Ghosts are not confined to the torturer's chamber or Gothic castles, houses of infamy, the sites of great battles or fog-shrouded churchyards. Their haunting places are often as strange as the circumstances that surrounded their deaths. However, few sightings can the as strange as that witnessed aboard a commercial passenger airliner - the ghost of Tri-Star 318.
Fay Merryweather, an experienced Air flight attendant, moved towards the rear of the Eastern Airlines Tri-Star flight 318 to prepare the meals for the planeload of holidaymakers. There were 180 of them, leaving behind the winter chill of New York for the sunshine state of Florida. Fay Merryweather had just a couple of hours to get all the meals ready and serve them to the passengers, and she was on her feet as soon as the indicator lights saying seats belts could be unfastened came on.
She moved into the galley of the aircraft, reaching for the in-flight cooker when she saw the face. There, in the tinted glass of the cooker door, was the face of a man, his brows furrowed in a look of concern or anguish, his eyes blinking at her and the speechless mouth moving, as if the mute vision somehow wanted to utter a warning. She stared at it again and then, urgently but without running in order not to panic the passengers, she made her way to the cockpit and blurted out what she had seen to the flight engineer.
He left his instruments and went back with her to the galley. His mind a whirl, the engineer too looked into the oven glass; and he, too, saw the face.
He recognized it as that of a colleague and friend of his, Don Repo, who had died the previous year, when a routine flight had turned to tragedy.
More chilling than that, both of them then heard the image say "Beware, beware, fire in the jet." It was a prophecy that was to come true, not on that particular flight, but on another Eastern Airlines run three months later.
The "jinx" on Tri-Star 318 was born with the death of Don Repo and the pilot Bob Loft in the autumn of the previous year. Don Repo was the engineer aboard a Tri-Star flight, number 401, from New York to Miami. The journey had been uneventful and Loft and Repo went through the routine checks to bring the plane down safely. The "fasten seatbelts" sign was activated and Repo flicked the switch to lower the undercarriage. However, the light on Loft's control panel which should have told him that the nose wheel was locked into position failed to come on. Loft put the aircraft on automatic pilot and locked it into a circling course while Repo scrambled to an observation point to see if the nose wheel was coming down. As he did so, Loft unscrewed the bulb of the indicator light and looked for a fault. It was a move cost him, Repo and ninety-seven others their lives. Inadvertently, Loft knocked the automatic pilot control to "off" as he tampered with the bulb. He was still fiddling with it when he realised his fate - the plane was plummeting helplessly down to the swamp lagoon below, plunging through the swamp grass with engines, tailplane and the undercarriage were ripped away. It was Eastern Airlines' worst ever disaster.
Accident investigation experts spent weeks examining the wreckage. What held the key to the apparition witnessed by Merryweather a year later, however, was the fact that the galley of the crashed plane was one of the few salvageable items recovered from the swamp - and it was installed in Tri-Star 318. The office staff of Eastern Airlines noted that fact when Merryweather made her report about the apparition of Don Repo in the glass of the oven door. The whispered warning of fire yet to come proved true three months later, when the plane turned back on a flight to Mexico from New York with suspected engine defects. After repairs it went on a routine test flight and, on take-off, an engine suddenly erupted into flames. A safety report issued afterwards said that only the supreme skill and cool-headedness of the crew on board saved the airliner from certain doom.
On another flight, after the Merryweather incident, the "ghost" plane was full of airline staff being brought back from destinations where their duties were over. An off-duty captain had been checked in by cabin staff and was seated next to an executive of the airline also taking the free ride back to Florida. The couple talked in the way of people who want to pass the time without getting too involved, it was only when the captain turned to face the airline executive that he recoiled in horror.
Sitting next to him was the perfectly lifelike ghost of Captain Loft.
Flight attendants who rushed to aid their panic-stricken boss found only an empty seat - and a very worried executive. It was not the final visitation from the dead fliers. Just a few weeks later, an Eastern Airlines pilot was running through a routine instruments check before taking off for Atlanta, Georgia. Looking back up at him from the luminous dials was the face of Don Repo. In addition, the voice whispered: "There will never be another crash on an L-1011. We will not let it happen."
There were other sightings too; a flight attendant on another flight saw Repo's features in a luggage locker; another saw Loft after going to investigate smoke emanating mysteriously from a bulkhead. In all, there were more than twenty sightings of the ghosts of Don Repo and Bob Loft. Eastern Airlines, keen to try anything to rid themselves of the ghost fliers who were upsetting other members of their staff, called in an employee of the airline who was also a religious man. He carried out an exorcism with holy water - and the face of Repo appeared in the galley for the last time. After eighteen months of haunting the skies, neither he nor Loft was ever seen again. The reports of the sightings were given to the Flight Safety Foundation, the USA's independent safety authority, which studied them carefully. It had this to say - The reports were given by experienced and trustworthy pilots and crew. We consider them significant. The appearance of the dead flight engineer in the galley door was confirmed by the flight engineer. Later, records at the Federal Aviation Agency record the fire that broke out on that same aircraft. We published reports of the ghost sightings in our safety bulletin issued to airlines in 1974. No explanation was ever proffered by the Flight Safety Foundation for the visions. It remains one of the great mysteries of the unknown.