The small light bulb that bought this big jet to ashes

It’s the year 1972, on the 29th of December, Eastern Airlines flight 401 is flying between JFK, new york and Miami Airport, Florida. Operated by a 4-month old Lockheed l-1011-1 Tristar registered as N310EA which was just delivered to the airline in August 18, 1979. It is the tenth Tristar delivered to the carrier since fleet no.310.

In command of the flight is Captain Robert Albin Loft, a veteran pilot ranked 50th in seniority at Eastern, being with the airline for 32 good years he logged in 29,700 flight hours throughout his career. Despite the many flight hours, he was new to the Tristar with only 280 hours. His co-pilot is First Officer Albert John (age-30) who logged a total of 5,800 flight hours with 306 of them on the Tristar. The flight engineer is Second Officer Donald Louis (age-51) who has 15,700 flight hours with only 58 on the Tristar. Also on board is a technical officer Angelo Donadeo (age-47). A company employee returning to Miami from New-York. He is an off-duty non-revenue passenger but is still accompanying the crew. There are 163 passengers and a crew of 13 people on board

The pilots of flight 401

23:32 local time: Flight 401 is on its approach to Miami International Airport. The First Officer is flying the plane while the Captain is the monitoring pilot. As the plane approaches the airport, the crew lowers the landing gear stick to down position. The landing gear indicator indicates that the nose gear is not lowered since it doesn’t illuminate, the Captain cycles the landing gear to see if this will solve the problem. He tries more and more but the nose gear light still fails to illuminate. The captain isn’t sure whether the gear is locked and if it is not, this could be a disastrous landing. Two minutes later the Captain speaks to the tower to discontinue the landing and requests to enter a holding pattern

The tower instructs Flight 401 to pull up, climb to 2000ft straight ahead and gives the crew a frequency to contact. The crew acknowledges its climb and gets an instruction to hold west, seconds later the flight engineer asks the captain to test the lights and the captain agrees. The flight engineer performs a test named the Christmas tree which lights up everything in the cockpit to see if the bulbs are working but the nose gear light still fails the test. The bulb is probably burnt but there is a slim chance of double failure where both the bulb and the landing gear could be broken. At 23:36,the approach control istructs the flight to a heading of left 300°. The crew acknowledges and complies. Its a moonless night and as the plane veers away from Miami, there is complete darkness outside. As the plane turns left the First Officer removes the nose gear lens assembly successfully but it jams when he tries to replace it.

Eastern airlines logo,1972

The second officer is dispatched to the avionics bay beneath the fight deck in order to confirm via a small porthole if the landing gear is actually down. 50 seconds after reaching their instructed altitude, the captain suggests the F/O who is the pilot flying to engage auto pilot. For the next 80 seconds ,the plane maintained its flight level. At 23:37-34, a downward acceleration of 0.04G causes the plane to descend 100 feet but a pitch up input arrests the lost altitude. A second later, the crew is instructed to turn left to a heading of 270°, the crew acknowledges and complies. Meanwhile, attempts to free the nose gear position lens from its retainer bear no fruits. The captain again dispatches the second officer to the bay below to check the alignment of the landing gear and the avionics. For the next 20 seconds the pilots discuss the faulty nose gear lens position light assembly and how it can be inserted back correctly

A question asked by the f/o after noticing something was wrong

Then, the aircraft begins a gradual descent that cannot be perceived by the crew. In the next 70 seconds, the plane loses 250 feet but this is enough to trigger the altitude warning C-chord chime located under the engineers station. None of the crew members comments about the C-chord and there is no pitch change to correct the loss of altitude. Shortly after 23:43, the second officer reports he cant see the landing gear cause its too dark outside. At this point the captain notices he forgot to turn on the lights outside the plane that illuminate the landing gear. Afterwards, the technician goes to the bay to help out the second officer. Back at Miami intl, the approach controller notices flight 410 has dropped altitude from 2000-900 feet and as a result he asks the crew how things are going on. The crew states that they are okay and need to turn around to come back in the airport. At this point captain Loft is still waiting for good news about the landing gear so that he starts to lead the plane back

Seconds later the crew is granted permission to come back and is instructed to turn left heading 180 degress. As the aircraft turns, the F/O notices the low altitude and starts to worry, asking the captain whether the plane is still at 2000 feet, the captain doesn’t understand him clearly. The captain notices that something is terribly wrong and the plane is on a left bank of 28°. It crashes into the Florida Everglades, a natural region of tropical wetlands. Only 75 of the 175 people on board survived.

:The aftermath of flight 401