Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ones and Zeros

Well, we made it through another harrowing Christmas season without any terrorist incidents- no shoe bombs or exploding underwear threats. The TSA did their best Grinch imitation as usual and confiscated a particularly suspicious looking cupcake, but the public was not fooled. They are not accepting the notion that baked goods are a sufficient threat to an airliner. However forty years ago today, a brand new jumbo jet was lost over something which seemed equally innocous.

There wasn't a malicious cupcake bomb aboard Eastern Airlines Flight 401 as it flew toward Miami on the night of December 29, 1972. The airplane itself was a Lockheed L-1011, brand sparkling new. Here I digress and interject that I refer to the L-1011 as the binary airliner, not only because her name is made of ones and zeros, but also because they featured the most sophisticated flight controls in the air at that time. The plane was full of ones and zeros.

This particular airframe had been delivered to Eastern on July 30, 1972 and was not yet five months old. She carried serial number 1011 (a most interesting and binary coincidence) and was the tenth passenger airframe completed. All of the earliest L-1011's went to Eastern, she carried tail number N310EA (one-zero again) in sequence with her sister ships. She had completed just 501 landings prior to that morning, when she departed Tampa to New York's Kennedy airport as Flight 164 where she would then turn around and return to Florida that evening.

The flight was by all accounts comfortable, luxurious and uneventful. The big L-1011 departed JFK at 9:20 PM and headed south. Captain Robert Loft put the bird in the sky and then turned on the autopilot, whose ones and zeros controlled the plane for most of the trip. The big Rolls Royce engines purred along, so silently that Eastern referred to their L-1011's as "Whisperliners". At only two-thirds capacity, the passengers stretched out. The L-1011 has always been one of my personal favorites- the power of the Rolls-Royce engines, the spacious cabin whose very high ceilings and wide aisles provided a great environment for flying. The night was clear, the winds calm. The passengers were Holiday travelers, returning from Christmas and preparing for the New Year.

Upon approach to Miami, a minor problem occurred. The landing gear was lowered, but the green nose gear light did not illuminate. Probably the bulb, the flight crew decided, but not wanting to risk their brand new airplane, they abandoned their approach. First officer Bert Stockstill increased their altitude to 2000 feet and turned the Whisperliner west over the Everglades. Captain Loft instructed him to reengage the autopilot, so the ones and zeros flew the plane while the flight crew diagnosed the problem. Soon the pilot, first officer, flight engineer and an Eastern L-1011 maintenance specialist were engrossed in attempting to replace a failed light bulb. So engrossed that no one noticed that First Officer Stockstill had nudged the control column and unknowingly turned off the altitude hold. The flight crew realized their error seconds before the big L-1011 flew itself into the swamp.

Amazingly, of the 176 souls on board, seventy five lived. One hundred and one perished, including the three man flight crew who became so obsessed with a failed light bulb that they somehow forgot to fly the plane. Survivors and victims seemed almost randomly disbursed, as if a computer were randomly assigning ones and zeros. In the end, there were seventy five ones, and one hundred and one zeros. One brand new fifteen million dollar aircraft, absolutely airworthy in every way except for a failed light bulb was destroyed. In the Florida swamp, investigators found the nose landing gear. It was down and locked.

To mark each anniversary, survivors gather to remember the experience, give thanks to the rescuers and honor the victims. They will reflect on how their lives were affected by the massive convergence of ones and zeros. Among those attending will be Flight Attendant Mercedes Ruiz, who wrote the poem below in February 1972 when the accident was still fresh in her memory:

Because I've been granted the gift of life
I want to live each moment to the fullest
I want to submerge my being much more than before
Into the wonders of nature and love.
I want to reach and feel,
because feeling in itself is a way of loving.
I want to tremble at the wildness of the storm,
and bathe myself with rain.
I want to touch the clouds
and hold the blue within one word.
I want to cry before the ocean waves
because they rush to me and kiss me
and then they leave.
I want the wonder of the starry night above,
the moon, a sigh, and each of all my silences.

The ones and zeros can change the course of our lives in an instant. Let us remember all of the souls flying back to Miami on that clear December night- those that returned safely to earth, and those for whom fate had other plans.

For those who desire to read more, here are two excellent sites:

Eastern 401 Homepage
Remembering Eastern 401

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