Why you should care
Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed in 1972. But that wasn’t the end of it.
In early 1973, the captain on an Eastern Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Miami was asked to check on a passenger in first class. The passenger in question was another Eastern pilot — apparently “deadheading,” or flying home off the clock — who wasn’t listed on the flight manifest. The man, dressed in full captain’s uniform, hadn’t responded to the questions of the senior flight attendant. He was just staring straight ahead, as if in a daze. When the captain approached the passenger, he exclaimed, “My God — it’s Bob Loft.”
It should have been a welcome meeting between old colleagues. There was just one problem: Bob Loft had been dead for months.
On Dec. 29, 1972, Eastern Flight 401 from New York to Miami took off from JFK Airport at 9:20 pm. There were 176 people aboard the state-of-the-art Lockheed L-1011, which was nicknamed the “Whisperliner” for its relative quiet compared with that of other planes. At 11:30 pm, the captain welcomed everyone to the city as the plane descended toward Miami International Airport.
At 11:42, Flight 401 smashed into the Everglades at 225 miles per hour.
The captain on Flight 401 was Bob Loft. He died in the cockpit not long after impact. Second Officer Don Repo survived the crash but died in the hospital a few days later. Altogether, 101 passengers and crew perished in the crash. Somehow, 75 survived. At the time, it was the highest death toll of any single-plane crash in the continental United States.
But the shattering event wasn’t over.
Over the next year and a half, numerous Eastern employees reported seeing the ghosts of Repo and Loft on other Eastern flights. Flight attendants claimed to have seen Repo’s reflection in an oven door in the galley. An attendant on another New York-Miami flight opened an overhead bin to see Loft’s face staring back at her. An entire Eastern cockpit crew saw Repo sitting among them on another flight — they claimed the dead man warned them about a faulty electrical circuit, which was found and repaired. Even an Eastern vice president saw Loft on a plane preparing to take off from JFK.
Ryan Sprague, host of the Somewhere in the Skies podcast and co-host of the CW television series Mysteries Decoded, wrote about Flight 401 for a paranormal website in 2017. He notes the consistency of the reported sightings and the innocuous and/or helpful nature of the apparition. “I do tend to believe most of the ghost stories related to Flight 401 because they seem very simple and innocent,” Sprague says. “These aren’t evil spirits trying to torment passengers or witnesses. They are merely trying to find any way to connect or communicate with us through the only things they have in common with us — the stories they left behind.”
The idea that departed souls might be able to retain some relationship with inanimate objects is known as psychometry.
An account of the sightings was printed in a 1974 issue of the Flight Safety Foundation newsletter, a trade publication not known for indulging in the supernatural. Eastern Airlines officially dismissed the ghost stories, with then CEO Frank Borman — a former Apollo astronaut — going so far as to call the tales “garbage” in Robert J. Serling’s 1980 book, From the Captain to the Colonel: An Informal History of Eastern Airlines.
Get this: Serling was the older brother of The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling.
According to investigative reporter John G. Fuller’s 1976 book, The Ghost of Flight 401, Eastern employees who reported sightings to supervisors were typically referred to the company shrink. Eventually, the tales became so persistent and prevalent that Eastern management allegedly warned its employees that they would be fired if caught disseminating the ghost stories.
Meanwhile, logbooks from nearly all the flights on which the sightings were reported began to disappear. This is significant because Eastern flight crews were trained to note any and all onboard incidents in the flight log, no matter how small or questionable.
At some point, it emerged that Eastern had reportedly salvaged parts from Flight 401. Many of those parts were fitted onto aircraft 318, another L-1011 in Eastern’s fleet. Coincidentally — or maybe not — most of the ghost sightings occurred on aircraft 318.
The idea that departed souls might be able to retain some relationship with inanimate objects — like salvaged airplane parts — is known as psychometry. “I do believe in psychometry to an extent,” Sprague says. “I have several colleagues who claim [to have] haunted artifacts. I have personally witnessed unexplained phenomena occur in the vicinity of several of these items. While there’s certainly no way I can verify the authenticity of these items, the stories behind them or the phenomena that seem to be connected to them, I do think that certain energies can attach themselves to inanimate objects. When it comes to the salvaged parts from Flight 401, I could definitely understand some sort of residual energy being left behind.”
Much of this is documented in Fuller’s book. Published in 1976, The Ghost of Flight 401 purportedly infuriated the suits at Eastern, who apparently considered suing Fuller. Nevertheless, the book was adapted in 1978 into a made-for-TV movie starring Ernest Borgnine as a second officer based on Repo and a young Kim Basinger as one of the surviving flight attendants on the doomed flight.
The story so permeated popular culture that Bob Welch — formerly of Fleetwood Mac — recorded a song titled “The Ghost of Flight 401” for his 1979 solo album, Three Hearts.
Regardless of Eastern’s official position on the ghost stories, all parts salvaged from Flight 401 were eventually removed from other aircraft.