When people think of ghosts, many are perhaps likely to conjure up thoughts of dilapidated old houses, crumbling buildings with darkened windows, and spooky, desolate country roads. Places such as these have long been the staple of scary ghost stories and horror movies, but perhaps one of the creepiest and most extensively documented cases of ghostly encounters did not originate in any of these typical haunted locales, but rather in the sky over our heads. It seems when it comes to inexplicable ghostly phenomena, the sky really is the limit, for as we are about to see airplanes are also not exempt from becoming the haunts of mysterious spirits from beyond the land of the living.
The story begins with the ill-fated Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, which was a Lockheed L-1011-1 Tristar jet piloted by pilot Bob Loft, a veteran with over 30 years of flight experience, who was accompanied by First Officer Albert John Stockstill, flight engineer Donald Louis 'Don' Repo, and 10 flight attendants. On December 29, 1972, Flight 401 was en route to Miami International Airport after departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York at 9:20 PM with 163 passengers on what was a seemingly problem free and routine flight, when the horrific nightmare began just as the plane was approaching its final destination.
As the plane approached Miami International at 11:32 and the crew prepared for landing, First Officer Stockstill noticed that the landing gear indicator light, which was supposed to alert the flight crew that the nose gear was in the locked down position, had not illuminated. The concerned crew decided to cycle the landing gear several times, yet the green indicator light still failed to turn on. Having been unable to get the desired confirmation light for the landing gear, Loft abandoned his approach and radioed in to the flight tower to explain the situation, after which the plane was put into a holding pattern over the nearby Everglades until the problem could be resolved. As the plane cruised in its holding pattern at an altitude of 2,000 feet, the autopilot was engaged and the crew dismantled the light trying to discern the cause. Meanwhile, flight engineer Repo investigated the landing gear visually through a porthole to see that it was indeed down despite the lack of blinking indicator light. While all of this was going on and the crew was distracted by the malfunctioning landing gear light, no one noticed that the plane had been gradually losing altitude due to the fact that someone had inadvertently disconnected the autopilot by leaning into the yoke that toggled it on and off. The distraction, plus the fact that there were no lights or visual frames of reference within the darkened wilderness below, prevented anyone from really grasping just how shockingly and dangerously low the plane had descended.
By the time the altitude discrepancy was noticed by the crew, it was too late. Flight 401 plowed into the swampland below at a speed of 227 miles per hour, and the fuselage disintegrated as it crashed through swamp muck and grass, spewing fiery burning jet fuel as it went. First Officer Stockstill was killed on impact, and although pilot Robert Loft and flight engineer Donald Repo initially survived the crash, Loft died while being pulled from the wreckage and Repo succumbed to his grievous injuries later at a hospital. In total, the flight crew and 97 of the 163 passengers were killed in the horrific crash, as well as 2 of the 10 flight attendants, making the incident the second deadliest single aircraft disaster in United States history.
Not long after the accident, weird stories began to circulate amongst the airline community of ghostly encounters with the dead crew of Flight 401. Both the flight crews and passengers on other flights aboard various Eastern L-1011 Tristar jets began to report eerie sightings of the deceased pilot Robert Loft and flight engineer Donald Repo, under a variety of weird circumstances. Both of the dead men were often seen by flight crew and passenger standing in the aisles, sitting in passenger seats, in lavatories, and even in the galley or cockpit. One creepy account happened when a female passenger noticed a pale looking, seemingly dazed and unresponsive man in one of the seats and became worried about his health. She called over a flight attendant to voice her concerns about the unwell passenger when suddenly the mysterious man disappeared in full view of the attendant and several other passengers, leading the original witness to panic so badly that she had to be restrained and calmed down by other attendants. Later, when the woman had recovered from her hysterics and was shown pictures of the airline’s various flight staff, she immediately recognized Repo as the man she had seen. On another occasion, the pilot and two flight attendants on another flight saw Loft wandering around the plane before take-off and even speaking to people before vanishing into thin air, leaving the surprised crew so badly shaken that the flight was cancelled.
Repo was allegedly particularly active and bold in his ghostly activities. One report describes how a flight attendant saw a flight engineer fixing the oven in the galley, however, later the flight engineer of the flight insisted that he had not fixed the oven, nor ordered it to be fixed, and that he was the only engineer on board. The attendant later would recognize from photos that the man she had seen had been Repo. On another occasion, a pilot of another flight heard a strange knocking sound coming from a compartment below the cockpit. Thinking it might be indicative of some mechanical trouble, he opened the compartment only to be startled by Repo hunkered down below, peering up at him from the darkness. When the ghostly flight engineer disappeared and the compartment was investigated, it became evident that there was indeed a malfunction that could have potentially led to disastrous flight complications.
More creepily, on numerous occasions, the ghosts of Loft and Repo were reported as speaking directly to flight crew, flight attendants, and passengers. One such incident occurred when an L-1011 flight engineer was going through pre-flight checks before take-off and Repo appeared beside the understandably startled man. The ghost of Repo reportedly said to him “You don’t have to worry about the pre-flight, I’ve already done it,” before vanishing right before his eyes. Another case occurred aboard the flight of Tri-Star 318, when a flight attendant saw Repo’s face staring out at her from the galley oven. The terrified attendant alerted other crew members, two of whom came running to see the apparition for themselves. The flight engineer aboard the flight had known Repo in life and recognized him right away. Repo then allegedly spoke to them, saying "Watch out for fire on this airplane." The plane would later be beset by serious engine problems that were indeed caused by a fire and which were severe enough to necessitate the cancellation of the last leg of the flight. In yet another incident, none other than the vice-president of Eastern Airlines himself had a ghostly encounter of his own when he started a conversation with a uniformed man sitting next to him in First Class, assuming that he was the captain of the flight. To the executive’s horror, it slowly dawned on him that the man he was speaking to was none other than the late Robert Loft, after which the dead pilot promptly faded into thin air. On another occasion, Repo reportedly materialized next to an astonished pilot and declared "There will never be another crash. We will not let it happen," before blinking out of existence.
All of the varied sightings of the ghosts of Loft and Repo share some interesting, sometimes eerie characteristics. For one, the apparitions were always described as being incredibly life-like and realistic, looking like actual flesh and blood people rather than wraithlike, spectral entities. It was often not until the ghosts had disappeared or the witness had recognized who they were that people even realized they were seeing or talking to a ghost at all. Additionally, the vast majority of sightings were made by multiple witnesses, often experienced flight crew, who all gave similar details in their reports. Another interesting point is that apparently the ghosts of Loft and Repo were never seen on the same flights.
Perhaps the spookiest similarity weaving throughout the reports is the presence of salvaged parts from the doomed Flight 401. Eastern Airlines had allegedly salvaged some of the undamaged parts from the crashed plane and had recycled them into other Eastern L-1011 Tristar jets. It appears that perhaps the ghosts of Flight 401 went with them, as it was later pointed out that these planes with the cannibalized parts in particular seemed to produce the largest concentrations of hauntings and sightings of the dead crewmen.
All of the alleged ghost sightings aboard various L-1011 flights were reported to the US Flight Safety Foundation, which logged so many of the reports that it mentioned them in a newsletter, stating "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." Eastern Airlines itself was decidedly less impressed with the stories, with the CEO at the time, former astronaut Frank Borman, condemning the rumors and stories as “garbage.” The airline completely denied the sightings as preposterous and also seriously discouraged the spread of such ghost stories among crew, even going so far as to threaten disciplinary action or dismissal if they were found to be discussing the hauntings or passing the rumors along. All efforts by paranormal investigators to get at the bottom of the phenomenon were also hampered by the extremely uncooperative airline, which was trying to distance itself from such things as much as possible. Interestingly, amongst all of this denial and avoidance of the subject of haunted airplanes, Eastern Airlines apparently quietly went about quietly removing all of the parts that had come from Flight 401. As soon as the parts were gone, so were the ghosts, and there have been no such further sightings since.
Eastern Airlines eventually was liquidated in 1991 after years of labor disputes and a particularly debilitating strike in 1989, but although the airline no longer exists, its legacy as America’s haunted airline lives on. The curious case of Flight 401 has become a staple in many discussions of modern hauntings, and has been widely covered in a wide range of media, from books, to movies, to TV shows, and even songs. There is just something about the idea of haunted airplanes that seems to strike a particular chord with people. The story of Flight 401 is also one of the more compelling hauntings out there due to the fact that many of the reports were made by sober, well respected, experienced flight crew in high level positions such as high ranking pilots, flight officers, and flight engineers. There seems to be little reason for them to lie or spread spooky stories, especially when their reputations, and during Eastern’s crackdown, even their jobs were on the line for doing so. In addition, sightings of the ghosts, who often appeared in full view of more than one person, were very clear and detailed, and often made by multiple eyewitnesses who were able to fully corroborate each other’s stories. If this is all just a case of people perpetuating an urban legend and creepy lore, then it is a fairly persuasive effort.
In the end there is no way to know if there was anything truly paranormal happening aboard any of these flights. All we have are the testimonies of the many eyewitnesses and curious details such as salvaged parts from Flight 401, which could be mere coincidence or their significance exaggerated. Extensive investigations and witness interviews by a myriad of paranormal investigators have done little to get us closer to truly understanding just what is going on here. One thing is for certain, though; it is certainly an intriguing and bizarre case that deserves its place among the ranks of the most famous hauntings in the world. So next time you are on a flight, just after you’ve fastened yourself in and adjusted your seat, you might just want to look to see if there is a pale, dazed looking stranger sitting next to you, perhaps wearing a flight crew uniform. If you do find such a gentleman sitting there, maybe it would be a good idea to give him a poke with your finger just to be sure.