At 9:20 p.m. on Friday, December 29, 1972, Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 took off from New York's JFK International Airport en route to Miami. The flight was routine until a little more than two hours later when, as the plane began its final approach, the three-man crew noticed that the indicator light for the nose-mounted landing gear was dark. Normally, a green light would confirm that the nose gear was down and locked. The dark indicator meant that either the gear was not down or the light was not working.
The crew started over, raising and then lowering the gear again, and when the indicator still failed to light, they decided to circle while they visually inspected the gear and, if necessary, lowered it manually. They followed the tower's instructions to climb to 2,000 feet and head west, over the Everglades, then engaged the autopilot. While the pilot and first officer focussed on the landing gear indicator, the engineer went below into a compartment from which he could visually inspect the position of the nose gear.
For the next few minutes, the plane essentially flew level, dropping slightly to 1,900 feet. Then it began to descend so gradually that none of the crew noticed.
FLYING BLIND I have seen a re-enactment of what was happening in the cockpit courtesy of a video clip in a presentation by The Afterburners, a group of active fighter pilots who apply flight training techniques to business situations. Based on voice recordings from the plane, what the re-enactment shows is that one of the two crew members who were preoccupied with the darkened landing gear indicator probably leaned forward to tap the light, and in doing so inadvertently gave a slight forward nudge to the steering column. The autopilot was designed to interpret such small inputs as a signal to disengage and change the plane's course, so the effect of this slight forward pressure would be to initiate an almost imperceptible descent.
As the plane dropped to less than 1,650 feet in altitude, the engineer didn't hear a chime that sounded in his workstation because he was still trying to visually confirm that the nose gear was down. Evidence from the voice recorder indicates that neither of the other two crew members heard the alarm. Less than a minute later, the plane slipped inconspicuously below 1,000 feet in altitude, its downward glide still undetected by anyone.
A little more than a minute later, one of the two crew fiddling with the landing gear light looked at the altimeter in preparation for making a left turn back toward the airport. The voice recorder indicates that he became confused, unable to reconcile what the altimeter was telling him with what he believed to be true: that the plane was still on autopilot flying at 2,000 feet. It is unclear whether he failed to look up for visual confirmation or if it was too dark out over the Everglades to see anything that might help orient him.
Flight 401 never even slowed down; according to a Wikipedia account, the plane was traveling at 227 miles per hour when it flew into the ground.
TAKE CONTROL If there is any upside to horrific events like these it is that future pilots can learn from them. And so can we. Like commercial pilots, we have analytic tools we can use to determine whether we are still on course and meeting our goals, indicators that tell us if our businesses are functioning properly.
The current remodeling climate is not what it was a year ago. There is more turbulence, and visibility is not what it could be. To navigate through the next few months, owners of remodeling businesses that have operated on autopilot need to take control of the steering and keep an eye on all of the instruments.
The series of events leading to the crash of Flight 401 began with two burned-out light bulbs with a replacement value of $12. Investigators determined that the nose gear was, in fact, down and locked. The crash is technically described as a “controlled flight into terrain,” which means that there was no emergency, no major malfunction; the pilots simply flew a perfectly airworthy plane straight into the ground without realizing it.
If we take too narrow a view, if we become preoccupied with one aspect of our business and ignore the others, by the time we look around to get our bearings, it might be too late.
Sal Alfano, Editorial Director