Lessons Learnt from the Crash of Eastern 401
The crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 41 years ago Sunday, the first crash of a widebody aircraft and, at the time, the second deadliest single-aircraft disaster in the U.S., led to wide-ranging changes in on board safety that continue to positively affect air travel today.
The four-month-old L-1011 TriStar jet crashed into the Florida Everglades on December 29, 1972 at 11:42 p.m., caused 101 fatalities and there were 75 survivors.
The crash was determined to have been caused due to the preoccupation of the flight crew with a burnt-out landing gear indicator and a subsequent failure to notice that the autopilot had been disconnected, causing the aircraft to lose altitude.
The National Transportation and Safety Bureau, which investigated the accident, recommended a number of changes and improvements that might prevent future accidents. These included a change to the altitude warning system, which would only give a single audible and visual indication below 2,500 feet, to having it flash continuously at any altitude. In addition, this and subsequent incidents where pilot error led to disaster or near disaster led to the creation of Crew Resource Management systems, in which the captain is responsible for ensuring that the monitoring of all indicators and warning systems is delegated among the crew. The use of CRM teamwork in the cockpit was a major reason that there was no loss of life in the “Miracle on the Hudson” crash landing in 2009.
Another change came about from post-crash interviews with flight attendants. Eight of the ten, Adrienne Hamilton, Patricia McQuigg, Beverly Raposa, Mercedes Ruiz, Trudy Smith, Sue Tebbs, Sharon Transue, and Dorothy Warnock, survived and their accounts were invaluable in both understanding what the crew faced after impact and what could be done to lower the loss of life in future such incidents.
When asked what would have helped them the most at the time of the accident, each said having a flashlight available would have made a dramatic difference in the outcome. Cabin crew members also pointed out that the flight attendants sitting in aft facing jumpseats suffered back injuries because only forward facing jumpseats were equipped with shoulder harnesses at the time.
Today, flashlights are standard equipment near the jumpseat and all jumpseats are outfitted with shoulder harnesses, and all flights owe a debt of gratitude to those who perished as well as those who survived the crash of Flight 401.
(Photo: Jon Proctor)