5 February 1949: An Eastern Air Lines Lockheed L-749A Constellation, serial number 2610, N115A, flew from Los Angeles to LaGuardia Airport, New York, in 6 hours, 17 minutes, 39-2/5 seconds, setting a new West-to-East transcontinental speed record for transport aircraft.
Captain Fred E. Davis was in command, with First Officer M.L. Jordan and Flight Engineer E. L. Graham, Eastern’s Chief Flight Engineer. The flight was timed by officials of the National Aeronautic Association.
The Constellation took off from Lockheed Air Terminal at Burbank, California, at 7:51:21 a.m., Pacific Standard Time (15:51:21 UTC), and passed over La Guardia at 5:08:02 p.m., Eastern Standard Time (22:08:02 UTC). The Constellation averaged 392 miles per hour over the 2,455 mile flight.
The following day, 6 February, Eddie Rickenbacker, Eastern Air Lines’ president and general manager, announced that that the company had ordered an additional seven Lockheed Constellations at a cost of more that $1,000,000 each, with the first one to be delivered to Miami, Florida, the following week.
The Lockheed L-749A Constellation was a longer-range development of the L-649, with fuel capacity increased by 1,130 gallons (4,278 liters). It was operated by a flight crew of four, with two to four flight attendants. It could carry up to 81 passengers.
The airplane was 97 feet, 4 inches (29.667 meters) long with a wingspan of 123 feet (37.49 meters) and an overall height of 22 feet, 5 inches (6.833 meters). It had an empty weight of 56,590 pounds (25,668 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 107,000 pounds (48,534.4 kilograms).
The L-749A was powered by four 3,347.662-cubic-inch-displacement (54.858 liter) air-cooled, supercharged, fuel-injected, Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 18 745C18BD1 (R-3350-75), two-row 18-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.5:1. This engine, also known as the Duplex-Cyclone, featured “jet stacks” which converted the piston engines’ exhaust to usable jet thrust, adding about 15 miles per hour (24 kilometers per hour) to the airplane’s speed. They had a normal power rating of 2,100 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m., and 2,500 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m. for takeoff, (five minute limit). The engines drove 15 foot, 2 inch (4.623 meter) diameter, three-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic 43E60 constant-speed propellers through a 0.4375:1 gear reduction. The 745C18BD1 was 6 feet, 6.52 inches (1.994 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.62 inches (1.413 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,915 pounds (1,322 kilograms).
The L-749 had a cruise speed of 345 miles per hour (555.22 kilometers per hour) and a range of 4,995 miles (8,038.7 kilometers). Its service ceiling was 24,100 feet (7,346 meters).
N115A was leased to California Hawaiian Airlines, 1961–1962. It was purchased by Rutas Internacionales Peruanas SA (RIPSA) in 1966 and re-registered OB-R-833. In 1968 it was withdrawn from service and was scrapped in 1981. Photographs of the derelict record-setting airplane parked at Lima, Peru, in 1980, are just to sad to publish here.
29 December 1972: Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, was en route from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), New York, to Miami International Airport (MIA), Florida, with a crew of 13 and 163 passengers. The flight was under the command of Captain Robert Albin Loft, a 32-year-veteran of Eastern Air Lines. The co-pilot was First Officer Albert John Stockstill, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who had flown with Eastern as a flight engineer for 12 years before upgrading to first officer the previous year. The Second Officer (flight engineer) was Donald Louis Repo. He was employed as a mechanic by Eastern in 1947, and had qualified as a flight engineer in 1955.
On approach to MIA, the flight crew lowered the landing gear. The indicator light for the nose gear did not illuminate. Captain Loft informed the Miami control tower that he was abandoning the approach and requested a holding pattern. Miami Approach Control placed Flight 401 in a “race track” pattern at 2,000 feet (610 meters), west of MIA.
The flight crew confirmed that the landing gear was operating properly, and confirmed that the incandescent light bulb for the gear position indicator was burned out. Still, all three members of the flight crew, as well as a fourth Eastern Air Lines employee who was in the cockpit, continued to investigate the light’s malfunction. While they did so, the airplane entered a very gradual descent which went unobserved by the crew.
The following partial transcript is from the airplane’s Cockpit Voice Recorder:
Miami Approach Control: “Eastern, ah Four Oh One how are things comin’ out there?” [2341:40]
Eastern Air Lines Flight 401: “Okay, we’d like to turn around and come back in.” [2341:44]
Miami Approach Control: “Eastern Four Oh One turn left heading one eight zero.” [2341:47]
First Officer: “We did something to the altitude.” [2342:05]
Captain: “What?” [2342:05]
First Officer: “We’re still at two thousand, right?” [2342:07]
At 11:42:12 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, Flight 401 impacted the surface of an Everglades swamp, 18.7 miles (30.1 kilometers) west-northwest of the end of Runway 9L. The TriStar hit the ground at 227 miles per hour (365 kilometers per hour) in a 28° left bank. Of the 176 persons on board, 99 were killed and 75 were injured. 2 of the injured died later.
The cause of the accident was “pilot error.” In the simplest terms, the flight crew failed in their primary responsibility to FLY THE AIRPLANE while they dealt with an inconsequential technical issue. At the time, this was the highest number of fatalities in an aircraft accident in the United States.
PROBABLE CAUSE: “The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the failure of the fight crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final 4 minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground. Preoccupation with a malfunction of the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew’s attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed.”
— Aircraft Accident Report, Eastern Air Lines, Inc. L-1011, N310EA, Miami, Florida, December 29, 1972, Report Number NTSB-AAR-73-14, Adopted 14 June 1973, Chapter 2.2 at Pages 23–24
Following the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, and the similar crash of a United Air Lines DC-8, Flight 173, at Portland, Oregon, 28 December 1978, airlines developed a system called Cockpit Resource Management to ensure that the flight crews stayed focused on cockpit priorities while dealing with unexpected issues.
Flight 401 was a Lockheed L-1011-385-1 TriStar, a long-range variant of the “wide body” airliner, FAA registration N310EA, (serial number N193A-1011) which had been delivered to Eastern Air Lines 18 August 1972 had entered service three days later. At the time of the crash it had just 986 hours total flight time (TTAF).
The L-1011 was a very technologically advanced airliner, operated by a flight crew of three, and could carry a maximum of 330 passengers. The –385 was 14 feet shorter than the previous TriStar versions, with a length of 164 feet, 2.5 inches (50.051 meters). It had longer wings, spanning 164 feet, 4 inches (50.089 meters). Its overall height was 55 feet, 4 inches (16.865 meters). Empty, it weighed 245,400 pounds (111,312 kilograms). The maximum takeoff weigh was 510,000 pounds (231,332 kilograms) and maximum landing weight, 368,000 pounds (166,922 kilograms).
N310EA was powered by three Rolls-Royce RB.211-22C turbofan engines, with two suspended on pylons under the wings and one in the rear of the fuselage. They produced 42,000 pounds of thrust (186.83 kilonewtons), each.
The L-1011-385-1 had a maximum speed of 0.95 Mach. Its cruising speed was 604 miles per hour (972 kilometers per hour). Range with maximum passengers was 6,151 miles (9,899 kilometers). The service ceiling was 43,000 feet (13,106 meters).
The Lockheed L-1011 was in production from 1968 to 1984. 250 of the airliners were built at Palmdale, California.
The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the
Medal of Honor
EDWARD V. RICKENBACKER
Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, 94th Aero Squadron, Air Service.
Place and date: Near Billy, France, 25 September 1918.
Entered service at: Columbus, Ohio. Born: 8 October 1890, Columbus, Ohio.
G.O. No.: 2, W.D., 1931.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy near Billy, France, 25 September 1918. While on a voluntary patrol over the lines, 1st Lt. Rickenbacker attacked seven enemy planes (five type Fokker, protecting two type Halberstadt). Disregarding the odds against him, he dived on them and shot down one of the Fokkers out of control. He then attacked one of the Halberstadts and sent it down also.
Edward Reichenbacher was born 8 October 1890 at Columbus, Ohio. He was the third of seven children of Wilham and Elizabeth Reichenbacher, both immigrants to America from Switzerland. His formal education ended with the 7th grade, when he had to find work to help support the family after the death of his father in 1904. He worked in the automobile industry and studied engineering through correspondence courses. Reichenbacher was a well known race car driver and competed in the Indianapolis 500 race four times. He was known as “Fast Eddie.”
With the anti-German sentiment that was prevalent in the United States during World War I, Reichenbacher felt that his Swiss surname sounded too German, so he changed his name to “Rickenbacker.” He thought that a middle name would sound interesting and selected “Vernon.”
The United States declared war against Germany in 1917. Edward Vernon Rickenbacker enlisted in the Aviation Section, Signal Corps, United States Army, at New York City, 28 May 1917. He was appointed a sergeant, 1st class, on that date. After arriving in France, Sergeant Rickenbacker served as a driver for General John Pershing.
On 10 October 1917, Sergeant Rickenbacker was honorably discharged to accept a commission as a 1st lieutenant. Two weeks later, Lieutenant Rickenbacker was promoted to the rank of captain. He was assigned to 3rd Aviation Instruction Center, Issoudun, France, until 9 April 1918, and then transferred to the 94th Aero Squadron as a pilot.
Captain Rickenbacker served with the American Expeditionary Forces in France, and served during the following campaigns: Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne. Between 29 April and 30 October 1918, Rickenbacker was officially credited with 26 victories in aerial combat, consisting of 20 airplanes and 6 balloons. He shot down the first six airplanes while flying a Nieuport 28 C.1, and the remainder with a SPAD S.XIII C.1., serial number S4253.
Rickenbacker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross with seven bronze oak leaf clusters (eight awards). France named him a Chevalier de la légion d’honneur and twice awarded him the Croix de Guerre with Palm.
Eddie Rickenbacker is quoted as saying, “Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared.”
In 1930, after Charles A. Lindbergh, Commander Richard E. Byrd, Jr., and Warrant Officer Floyd Bennett had each been awarded the Medal of Honor for valorous acts during peacetime, the 71st Congress of the United States passed a Bill (H.R. 325): “Authorizing the President of the United States to present in the name of Congress a congressional medal of honor to Captain Edward V. Rickenbacker.”
In a ceremony at Bolling Field, the headquarters of the U.S. Army Air Corps, 6 November 1930, the Medal of Honor was presented to Captain Rickenbacker by President Herbert Hoover. President Hoover remarked,
“Captain Rickenbacker, in the name of the Congress of the United States, I take great pleasure in awarding you the Congressional Medal of Honor, our country’s highest decoration for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above an beyond the call of duty in action. At a stage in the development of aviation when you were achieving victories which made you the universally recognized ‘Ace of Aces’ of the American forces. Your record is an outstanding one for skill and bravery, and is a source of pride to your comrades and your countrymen.
“I hope that your gratification in receiving the Medal of Honor will be as keen as mine in bestowing it. May you wear it during many years of happiness and continued service to your country.”
In 1920, Rickenbacker founded the Rickenbacker Motor Company, which produced the first automobile with four wheel brakes.
Eddie Rickenbacker married Adelaide Pearl Frost (formerly, the second Mrs. Russell Durant) at Greenwich, Connecticut, 16 September 1922. They would later adopt two children.
From 1927 to 1945, he owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1938, he bought Eastern Air Lines, which he had operated for General Motors since 1935. He was the chief executive officer (CEO) until 1959, and remained chairman of the board of directors until 1963.
In 1941, Rickenbacker was gravely injured in the crash of an Eastern Air Lines DC-3 aboard which he was a passenger. He barely survived.
During World War II, Rickenbacker was requested by Secretary of War Henry Stimson to undertake several inspection tours in the United States, England, the Pacific and the Soviet Union. While enroute to Canton Island from Hawaii, 21 October 1942, the B-17D Flying Fortress that he was traveling aboard missed its destination due to a navigation error. The bomber ran out of fuel and ditched at sea. The survivors drifted in two small life rafts for 21 days before being rescued. All credited the leadership of Rickenbacker for their survival.
Rickenbacker was a member of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA.
Edward Vernon Rickenbacker died of heart failure at Neumünster Spital, Zollikerberg, Zürich, Switzerland, at 4:20 a.m., 23 July 1973. He was 82 years, 10 months of age.