The idea of a classic haunting conjures many images of eerie old houses, graveyards, and spirits being forever trapped in the rooms where their life had seemingly ended. But sometimes these often reported hauntings don’t occur on the ground around us but in the skies above. And such was the strange case involving the ghosts of Flight 401.
It was December 29th, 1972. Eastern Airlines Flight 401, holding 163 passengers, broke through the clouds, taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. It was a routine flight, leisurely touching down in Miami. At the helm was Head Pilot, Bob Loft, a thirty year veteran of the skies. He was accompanied by Albert John Stockhill, his First Officer, and Donald Lois Repo, the flight engineer. The rest of the crew consisted of ten top-notch flight attendants. All seemed to be going just as planned as they coasted through the air, their destination of Miami International Airport within reach.
As they prepared for landing, Stockstill noticed that the landing gear indicator light hadn’t turned on when it should have. Alerting the crew of the situation, he tried several times to cycle the landing gear, hoping that this would solve the problem. But it didn’t seem to resolve. Soon, Loft radioed the flight tower of the situation. Soon, the plane was put into a holding pattern over the nearby Everglades. At an altitude of about 2,000 feet, the plane was put into autopilot as the crew hurriedly tried to resolve the situation. Distracted by the supposed malfunctioning landing gear, the entire crew was oblivious to the fact that someone had accidentally turned off the autopilot feature and the plane was quickly losing altitude. By the time the crew was made aware, it was already too late. The plane crashed into an unforgiving swampland at a speed of 227 miles per hour. The fuselage disintegrated almost immediately, jet fuel sending fiery blazes throughout the downed aircraft. It was a tragedy beyond comprehension.
Stockstill perished on impact. Loft and Repo initially survived, but Loft died while being pulled from the wreckage. Repo later succumbed in the hospital due to major complications. In total, 97 out of 163 people died in the crash that fateful day. It was one of the most horrific and deadliest plane disasters in U.S. history. And while the tragedy certainly struck the hearts of many, the lingering spirits of those lives lost refused to fade away.
The aircraft was an Eastern L-1011 Tristar jet. Not long after the deadly events in the Everglades, both passengers and crew of flights flown in the same model aircraft began to report strange occurrences as they made their way through the skies. Many of these reports included sightings of Robert Loft and Donald Repo. They would often stand in the aisles, looking over the passengers. Or sometimes they would even be seated next to passengers, a cold dark stare shooting forward towards the cockpit.
One report, in particular, came from flight attendants who said they saw Robert Loft wandering up and down the aisles of the plane right before takeoff, talking to passengers and warning them to get off the flight before it was too late. It was then said that as they prepared for takeoff, Loft’s supposed spirit vanished into thin air. The crew was so visibly shaken by this event that the flight had to be canceled that day. Another incident involved the vice-president of Eastern Airlines. As he sat in first class during a routine flight, he assumed the man sitting next to him was the Captain and began to speak to him. It wasn’t until halfway through the conversation that the strange truth dawned on him. The man, sitting silent and staring at him was none other then Loft himself. When the realization hit the vice-president, the man that was sitting next to him faded away into thin air.
Another report came from a flight attendant who noticed an engineer fixing an oven in the galley (kitchen) of the plane. When the flight attendant later saw a different engineer who usually worked that shift, she asked who the new guy was that fixed the oven. He insisted that no other engineers had been on that flight and that there was nothing wrong with ovens that had been reported to him. When the flight attendant described the mysterious engineer, it struck a chord with several other crew members. They retrieved several photos of a man to show her, and she insisted that the man in the photos was most definitely the man she saw that day. All of the photos were that of flight engineer Donald Lois Repo.
Repo seemed to be the boldest of the two spirits haunting these flights. During a flight of Tri-Star 318, a flight attendant witnessed an apparition of a man who warned she and several other crew members that they should keep a lookout for possible fires on the plane. The flight engineer knew Repo in life and had no doubt that this apparition before him was indeed the man himself. Soon, the apparition disappeared. Halfway through the flight, the plane suffered major engine issues that caused a fire. The last leg of the flight was canceled.
It is worth acknowledging that almost every report of both Repo and Loft boasted incidents involving what appeared to be flesh and blood individuals, and not spectral entities. The only time that the events seemed supernatural were when an individual recognized Repo or Loft, and they would dematerialize before the witness’ very eyes. Another interesting fact is that whenever they were seen, they would often warn crew members of impending problems on a particular flight. They were almost acting as omens for some sort of disaster or preventing it altogether. The last interesting aspect of nearly every report is that Repo and Loft were never seen together on any flight or in any witness testimony, prompting one to presume that in the lingering spiritual purgatory high in the skies, they were working alone to haunt these flights.
One of the most contentious and intriguing aspects of this entire ghostly affair came to light when rumors began to spread that salvaged pieces from Flight 401 had been recycled and used on other Tri-Star jets. If one is to believe that objects themselves can contain the disembodied spirit of someone, then this most certainly was the case for the ghosts of Flight 401. Almost all reports of Repo and Loft supposedly came from flights that had pieces of the original plane attached to them somehow. This claim of using parts from a tragic disaster was contested for years by airlines who stated that they would never do such a thing. But many who’ve worked on the planes did admit that this was a common practice among airlines to cut corners and save money on construction of their aircraft, even down to the last screw and bolt. There were also rumors that once this notion of recycled pieces of Flight 401 went public, the pieces were swiftly and silently removed from other planes. Immediately, all reports of ghostly activity on Tri-Star flights ceased.
No matter the case, the actual presence of these ghosts had taken a toll on the airline. So many reports were submitted to the US Flight Safety Foundation that they actually published a response in their newsletter, in which they stated: “The reports were given by experienced and trustworthy pilots and crew. We consider them significant. The appearance of the dead flight engineer (Repo) … was confirmed by the flight engineer.” But Eastern Airlines itself did everything they could to distance themselves from these reports, not wanting a reputation of being the “haunted airline,” nor did they want to bring any more attention to the tragedy of Flight 401. No matter the case, the reports of these supposedly haunted flights pales in comparison to the loss of life that fateful day over the Everglades.
Eastern Airlines went out of business in 1991 after extensive labor disputes and a massive strike in 1989. And while the airline itself is long dead, the stories of possible ghostly crew members continue to live on both here on the ground and in the air. Perhaps the next time you find yourself on a flight, you may want to order several of those overpriced mini bottles of bourbon and gin. Because you never truly know if that person you’re sitting next to is an actual passenger or a ghostly tag along to keep you both startled and sober in the skies.
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Ryan Sprague is a professional playwright & screenwriter in New York City. He is also an investigative journalist, focusing on the topic of UFOs. He is the author of Somewhere in the Skies: A Human Approach to an Alien Phenomenon, published by Richard Dolan Press. He is the co-host of the critically acclaimed podcast, Into the Fray, available on iTunes & Stitcher. You can also catch him frequently on Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum. His other work can be found at: somewhereintheskies.com