Above: The actual aircraft involved in the Flight 401 accident
Photo: (c) Bob Garrard Collection
“It’s these words and music that keep me living, keep me breathing…” – Life of Agony
As I stare at the monitor in front of me, struggling to come up with the opening paragraph of what may or may not turn out to be a lengthy entry, I arrive at a realization that this is my first official foray into blogging. In the past, I’ve written a few album reviews for ‘zines that never got off the ground, as well as countless amounts of dense, sleep-inducing term papers throughout my tenure in college. As a musician/songwriter, I am also the lyricist for my band; in fact, I firmly believe that my primary strength as a writer lies within the realm of words working in concert with the music to convey the emotion of the song as a single unit. To make a long story short, I am not a blogger, professional or otherwise. If my writing is horrible, my apologies. Maybe it’ll get better one day; then again, maybe it won’t!
A short time ago, my band completed the music for one of our new songs. When my non-musician peers ask me how we approach songwriting, I frequently compare the process to procreation. A song starts out with a riff (conception), develops into a framework (gestation) and, once all the arrangements are completed and flourishes are added, it is finally born. Some songs are written quickly, others take a long time to perfect. This particular song was born from an idea that was conceived over a year ago, one that was placed on the backburner several times, until it finally felt like the time was right to bring it to the forefront.
Over the recent months, I became extremely interested in the tragic 1972 crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 in the Florida Everglades and knew that I wanted to explore the topic from a lyrical standpoint. On the evening of December 29, 1972, Flight 401 took off from New York City’s JFK Airport, heading to Miami, Florida. The flight was serviced by a four month-old Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, a new widebody jumbo jet that was the pride of Eastern Airlines. On the flight deck were Captain Bob Loft, First Officer Bert Stockstill and Flight Engineer Don Repo, all three highly seasoned aviators. The flight was routine until its final stage, when the aircraft was cleared for landing. A “nose gear down” indicator light failed to activate, forcing the flight engineer to climb down into the avionics bay to visually confirm the situation with the landing gear.
While the flight engineer was in the avionics bay, the captain and the co-pilot were preoccupied with dismantling the assembly containing the indicator light. The L-1011 was equipped with a system that disengaged the autopilot at the slightest input of the control column; it is speculated that the captain may have inadvertently leaned against his control column while reaching for the indicator light assembly, which was located on the co-pilot’s side of the instrument panel. As a result, the autopilot was disengaged and the aircraft began losing altitude at a rate so low, that it remained unnoticed by the crew. The L-1011 crashed into the Everglades approximately 17 miles from the runway and 101 people, including everyone on the flight deck, with the exception of a company employee who was traveling in the jump seat and was in the avionics bay with Repo at the time of the crash, lost their lives. First Officer Bert Stockstill was killed instantly, while Captain Bob Loft, who survived the initial impact, died before the rescue crews could extricate him from the wreckage. Flight Engineer Don Repo survived and was taken to a hospital, but, due to the extent of his injuries, died the following day.
I try to write lyrics that are a bit more thought-provoking than overt violence, so writing about the crash itself was out of the question. What really piqued my interest was the aftermath of the catastrophe. Eastern Airlines was able to salvage certain equipment from the crash site and repurpose it for use on other L-1011s. It was right around this time when reports of ghost sightings of Loft and Repo on affected aircraft began pouring in. According to these reports, flight attendants and engineers communicated with Repo’s ghost, who warned them of impending equipment malfunctions. In another incident, a head flight attendant was conducting a pre-takeoff passenger headcount and saw an unidentified man in an Eastern Airlines captain’s uniform sitting in first class. The seat was marked unoccupied on the seating chart, so the flight attendant attempted to question the man. Unable to elicit a response, she summoned the captain, who recognized the unidentified man as Bob Loft. At that point, the man disappeared into thin air. The sightings continued for months, leading some flight crews to perform exorcisms on the affected aircraft.
Having seen things that I cannot explain on two separate occasions, I still consider myself somewhat of a skeptic, albeit one who is open to the possibility of spiritual existence on planes other than physical. According to John G. Fuller, whose book “The Ghost of Flight 401” proved to be an invaluable resource on the topic, apparitions of Bob Loft and Don Repo were “benevolent ghosts” whose only goal was to help their earthly counterparts. At the time of one noted incident, Repo’s apparition spoke to a captain of another L-1011, saying “there will never be another crash of an L-1011. We will not let it happen again.”
Regardless of motive, it’s extremely difficult to grasp the concept that there may, indeed, be life after death. Eastern Airlines, while publicly dismissing the reports of apparitions as “a bunch of crap” (Fuller) and referring staff members making the reports to the company psychiatrist, removed all the equipment salvaged from Flight 401 from its sister ships and destroyed the flight log books that included accounts of the sightings. This lends a fair amount of credence to the supposition that the decision makers at Eastern at least considered the possible existence of supernatural entities.
No matter what your personal beliefs are, the events that followed the crash of Flight 401 make for a very interesting lyrical topic. It’s also proving to be the most difficult song I’ve ever written.
By the way…the nose gear of the doomed L-1011 was locked in the down position all along. It was later determined that the bulb (a part valued at $12) inside the indicator light burnt out. Flight 401 should have landed safely and everyone on board should have gone home that night. The reality is that everyone’s number eventually comes up; the tragedy is that none of us know when it will be ours.