There are countless supernatural movies that are based on “true” stories out there, but the eerie tale that inspired The Ghost of Flight 401 is quite intriguing. The year was 1973, and the captain of an Eastern Airlines flight from Newark to Miami was asked to check on a passenger who wasn’t supposed to be on the aircraft. He also happened to be an airplane captain who worked for the same airline, and he was dressed in full uniform when he was discovered on that flight. When the captain approached the other passenger captain, he found him staring into space and unable to respond to questions. It turned out that the passenger was Bob Loft, the captain who died on a flight from New York to Miami in December of 1972.
The crash — which happened in the Everglades — saw 101 passengers and crew members either die or suffer fatalities. At the time, the incident was the highest death toll for a single plane crash in United States history. Over the next year or so, the ghosts of Loft and flight engineer Don Repo were spotted on numerous flights, trying to communicate with the living. However, the employees who reported the spooky sightings were either sent to a psychologist or threatened with expulsion from their jobs.
Interestingly, though, all of the airplanes that had alleged ghost sightings just so happened to contain parts from the vessel that crashed in 1972. It’s not uncommon for salvageable parts from wrecked planes to be repurposed, but it is odd when they are possessed by ghosts. Talk about a chilling story, right? It’s understandable why they made a movie about it.
When: February 18, 1978
Loosely based on John G. Fuller’s book of the same name — which provides a detailed account of the crash and the subsequent ghostly appearances — and directed by Steven Hilliard Stern, The Ghost of Flight 401 stars Ernest Borgnine as Dom Cimoli, the titular ghost who appears before the eyes of airline employees and passengers throughout the film. Borgnine’s character is essentially the film’s version of Repo, and like his real-life inspiration, this ghost spends most of his time absently gazing into the back of seats.
Viewers who enter The Ghost of Flight 401 looking for shivers and thrills might be disappointed. With the exception of names being changed for the sake of respecting the real victims, the film follows the same beats as the true story for the most part. Repo’s ghost was harmless according to the real accounts, which is good for those who supposedly encountered him back in the day. In the context of this movie, however, the spook in question is quite boring.
Borgnine is great during the scenes where his character is alive and kicking. The interactions he has with his wife and colleagues early on are upbeat and natural, and the actor is fun to watch during those scenes. Unfortunately, his talent is wasted when he’s acting the part of the vacant ghost. That’s the point of the movie, sure, but these moments make for some uneventful viewing as nothing really happens. You can’t fault the movie’s intention of trying to present the reported accounts as accurately as possible, but a film based on the character’s life would have been more interesting than his ghostly adventures.
The most interesting story in The Ghost of Flight 401 revolves around the conflict between the employees and airline management in regards to the ghost sightings. The powers-that-be want them to stay quiet because employees talking about supernatural nonsense is bad for business. There isn’t enough focus on this story to make it substantial, though, as the living characters spend the majority of the movie debating whether or not Dom’s ghost is real or not. It gets repetitive after a while.
That said, the film’s desire to tell a positive ghost story is admirable. Dom appears because his spirit still feels bound to his colleagues and family, and some viewers might find comfort in the thought of deceased loved ones watching over them. Personally, that idea freaks me out because who knows when the spirits will decide to keep an eye on you. Just imagine laying down with your lover and your grandfather’s ghost is in the room watching you both do the nasty, sporting a big smile on his face. There are no scenes like that in The Ghost of Flight 401, but there should be.
The performances are solid across the board, and there’s nothing wrong with the movie from a technical standpoint. Robert Malcolm Young’s script doesn’t contain enough flavor to offer the cast enough good material to sink their teeth into, and the story is too flat to recommend to viewers who crave excitement. The idea is much better than the execution here, so just read the book instead.