound there now, Eastern 401
Captain to air traffic controller: Alright
Captain: How much fuel we got left on this # # # #
xxxx ? Fifty two five
Co-pilot: (It won’t come out) no way
Captain: Did you ever take it out of there?
Captain: Have you ever taken it out of there?
Co-pilot: Hadn’t till now
Captain: Put it in the wrong way, huh?
Co-pilot: In there looks * square to me
xxxx ? Can’t you get the hole lined up?
xxxx ? * * *
xxxx ? Whatever’s wrong?
Captain: (What’s that?)
Co-pilot: I think that’s over the training field
xxxx ? West heading you wanna go left or *
Co-pilot: Naw that’s right, we’re about to cross Krome Avenue right now
[Sound of click]
Co-pilot: I don’t know what the # holding that # # # # in
Co-pilot: Always something, we coulda make schedule
[Sound of altitude alert] (unfortunately nobody seemed to have heard the alarm)
Captain: We can tell if that # # # # is down by looking down at our indices
Captain: I’m sure it’s down, there’s no way it couldn’t help but be
Co-pilot: I’m sure it is
Captain: It freefalls down
Co-pilot: The tests didn’t show that the lights worked anyway
Captain: That ‘s right
Co-pilot: It’s a faulty light
Co-pilot: Bob, this # # # # just won’t come out (the “wheel down” indicator light wont come out of its holder)
Captain: Alright leave it there
The flight engineer came up out of the hell hole and informed the captain that he was unable to use the backup system to check the wheel. Afterwards he descended back down into the hell hole, this time accompanied by the off duty ground engineer.
Flight Engineer: I don’t see it down there
Flight Engineer: I don’t see it
Captain: You can’t see that indis … for the nosewheel ah, there’s a place in there you can look and see if they’re lined up (if the front wheel was correctly down, two rods would be seen to be aligned)
Flight Engineer: I know, a little like a telescope
Flight Engineer: Well…
Captain: It’s not lined up?
Flight Engineer: I can’t see it, it’s pitch dark and I throw the little light I get ah nothing
Microphone 4: Wheel-well lights on?
Flight Engineer: Pardon?
Microphone 4: Wheel-well lights on?
Flight Engineer: Yeah wheel well lights always on if the gear’s down
Captain: Now try it
With the help of the radar, air traffic controllers were able to see aircraft in the sky, flight 401 being one of them, and asked how things were out there. The captain then decided to turn around and return to the airport.
Air traffic controller: Eastern, ah 401 how are things comin’ along out there?
Capt to air traffic controller: Okay, we’d like to turn around and come, come back in
Captain: Clear on left?
Air traffic controller: Eastern 401 turn left heading one eight zero (turn left and head South)
Capt to air traffic controller: One eighty (confirming the direction of 180 degrees (South))
The autopilot system that had been flying the plane while they tried to figure out what was going on with the light and the wheel was supposed to have maintained an altitude of 2000 feet, unfortunately it didn’t and the aircraft slowly descended. The crew was so fixated on the faulty light that they didn’t check on the autopilot to insure that it was working correctly, had they glanced at the three altitude indicators in front of them they would have been alerted that they were not maintaining altitude. When the co-pilot realized that there was a problem, it was too late. The aircraft crashed nearly twenty miles from the runway.
Co-pilot: We did something to the altitude
Co-pilot: We’re still at two thousand right?
Captain: Hey, what’s happening here?
[Sound of click]
[Sound of six beeps similar to radio altimeter increasing in rate]
[Sound of impact]
After the impact
Investigators managed to recover the indicator lights from the wreckage and found that the bulbs were burnt out. These tiny bulbs led to the deaths of 103 people. It’s possible that a crew member had bumped into the control column without noticing at which point the autopilot would disengage, allowing the plane to descend.
Around 11:43pm, air traffic control in Miami would receive a message from another aircraft that they had seen an explosion nearby. Flight 401 had hit the ground at 227 mph, sending the plane into a cartwheel as the left wingtip hit the ground. The plane then broke up into several pieces and traveled over a third of a mile before stopping.
The first person to arrive on scene was Robert Marquis, who had been catching frogs with a friend on his airboat when they saw the orange fireball in the sky. He knew at that moment that he was witnessing a plane crash and turned his boat towards the crash site; a nearby coastguard helicopter also saw the explosion and turned toward the crash.
Beverly Raposa, a flight attendant, had survived the crash and now found herself in the muddy water of the everglades. She would then gather survivors and begin shouting for others to follow the sound of her voice where they would all stick together until they were rescued. Upon realizing she was soaked in jet fuel, she calmly informed everyone to not light any matches for light and they sang Christmas carols to keep up their spirits.
The coast guard would then track down the survivors with the help of Marquis, who swung his lamp around to get the attention of the helicopter.
The Sightings Begin
Not long after the crash, people began reporting strange things happening on Eastern Airlines flights, there were many accounts of people seeing, and even speaking with crew members of flight 401, it started off as nothing more than a figure standing in the aisles or occupying the cockpit though the reports would get a little more unsettling as time went on.
One witness, a flight passenger, described seeing an ashen looking person sitting in one of the seats appearing to be dazed and unresponsive, when she called for an attendant to help this person the man disappeared right in front of them, the woman was so scared at seeing this that she had to be restrained until she calmed down, she was then shown several photos of some of the crew members and she pointed out Don Repo as the man she had saw.
These appearances would happen in several places on the flights, not just in the cabin; another incident happened during one of the flight’s pre-checks. Bob Loft was spotted wandering around the belly of the plane, some even say he spoke to the ground crew and stated that no checks were required because he had already done them. The pilots of this flight were so startled by this that the flight was canceled.
The mysterious interactions with Don Repo
Though captain Bob Loft is often considered one of the more notorious subjects to make appearances the majority of sightings are actually of Don Repo, the flight engineer.
A working flight attendant once saw an engineer repairing an oven, when the only engineer on board heard of this he denied ever working on the oven and even stated that it didn’t need to be fixed in the first place. Much like the other encounters the attendant was shown crew photos and once again, Don Repo was selected from the group as the one she saw.
A pilot on another flight became concerned when he heard a knocking sound coming from underneath the cockpit, worried that there was a serious issue with the plane, he opened up the trap door to the lower compartment and came face to face with Don Repo who would then disappear right in front of the pilot. He investigated further and discovered a problem that could have caused a serious accident if not taken care of.
The attendant of another flight was in the galley when she saw the face of Repo looking back at her from an oven, she even had time to call over other crew members who were also in the galley to confirm what she was seeing. The flight engineer on board was a personal friend of Repo and was immediately able to identify him.
According to the witnesses, Repo would then warn them of a fire on the plane but at the time no one really thought about it. During the flight they began to have issues with the engine that resulted due to a fire that no one knew about. The final portion of this flight would be canceled because of this.
These planes weren’t the only hotspot for supernatural activity, hunters, poachers, and wildlife enthusiasts had reported sightings in the area of the crash for months. Some report seeing screaming faces looking back at them from the water below or even seeing things dressed in tattered clothing drifting along the swamp.
Some people believe that Eastern Airlines reused undamaged parts from the flight 401 wreckage on other planes, the airline company officially denied these claims though they would not allow anyone to investigate. Reports eventually began to circulate that aircraft engineers quietly removed any materials that were reused from flight 401 and apparently all paranormal activity stopped once they did this.
References: archive of freshgasflow.com/flight401, paranorms.com/flight-401, miamihaunts.com/ghost-of-flight-401