As commercial airline safety has improved, and aircraft technology has become more advanced, thankfully, the number of fatal crashes each year has dropped.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in 2022 there were just five accidents resulting in the loss of life to any of those on board a commercial aircraft.
When you consider that there were 32.2 million flights that year, it’s easy to understand why commercial aviation is highlighted as an extremely safe way to travel.
It’s actually because of the rarity, and of course tragic nature, of the incidents that passenger jet crashes can still resonate decades after they happened.
However, even among these tragedies there are still some that seem to stick in the mind more than others.
Not just because of how many people were killed, but just how unnecessary and preventable the deaths were.
December 29, 1972
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 took off from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) at 9:20 pm local time, on December 29, 1972, just a few days after Christmas.
What was striking about the flight was just how normal it was, with calm weather and great visibility.
However, the events that unfolded by the end of its journey were anything but run-of-the-mill.
In command of the Lockheed L-1011-1 TriStar widebody aircraft, registered N310EA, was Captain Robert Albin Loft, an experienced aviator who had flown for Eastern Air Lines for 32 years.
Loft was accompanied by First Officer Albert John Stockstill and Flight Engineer Donald Louis Repo.
December 29, 1972 – Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 (a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar) crashes in the Florida Everglades on approach to Miami International Airport, Florida, killing 101 of the 176 people on board. #TodayInHistory pic.twitter.com/1CnVhEYHGY— Today In History Bot (@WikiTodayBot) December 29, 2020
A maintenance manager for Eastern Air Lines was also in the cockpit hitching a ride and another pilot for the carrier had moved from the flight deck to an empty seat in first class.
Also onboard were 163 passengers and 10 cabin crew, with dozens of seats laying empty when the plane took off.
As the Tristar neared Miami Airport (MIA) for landing the pilots became concerned that the aircraft’s landing gear was not lowering into its full position.
A green indicator light that would normally illuminate when the landing gear was in the correct place did not come on and the flight crew set about trying to troubleshoot the issue.
“Ah, tower this is Eastern, ah, four zero one, it looks like we’re gonna have to circle, we don’t have a light on our nose gear yet,” Loft told air traffic control.
After the flight crew announced they had performed a missed approach, air traffic control instructed them to climb straight ahead to 2,000 feet and begin a left turn out over the Florida Everglades.
Once in position Captain Loft instructed his first officer to engage the autopilot.
As the aircraft flew above the Everglades the captain, first officer and the flight engineer tried to fix the issue with the landing gear and the failing indicator light.
Distracted by the issue and with a moonless sky, no one on the flight deck noticed that the aircraft had dropped 100 feet of its own accord.
As they continued to troubleshoot the problem, a tone in the cockpit indicating that the aircraft’s altitude had fallen by 250 feet was left unheard.
Still oblivious to the aircraft’s position, the TriStar reached an altitude of 900 feet. Knowing the aircraft was meant to be at 2,000 feet, a controller at MIA asked, “How are things comin’ along out there?”.
In response the flight crew asked to return to the airport, and they were given the go-ahead, but as the aircraft turned something did not feel right.
“We did something to the altitude[…]we’re still at 2,000, right?” Stockstill asked.
“Hey, what’s happening here?” Loft exclaimed.
Three seconds later Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Everglades destroying the plane.
‘I tried to help as many as I could’
According to reports, the jet was traveling at 227 miles per hour when it hit the ground and as it impacted into the wetlands the aircraft broke into pieces.
Some of those on board the aircraft were killed instantaneously, others died while waiting for help.
“Ah, Miami tower this is National 611, we just saw a big explosion, looks like it was out west. I don’t know what it means, but I thought you should know,” a pilot from another aircraft in the area told controllers.
In the chaos that ensued 99 people died at the scene, and two succumbed to their injuries later on.
Somehow, despite the intensity of the crash, 75 people survived, some suffering injuries so minor that they did not even go to hospital.
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashes into the Everglades in Florida, killing 101 of 176 on board. The cockpit crew was preoccupied with checking the L-1011's landing gear when a light on the instrument panel failed to come on. pic.twitter.com/UbhhU54Mdp— 1973 Live (@50YearsAgoLive) December 29, 2022
Of those in the cockpit only the maintenance manager who was hitching a ride survived and of the 10 cabin crew members, two perished.
Analysis of the crash revealed that most of those who were killed were sat in the plane’s midsection and if it had not been for the swamps of the Everglade’s partially absorbing the impact many more would probably have died.
A local frog hunter who went and helped the survivors in his airboat said: “There were people screaming for help everywhere, dead bodies floating face down, some naked with just shoes on. I tried to help as many as I could.”
The tragedy was the first time that a widebody aircraft had ever crashed.
The end of ‘absolute control’
A crash investigation report published by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in June 1973 said it was possible that the altitude hold function on the autopilot was accidentally disengaged.
The report cited that at the same time the aircraft experienced a drop in altitude the “captain ordered the flight engineer to enter the electronics bay to visually check the Nose Landing Gear”.
The NTSB report speculated that the captain could have “inadvertently applied a force to the control wheel” when speaking to the engineer and disconnected the altitude hold function.
However, ultimately the “descent from the assigned altitude of 2,000 feet was not determined”.
The NTSB therefore concluded that the probable cause was “the failure of the flight crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final 4 minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground.”
“Preoccupation with a malfunction of the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew’s attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed,” the NTSB said.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the philosophy at the time of the accident was that the captain was in “absolute control” and that the crew did not operate as a team.
“It was not typically expected that the flight crew would perform as a team, and subordinate crewmembers did not generally assert any authority while in flight. This generally resulted in crewmembers waiting for an order from the captain before performing any task, and inhibited initiative on the part of subordinate crewmembers in responding to abnormal or emergency situations,” the FAA said.
Subsequently, the Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crash led to an industry overhaul and the “development and predominant industry-wide adoption of crew resource management (CRM) philosophies”.
Essentially this created an ever-evolving set of aircraft training and rules where human error can have devastating effects.