Eastern Air Lines flight 401, operated on the evening of December 29, 1972 by a four months old Lockheed L-1011, was approaching Miami from New York City. Captaining that night's flight was Robert Loft, a senior pilot with nearly 30,000 hours. Along with Loft, First Officer Albert Stockstill and Flight Engineer Don Repo occupied the flight deck with a company technician riding in the jump seat.

162 passengers and 10 flight attendants were also on board. It was just after 11:30pm when 401 was instructed to join the ILS for runway 9L and call the tower. As 401 was turning onto final, Loft called the tower and instructed Stockstill to lower the landing gear. As Repo read off the pre-landing checklist, Loft checked each item as Stockstill flew. When Repo reached the gear down item, Loft noticed that only the two main gear lights had illuminated.

He then asked Stockstill to confirm that the handle had been moved into place. Stockstill checked the handle and then replied "No nose gear!" The crew then attempted to recylce the gear, but the nose gear light remained unlit. Loft then called the tower and told them of the problem, requesting to orbit to the west of the airport while they checked further on the problem. 401 was handed off to approach and instructed to turn northbound at 2,000ft. Meanwhile, Repo was attempting to jiggle the nose gear indicator light to determine if the problem lay in the light circuit itself, but he was unable to get a proper grip on the light. Loft then instructed Stockstill to engage the autopilot so that he could access the light, being that it was on his side of the panel.

401 was then instructed to turn to a heading of 300 and then Stockstill and Loft returned their attention to the gear light. After another few minutes, Loft instructed Repo to go down to the avionics bay and try to determine the nose gear's position visually. Meanwhile, Stockstill successfully removed the light cover and is now attempting to remove the bulb. The company technician in the jump seat has now also joined in the effort. 401 was then instructed to turn westbound, taking them back out over the Everglades. The crew works on the light for another few minutes and then decided to give up on it. At this point, Repo returns from the bay saying he cannot determine the gear's position. The technician then got up and both he and Repo returned to the bay for another look.

At this point, 401 is well out over the Everglades and Approach said to 401 "How are things coming along out there?" Loft replied that they would like to turn back in towards the airport. 401 was then instructed to turn southbound. Stockstill began to turn the aircraft south as he notices that the altitude seems to have decreased even though the "ALT" light was still illuminated, indicating that the autopilot was still engaged. At this point, he said "We did something to the altitude!" to which Loft replies "What?" Stockstill then said "We're still at 2,000...right?" Loft looked at the instruments which prompt him to say "Hey...what's happening here?" The radio altimeters began to beep followed by impact of the port wing bringing the whole aircraft down in the swamps of the Everglades. 98 people were killed in the crash, including all three crew members. The company technician in the avionics bay with Repo survived with serious injuries.

......The crash of flight 401 was the first accident involving the new generation of "jumbo" jets and brought about questions of the safety of the aircraft design and the new automated systems. Clearly the crew had no clear indication of a critical situation prior to impact as they made no radio communications declaring an emergency or requesting assistance. When investigators were able to access the instrument panel, the reason for the unsafe gear indication became clear. The light bulb for the nose gear light had simply burned out. Recovery of the FDR showed that all systems were functioning normally until the time of the accident.

The question that remained was what caused the aircraft's descent from 2,000ft without the crew being aware. The L-1011 is equipped with two autopilot computers, one for the Captain's side and one for the First Officer's side. The systems were designed so that any force on the control column exceeding 15 pounds would disengage the autopilot's Altitude Hold function. It was found that, in the case of 401, the Captain's computer was set properly, while the First Officer's computer was set to be disengaged by a force greater than 20 pounds.

It was therefore possible that, with the Captain's autopilot engaged, a 15 pound force could be applied, disengaging the autopilot, but leaving the "ALT" light on the First Officer's side illuminated. The FDR recorded a slight negative acceleration at the same time Loft told Repo to go down into the avionics bay, initiating a descent of about 200 feet per minute for the next 30 seconds. It's possible that, in turning to speak to Repo, Loft applied an inadvertent force on the control column, disengaging it. Three minutes later, the CVR recorded an altitude chime, alerting the crew that they had deviated 250 feet from the selected altitude.

The chime sounds near the Flight Engineer's panel, but because Repo was in the avionics bay and the other pilots were wearing headsets, it's thought that no one heard the chime. At the time the Approach controller asked 401 "How are things coming along out there?", the aircraft was down to 900ft. Clearly the controller was concerned with the altitude readout for 401 on his radar, but Loft's reply that they were returning to land indicated no signs of trouble. It is clear from the CVR that Loft failed to delegate someone to be the flying pilot, who's only responsibility would be to monitor the aircraft. Instead, Stockstill was responsible for setting the autopilot, but he was also involved in working on the light, being that it was on his side. Loft was also assisting Stockstill and it was not evident that he monitored the aircraft at all.

These factors led to a complete breakdown of situational awareness, made even more surprising by Loft's impressive flight background.