Friday, 29th of December, 1972
– United States of America “Hey, what’s happening here?”
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, a domestic scheduled passenger flight from New York-John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK/KJFK), New York, to Miami International Airport (MIA/KMIA), Florida, USA, operated with a Lockheed L-1011-385-1 TriStar 1, registration N310EA, crashed into the Florida Everglades while on approach to Miami International Airport (MIA/KMIA), Florida, USA.
The airplane was completely destroyed. Five crew members and 96 passengers perished. The remaining eight crew members and 67 passengers survived with injures. (101 fatalities, 75 survivors)
The crash of Flight 401 is the 15th deadliest aviation accident on U.S soil. It was the first fatal crash of a wide-body aircraft. It was also the first hull loss and first fatal crash of a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar and it remains the third deadliest accident involving the aircraft.
Flight EA401 departed New York-JFK at 21:20 EST for a flight to Miami. The flight was uneventful until the approach to Miami. After selecting gear down, the nosegear light didn’t indicate ‘down and locked’. Even after recycling the gear, the light still didn’t illuminate. At 23:34 the crew called Miami Tower and were advised to climb to 2000 feet and hold. At 23:37 the captain instructed the second officer to enter the forward electronics bay, below the flight deck, to check visually the alignment of the nose gear indices. Meanwhile, the flight crew continued their attempts to free the nosegear position light lens from its retainer, without success. The second officer was directed to descend into the electronics bay again at 23:38 and the captain and first officer continued discussing the gear position light lens assembly and how it might have been reinserted incorrectly. At 23:40:38 a half-second C-chord sounded in the cockpit, indicating a +/- 250 feet deviation from the selected altitude. None of the crewmembers commented on the warning and no action was taken. A little later the Eastern Airlines maintenance specialist, occupying the forward observer seat went into the electronics bay to assist the second officer with the operation of the nose wheel well light.
At 23:41:40 Miami approach contacted the flight and granted the crew’s request to turn around by clearing him for a left turn heading 180 degrees. At 23:42:05 the first officer suddenly realized that the altitude had dropped. Just seven seconds afterwards, while in a left bank of 28deg, the TriStar’s no. 1 engine struck the ground, followed by the left main gear. The aircraft disintegrated, scattering wreckage over an area of flat marshland, covering a 1600 feet x 300 feet area.
Five crew members and 94 passengers died in the accident. Two passengers died more than seven days after the accident as a result of their injuries.
Robert “Bud” Marquis (1929–2008), an airboat pilot, was out frog gigging with Ray Dickinsin (1929–1988) when they witnessed the crash. They rushed to rescue survivors. Marquis received burns to his face, arms, and legs—a result of spilled jet fuel from the crashed TriStar—but continued shuttling people in and out of the crash site that night and the next day. For his efforts, he received the Humanitarian Award from the National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation and the “Alumitech – Airboat Hero Award”, from the American Airboat Search and Rescue Association. The surviving flight attendants were credited with helping other survivors and several quick-thinking actions such as warning survivors of the danger of striking matches due to jet fuel in the swamp water and singing Christmas carols to keep up hope and draw the rescue teams’ attention, as flashlights were not part of the standard equipment on commercial airliners at the time.
“The failure of the fight 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.”
– NTSB Report: