EASTERN AIRLINES FLIGHT 855 - MAY 5, 1983
By Steve Thompson
Eastern Airlines, Retired
Captain Dick Boddy, Second Officer Dudley Barnes and I, along with 7 Flight Attendants checked in for what we expected to be a routine flight from Miami to Nassau, returning and continuing on to Los Angeles. The routine part of the flight ended as we began our descent into Nassau. Little did we know that events the night before would put the lives of our 162 passengers and 10 crew members in great jeopardy. I would like to write that the skill, bravery and superb handling of this emergency by the pilots resulted in saving lives. This was not the case. It was our mistakes that did. While I give myself a poor grade on performance, the results were a successful landing without so much as a scratch to the airplane nor a single injury to anyone on board.
I was the Check Airman, Pilot in Command and occupied the right seat. Captain Dick Boddy, sat in the left seat of our L-1011, N334EA (msn 1141). He had recently completed his simulator training for the L-1011 and this was his second trip of his Initial Operating Experience (IOE). In Operations, we checked the weather and found there was a cold front in the area and the forecasted weather was for numerous rain showers associated with the cold front with lower cloud cover along the entire route. This would turn out to be one of the many things that would contribute to our successful landing in MIA.
Our take off was at 08:56 from 27L and we made a turn out to the south and then direct to Nassau. We were cleared to cruise at FL 230. 85 miles from NAS we were cleared for a descent to 9000'. The weather at Nassau was a broken layer at 500', overcast at 900' and a moderate rain shower directly over the airport which we saw both visually and it painted red on the Radar. We had been turned over to NAS approach, which at that time had no Radar. We were advised that we were No.2 following a light airplane in front of us for a VOR approach to runway 32. As we descended through 15,000' at 09:15AM, and 54 miles from Nassau the "Low oil pressure" warning light came on the Master Caution and Warning panel for No.2 engine. We immediately shut down the engine. As part of this shutdown procedure the closing of the isolation valve to the engine being shut down is required. This would later play a major part into our attempts to restart this engine and I believe played a major role in the successful outcome of this incident.
We are now faced with the decision of whether to land in NAS only 54 miles ahead or return to Miami which was 110 miles away. This was an easy decision. We concluded that we could be on the ground in VFR weather in Miami in less time than in NAS, considering the existing conditions. We would later learn the weather deteriorated to below landing minimums in NAS at the time we would have been landing. This decision was questioned and in response to a lawsuit filed by one of the passengers we set up the same conditions in the simulator and showed events happening in the exact same time frame. A decision to land in NAS would have resulted in water landing about 5 miles short of the island.
We started the APU and requested clearance back to MIA. We were given clearance back to MIA and turned over to Miami Air Traffic Control. We advanced engines 1 and 3 to max climb power and began a climb to our requested altitude.
At 09:23, the "Low Oil Pressure" light illuminated for engines 1 and 3 on the Master Caution and Warning panel. We checked the oil quantity and pressure gages and they all indicated zero.
We were only slightly alarmed at this condition. We believed our problem was faulty indication and that we really had adequate oil pressure and quantity. We called technical service and asked them if there was an electrical source common to all the gages. Their response was to check a circuit breaker for a particular bus, which was normal. We did alert MIA ARTC of this condition but told them we believed we only had indication problems since the chance of our losing oil in all three engines was nil. They alerted the Air Sea rescue and a Coast Guard Falcon Jet was sent to meet and escort us.
Our wishful thinking that we had an electrical malfunction was soon to be shattered. Five minutes after we had the indications of "Low Oil Pressure" on engines 1 and 3, No.3 engine sized with a loud bang. We are left with only No.1 engine operating and the realization that it would fail soon. We called the Flight Attendants to the Flight Deck and informed them they should prepare the passengers and cabin for ditching. I will always remember the look on the faces of the 3 Flight Attendants who came to the Cockpit and the other 2 Pilots. The color of their skin was stark white, as I am sure mine was. A physician friend would later tell me this is because so much adrenalin is pumped into the blood stream.
At 09:33, we lost our final operating engine. From an altitude of 13,000' and only our APU, we had no chance of reaching land without starting an engine. As I mentioned earlier, there was cloud cover below and I often thought if we had seen Bimini as we passed over it without engines, would we have entertained thoughts of dead sticking into that 4000' runway? Such an attempt would have probably been a disaster. I remember being incredibly busy at this time. I also remember having difficulty thinking clearly about tasks that needed to be accomplished. We needed to dump fuel, communicate with the passengers, Flight Attendants, ATC, as well as preparing for ditching.
We frantically began many attempts at restarting No.2 engine. We used the in-flight restart check list but could not get the engine started. I remember yelling at S/O Barnes to follow the check list exactly as it was written. When you got to the item on the check list, "Isolation Valve", the response was "As Required" and fortunately we did not open it. As we descended through 4000', we were awaiting water impact. One of us suggested we try to start No.2 engine one more time. This time we did not use the check list and went through our normal ground start procedure, including opening the isolation valve. I pressed the engine start switch; saw the green light come on, and the engine RPM rise, what a feeling. At 3000' we had sufficient power to maintain level flight and we even climbed back to 4000'. We did not know how long this engine would produce power and we were still 34 miles from the airport. We choose 27L so we always had the option of either Biscayne Bay or Miami International Airport.
At 09:46 we touched down at MIA just 13 minutes after we lost our final engine in-flight. We turned off the runway stopped on the taxiway so that the fire department could douse the No.1 engine with water because there was heavy smoke coming from the engine.
We were told it would take 15 minutes to get a tug out to us to tow us to the terminal. I told them we wanted to taxi in and get off the airplane ASAP. We advanced the throttle to get taxi speed and could not get any power from it. We had run out of engines again but we were on the ground. We would later learn that No.2 engine had less oil than engines one and three that had already flamed out.
As we were being towed to the gate I felt the first noticeable anxiety. It was demonstrated by shaking knees and a quivering voice when making a PA announcement. This is when I first realized what we had just been through.
We were met at the gate by Captain Bert Beech the Miami Assistant Chief Pilot, and a Forman for line maintenance. The Foreman made the statement to us that he knew exactly what happened. That was the first time the word O'- rings was used. We were led straight to a convened NTSB hearing. It was concluded that two Mechanics had installed the Master Chip Detectors on all three engines without O-ring seals, thereby putting the lives of 172 people in grave danger. Their only discipline was to demote them to auto mechanics for 30 days.
Overall we did a poor job of keeping the Flight Attendants and the Passengers informed and I take full responsibility. When we made the decision to return to Miami, we made a PA announcement that we were returning to MIA because of a minor mechanical problem and reassured them that every thing was OK.
We announced "Ditching is Imminent" much too early which lead the Flight Attendants and Passengers to believe impact was moments away. This created a high level of anxiety for a longer period of time (9 to 10 minutes in the brace position) than was necessary. Our Flight Attendants, led by Shirley Alexiou, did a superb job.
In looking back, there were too many things that happened had any one of them changed, the outcome of this fateful day would have different. To this day I believe there was Divine intervention in our successfully landing in Miami.