Eastern Air Lines Flight 401
The story of the world's first crash of a jumbo jet as told by survivors
Chapter 1 - Leaving New York
On the cold winter evening of December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines aircraft number 310 rested quietly on the dimly lit jet parking area outside New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal One. The airplane was a new Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, - the pride of Eastern's fleet. Eastern Air Lines named their fleet of L-1011s “Whisperliners.” The plane sat as high as a five story building and was longer than the entire Wright brothers’ first flight. In fact, if the L-1011 was parked in Yankee Stadium with its tail over home plate, the wings would span both first and third base with yards to spare. Eastern’s version of the aircraft was configured to carry 229 passengers, but if an airline had wanted to, there was enough space on board to cram in 400 people. As far as Eastern was concerned, the new Whisperliners were the most comfortable airplanes ever built; boasting eight-foot ceilings, indirect lighting, individual temperature control, music headsets and living room comfort. The outside of the plane was painted white with purple and blue (Eastern's name for the specific shade of the color was known as "Ionosphere" blue). A chandelier decorated the front of the airplane and there was a stand up, padded bar in the back. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the L-1011 was the kitchen, equipped to serve dinner for 324, which was tucked below decks; accessible by two elevators from the main cabin
Aircraft 310 was one of a dozen L-1011s Lockheed had delivered to Eastern Airlines that year, and it was one of the best of the bunch. While the fleet was being built by the Lockheed-California Company, Rolls Royce, the manufacturer of the engines, faltered under the weight of the development costs and went bankrupt. This threw the entire L-1011 project behind schedule and into financial disarray.When the new airplanes finally started being delivered to Eastern during the spring of 1972, the new planes were full of bugs, particularly the advanced new engines. The new L-1011s were constantly being taken out of service for maintenance during that winter, Eastern's busiest season. Aircraft 310, however, seemed to have fewer bugs then her sister ships. Lockheed had delivered it on August 18th, and Eastern put it into service on August 21st. Now, on December 29th, it had been flying for only four months, one week and two days. Maintenance had been regular and frequent, with the current flight log noting only minor problems; on Christmas Eve, for example, the first officer's Mach meter was found to read .006 too low and was replaced. More significantly, it would turn out, was the fact that there hadn't been any entries in the logs for the past sixty days complaining of trouble with the landing gear. Altogether, aircraft 310 had made five hundred and two landings, including the one that brought it into JFK earlier that evening.
The engineer and second officer for flight 401 was Donald Louis Repo, a man who had gone to sleep early the night before because he was trying to shake a cold. Repo was 51 years old and had been employed by Eastern Airlines for 25 years, just short of half of his lifetime. A native of Massachusetts now living in Miami, that morning he had gone to the bank and then left for the airport around noon, flying to Tampa where he boarded aircraft 310 to work flight 164. Now he and the same crew would fly back to Florida as flight 401.At 7:43 that evening, operating as flight 164, the Whisperliner N310EA touched down at JFK after flying in from Tampa. The crew made just two small entries on log sheet 427443: the tail skid light came on several times during the trip, and the pressure was low in the crew’s portable oxygen bottle. While the plane was on the ground at JFK, the tail skid accumulator was serviced and the oxygen bottle replaced. At 7:30pm, Eastern’s flight dispatcher at JFK cleared the airplane for a nine pm night coach departure to Miami as Flight 401.
(Photo of the flight crew of Eastern 401; From L to R, Captain Robert Albin Loft, pilot Albert John Stockstill and flight engineer Donald Louis Repo)
One of the flight engineer's duties is to get on board early, before the captain and first officer, and run through a series of checks. Before the air conditioning could even be turned on, the flight engineer had to make sure the flight deck is equipped with spare light bulbs, first aid kit, rain repellent, smoke goggles, a hand axe and so on. Repo also would fill out the takeoff data card, which had to match the weight limits on the manifest. The manifest listed nine passengers in the forward cabin and one hundred and forty-four aft; a total of 153 in all. In fact, there would be 160 on board. For balancing purposes, it was assumed that each passenger weighed an average of 170 pounds, which figured out to be a total payload, with luggage and freight, of not quite 35,000 pounds. Despite the enormous quantities and that there was a error counting the passengers, the manifest was meticulously detailed. To the quarter-of-a-million pound operating weight of the airplane was added 400 pounds. This was for two additional men who would occupy the flight deck jump seats during this flight. Warren Terry, a co-pilot, and Angelo Donadeo, a maintenance specialist. Both of whom were off duty airline employees who were "dead-heading" - airline slang for employees hitching a free ride to return from a duty assignment.
The flight was to be in the capable hands of captain Robert Albin Loft. Loft, a tall and trim 55 year old had been flying for Eastern Airlines since the days of Eddie Rickenbacker. With thirty-two years of seniority, he was ranked fiftieth among the airlines four thousand pilots. He had spent the morning working in his yard, which adjoined a golf course in Plantation, Florida.
And now, just shortly before 9 p.m., the first officer, Albert John Stockstill, slid into the co-pilot seat on the right side of the flight deck. Bert Stockstill, thirty nine years old, was a former Air Force flier. A native of Louisiana who now lived in Miami, Stockstill had even more flying time in the new L-1011 than Loft. A solid, dark haired man, he had slept late, and then spent the remainder of the morning in his home workshop building a light airplane.
Together the crew started the L-1011s engines. Outside, the OFF lights blinked out, warning the ground crew that the airplane was about to come to life. Repo turned on the fuel pump."Turning number two," the pilot said as he depressed the start switch. Like a multimillion-dollar pinball machine, the instruments winked awake with colored lights, first green, then amber, setting in motion a series of terse one and two-word functions - VALVE, OPEN, PUSH, OIL PRESS, ON, ENRICH.
Finally at 9:20 p.m., word came from the tower that it was Flight 401's turn to take off. Once on the runway, Stockstill released the brakes, applied thrust and aircraft 310 rolled forward, gathering speed down the runway for more than a mile. Loft rested his hands on the thrust levers with all the assurance of a man who had flown for twenty-nine thousand hours. As captain, his was the final authority as to whether to proceed or abort the takeoff. He decided: Go. The white jet inched upward toward a night of stars. One hundred and eighty-five tons of metal, kerosene and humanity was airborne.
Flight 401 flew south over Norfolk, Virginia, then followed Jet Airway 79 to Wilmington, North Carolina, and thereafter was over water. The flight would have normally passed east of Jacksonville, Florida, at a point 155 miles out to sea and passing a latitude along which lay, on the other side of the world, Cairo and Shanghai. However, on this night, air traffic control was able to release some airspace east of Jacksonville, vectoring all the MIA area flights (which includes FLL and PBI) so they wound up west of "Barracuda," an invisible navigation checkpoint over the ocean. A computer-stored flight plan would bring the great white Whisperliner inland over West Palm Beach, and then south to Miami - a long, dense galaxy of lights glittering on a north-south axis between two black voids, the Atlantic ocean and the Everglades.
For Joan and Jerry Eskow, the trip was a last minute arrangement; a response to the coaxing of their friends who would be celebrating New Year's Eve on a mutual friend's yacht. There was, however, a complication. Jerry's business, Yale Express Systems, was in the throes of bankruptcy and legal trouble. Jerry didn't want to be away from New York for too long, so he said that Joan, his wife, should go out ahead. She initially balked at the idea, but Jerry used one of her own arguments to convince her. He said, " remember the pact you wanted us to make about flying separately?" It had always worried her that if something should happen to them both, who would take care of her girls? There was a certain irony in Jerry's reviving that thought; always before he had laughed at her concern. She flew out on flight 401 on Thursday and Jerry would follow 24 hours later on Friday night's Flight 401.
For Cuban-born Lilly Infantino and her new American husband Ronald, the trip was a chance to spend a traditional Cuban holiday celebration with her family in Miami. Lilly and Ron had just married on December 9th, and after a brief honeymoon in Disney World, they had flown to New York to spend Christmas with Ron's parents. But after speaking to her family in Miami and hearing the account of the planned New Year's Eve festivities, they decided to catch flight 401 to Miami. Even though the flight was scheduled to arrive at 11:42, in Little Havana that was not considered a late hour. Lilly's sister, Kathy, would later explain that Ron and Lilly originally selected another flight but later changed it to flight 401. Somewhere over Wilmington, Lilly went to the bathroom at the rear of the plane. She had been sitting next to the center divider, with her husband, Ron, at the aisle. When she returned they exchanged places. "Id rather sit here anyway," she said. At the time, it seemed a decision of no consequence.
Eastern's uniforms in the winter of 1972 were dark brown, beige and powder blue; flight attendants had the option of wearing skirts, slacks or shorts with boots that zipped nearly to the knee. The senior flight attendant on flight 401 wore blue shorts with the brown boots. Her name was Adrianne Hamilton, a slender, serious Texan who nineteen days earlier had begun her fifth year flying with Eastern. She was twenty seven years old. That days trip was known as a "stuffer," a quick turnaround, Miami to New York and back to Miami. The crew had checked into Eastern's in-flight office at Miami International at 3:35 p.m., and by 11:50 p.m. they were scheduled to be off duty. From Miami to New York, the ten women flight attendants in the crew flew on flight 26, a dinner flight. At JFK they changed airplanes to work flight 401. Flight 26 arrived into JFK late and Adrianne and her crew had only twenty-three minutes to get from one plane to the other. They almost missed flight 401.
(Left) The crew of Flight 401, taken aboard Flight 26 while on the ground in Miami earlier the day of the crash. Back row: Pat Ghyssels, Trudy Smith, Adrianne Hamilton, Mercy Ruiz. Front row: Sue Tebbs, Dottie Warnock, Beverly Raposa, Stephanie Stanich. Laying on the coat rack, Patty George. Not shown, Sharon Transue (she was taking the photo).
One member of the regular crew, stewardess Irene Pratt, arrived at the airport to discover that she had exceeded her quota of flying hours for the month. "When I arrived at the airport told me that there was no need for me that day," she said. She had been replaced by another Eastern flight attendant, Sharon Transue. Irene may have been lucky to have been bumped from the ill fated flight, though she would later die in an auto accident in 1987 at the age of 38.
Because it was the end of the month the crew would be breaking up soon. "This is going to be our last trip together," a black-haired stewardess, Mercedes Ruiz, told the others. She had brought a camera to preserve the memories of the good times the crew had had with each other. Sharon Transue, the replacement crew member didn't feel part of the team and so offered to take the picture of the group. For the photograph, the team of flight attendants had gathered at the tail of the plane. Patricia Georgia lay atop one of the L-1011's coat closets, and the others stood in a row just below. This photograph (above) was taken aboard flight 26 the day of the crash. Mercy's camera would later survive the crash and this remarkable photo was developed. Sadly, for Patricia Ghyssels and Stephanie Stanich - it would be the last time they were photographed alive.
Among the passengers, the very size of the L-1011 imposed anonymity. On flight 401, an unexpected factor made it seem even larger than it was. Especially during the holidays, night coaches to Miami were usually filled up. This flight had been booked solid. But evidently some people had made last minute plans and even with one hundred and sixty passengers on board, when the doors closed, sixty-eight empty seats remained. And so they sat, strangers, some alone, some in pairs:
A woman with salt-and-pepper hair wore a knit dress with gold frogs on her belt. Her name was Evelyn de Salazaar. She managed a Manhattan art gallery. In a small box tucked under her seat was her constant companion, her white poodle, Tina. Marc Leshay, twenty one, a University of Miami student headed back to class after the holidays. Ethel Jackson, 64, a housekeeper from Liberty City, brought her white uniform in a carry-on bag. Rose Kashman, 57, of New York, sporting a mink coat. All would be dead in a few hours.
In Row 16, Gustavo and Xiomara Casado were flying to Miami to show relatives their new baby girl. Two-month-old Christina slept in her mother's arms wearing a pink dress.
Jerrold Solomon, twenty four, was a nervous smoker who still managed to make his pack of Tareytons last two days. He had purchased a non-smoking ticket, but while on board found a seat in the last row reserved for smokers. It was a window seat on the right side, just forward of the wing. Despite that this was a pleasure trip -he was going to Miami to see a girlfriend and visit a former college roommate - he sat down and went right to work. He was a buyer for Gimbels. "I always knew retailing was what I wanted. I got right into it out of school, and I was pretty successful and I got a nice salary." For a brief time until a friend got promoted, he was the youngest buyer at Gimbels. His goal in life, he would say later, was "to be successful financially and live a nice, easy, comfortable life." To that end, he had brought computer print outs on his trip to Miami. "I was rotating stock that might be sitting in the store not selling." Jerry wore a gold Star of David his mother had bought him a few weeks earlier while in Israel. "It was funny. She knew I didn't want to wear anything around my neck. All I wanted was a chain, and she said 'I bought this star. If you want it, wear it, fine. If you want to hold it for your children, fine.' And I said, 'Mom, if it will make you happy, I'll wear it.'
Joseph Popson was a tired but happy soon-to-be PhD in English, returning to Florida after attending the Modern Language Association conference in New York. He settled in for the journey, digging into his paperback of the Exorcist.
Quietly, during the flight, Edward Ulrich proposed to Sandra Burt; she accepted. He was forty-four, fair haired and balding, a big man who used to play college football. She was thirty-two and as slight as he was large. They both lived in Seymour, Connecticut, where he was a salesman for a copper company and she was a secretary in a bank. "I thought you'd like to see this," he said reaching into his pocket and producing a diamond ring. She looked at the ring, smiled and said "Thank you." They laughed and drank a champagne cocktail. It was ironic that the flight had more than five dozen empty seats, for when they booked, they were told the only seats available were in first class. Burt bought the tickets anyway. He and Sandra boarded the plane early and sat near the front in seats 4A and 4B. Directly ahead of them were a row of seats and the first class lounge, where there were several additional empty seats and a buffet of cheese and crackers. To their right were more empty seats. And behind them, an airplane carrying 176 people. Yet, Ed and Sandra were very much alone.
In first-class, a blond young woman rose from her seat and introduced herself to the passengers. She was Jennifer Larsen, an in-flight executive representative for Eastern Airlines. She explained that she would be happy to help any passengers with re-ticketing for return trips. When she finished her announcement, Jerry Eskow called her over. On the back of an envelope he wrote the following letter to Samuel L. Higginbottom, who was then the president and COO of Eastern Airlines. "Dear Mr. Higginbottom: This is my first time on an L-1011, and I love the trip. The ride is smooth, the service is excellent, the plane is beautiful, the pilots are terrific and I want to particularly compliment your stewardess Jennifer Larsen." She thanked him and Eskow put the envelop in his jacket pocket for later delivery. He began to doze as the seat belt sign was lighted and a voice came from the cockpit.
"Welcome to sunny Miami. The temperature's in the low seventies, and its beautiful out there tonight."