In the past half century, there have been 87 aviation disasters more deadly than the June 30, 1956, mid-air collision over Grand Canyon. But in terms of its role in shaping civil aviation regulation and policy, it stands as one of the most influential ever.
"It was probably the most significant event to change aviation, aside from the first flight and 9-11," said Grand Canyon Airlines pilot Mike McComb, who has researched the accident for more than 15 years. "A lot of the rules that we fly with now were created as a result of this accident."
Last Friday was the 50th anniversary of the collision that killed 128 travelers and crew. A panel discussion was scheduled to be held at the Shrine of the Ages Friday, featuring Dan Driskill, a flight paramedic from Flagstaff and William Waldock of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott. Richard Quartaroli of NAU was to moderate.
The two planes a TransWorld Airlines Super Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7, took off within minutes of each other from Los Angeles International Airport, only to converge over the Temple Butte area some 90 minutes later. A number of factors led to their seemingly impossible collision between these two flights which flew the same route every day. And for those interested in aviation safety, even half a century later they are looking for answers.
Driskill has been researching a book about it for about three years.
"I heard about it and was looking for a book on the disaster and there wasn't one," he said.
McComb has researched the collision and its implications, writing extensively on it for books and magazines. He has an ongoing interest flight safety and has visited more than 50 crash sites, including the one for the accident that killed actress Carole Lombard.
Both have tackled the arduous 40-50-mile round-trip hike and river crossing to get to the site where the story of the 90-minute flight ends.
The first 90 minutes
Though TWA flight 2 to Kansas City was scheduled to depart at 8:30 a.m., mechanical problems delayed its takeoff until 9:01. At 9:04, United Flight 718 to Chicago took off
McComb said that at the time of the crash, the passengers mostly business travelers and airline employees, as well as others who could afford the first-class fare of about $180 were probably finishing a late breakfast.
"Everything went as planned for the first hour-plus of the two flights," said Driskill.
That these two planes would come together in the same vast airspace over northern Arizona wasn't entirely due to chance. In the days before established flight routes and centralized air traffic control, it was common for pilots to detour a bit to give passengers a look at one of the most stunning landmarks in the southwest. In fact, said McComb, airlines, who were trying to sell the American public on this still very young mode of transportation, touted the sightseeing aspect in their advertising.
"It was one of the highlights along the trip," he said. "Basically it was flat desert and cornfields, so let's show them the Grand Canyon. Both airplanes happened to want to do the same thing. It's still done today though it's more controlled because you have a radar."
"It's almost certain they were sightseeing," Driskill said. "One was about 11 miles off course, one was 15 miles off course."
That alone, however, wasn't all that put these planes on their deadly collision course. Though they were expected to cross paths over the Painted Desert at roughly the same time, they were assigned to do so at different altitudes the TWA plane at 19,000 feet and the United Airlines plane at 21,000 feet.
But as he ran into weather at the California-Arizona border, TWA pilot Jack Gandy requested permission to climb to 21,000 feet. That request was denied because the United flight in the vicinity was at that altitude. Gandy then asked to increase altitude to 1,000 feet above the weather, a request that was granted though it put the Constellation at 1,000 feet above the 20,000-foot cloud system. At the time, Gandy was warned that there was another plane in the area the only warning either pilot would get.
When outside urban areas, pilots operated on visual flight rules, meaning that they were responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft.
"They had an idea of what planes were in the vicinity, but controllers couldn't say, 'The plane that you're looking for is half a mile to your right," said McComb.
The flights last checked in with Salt Lake City controllers about an hour after takeoff. Because the planes were traveling under visual flight rules, the Salt Lake controller did not pass on the knowledge that both planes were at the same altitude and were expected to arrive over the Painted Desert at the same time.
'We are going in...'
At 10:31 a.m., the Salt Lake controller received a final, garbled transmission from the United pilot. It was later deciphered "United Flight 718, uh, we are going inŠ"
The TWA plane was located at sunset that day by Grand Canyon Airlines operators Palen and Henry Hudgin, who had attributed smoke seen earlier in the day to a lightning strike. Flying over the site again, they were able to identify the Constellation's distinctive, three-finned tail. Because they didn't have a phone at Red Butte, they drove to the park and attempted to call TWA collect to report the find. Eventually they found someone who would take their call.
The wreckage of the United Airlines plane was found the next morning, a mile and a half from the TWA plane and 1,000 feet off the Canyon floor on a cliff face of Chuar Butte.
Driskill noted two ironies in connection with the crash a near mid-air collision between a recovery helicopter and a plane, and the July image in the TWA 1956 calendar a Super Constellation flying over the Grand Canyon.
It took recovery crews three days to reach the crash site. Though they tried to helicopter in, Driskill said turbulent weather made it a risky endeavor. They concentrated first on the TWA flight, which was on the ground. Mountaineering volunteers, including United Airlines workers out of Colorado and a team from SwissAir, were brought in to handle the wreckage far up the wall on Chuar Butte.
The impact was so violent that few bodies were identifiable and loose change bore imprints from the faces of other coins, McComb said. Though the planes were only a mile and a half apart, wreckage was strewn over an area of about 10 square miles.
Initially investigators said the TWA pilot was at fault because he was the only one who recevied a warning but that statement was quickly withdrawn and they ruled that both pilots were at fault for failing to see each and avoid each other.
"One of the controllers noted that TWA had gotten a warning while the other plane didn't," Driskill said. "The agency retracted that almost immediately."
Investigators pieced together the story of what likely happened as they sifted through the wreckage. Paint from the TWA plane was found on the propeller of the United DC-7 and material from the Constellation's cabin roof was found on its wing, indicating impact that tore into the cabin, shearing off the tail section and sending the Constellation straight down. McComb said it landed upside down and some reports said parts of the plane were driven 20 feet into the ground. Meanwhile, the crippled DC-7 went down in a more controlled way, taking enough time for the captain to radio Salt Lake before crashing into the cliff at Chuar Butte.
McComb said that it would have taken 30 to 45 seconds for impact.
"It was a terrifying fall for both planes," he said.
Burial of victims
Sixty-seven of the 70 who died on the TWA plane were buried in a mass grave in the Flagstaff Cemetery, with 400 relatives in attendance and 1,500 Flagstaff residents. Three of the victims were sent home to family. There are 29 unidentified dead from the United flight buried at Grand Canyon Cemetery.
In their haste to remove bodies from the summertime heat below the rim, recovery teams left much of the debris behind, and the Park Service closed the area for 20 years to keep looters out. In 1976, they demanded that the airlines clean up the material. They took some, but not all. Both McComb and Driskill said much evidence of the disaster remains, including molten aluminum fused to rocks and bits of glass and metal that glitter in the sun atop the cliff at Chuar Butte.
For some, there is a feeling of something else left behind. River guides say the site is haunted, and McComb noted there is a feeling in a place where so many people died so suddenly.
"You can feel it," he said. "You're not alone."
With the 50th anniversary, the site has moved from the junk field it was in 1976 to a historic site with a story to tell. McComb is working on a proposal for a trip to the site this fall to document and record the location of every locatable piece from the accident.
As much as the crash has left its mark on the Canyon floor, its larger impact was felt throughout the civil aviation industry.
The newspapers on the morning of June 30 carried the story of America's leap forward in ease of cross country travel, though not by air. On June 29, 1956, the same day that Marilyn Monroe married playwright Arthur Miller, Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act. The legislation called for adding 41,000 miles to the interstate highway system and authorized $25 billion over the next 12 years for the task.
Meanwhile, investments in an aviation infrastructure had lagged. Despite warnings from aviation experts that a high-fatality collision between two commercial airliners was inevitable, the Civil Aeronautics Administration suffered deep budget and personnel cuts in the years leading up to the crash. The department responsible for air safety inspection and oversight, the Office of Flight Operations and Airworthiness, was known by the less than flattering acronym of "FLOPAIR."
At the time, the Airline Pilots Association was reporting an average of four near misses a day, with a quarter of those being within 100 feet. From 1950-1956, there were 70 mid-air collisions, not including military aircraft, though until the Grand Canyon disaster, none had involved commercial passenger aircraft.
"There were some problems with the air space," said McComb. "Everything was operating on rules that were set up in the 1920s for slower aircraft and lighter air traffic. As aircraft got faster and climbed higher, they were still using these rules. In this case, they proved ineffective."
Though they were on visual flight rules, Driskill said the follow-up report determined that the pilots would have had a field of view of just 14 percent.
"There were certain angles that they could have been approaching each other at that they would not have seen each other," Driskill said.
Air traffic control
Though commercial aviation was on the threshold of the jet age, air traffic control was relatively unsophisticated. Once out of urban air space, pilots operated under visual flight rules, essentially on their own and responsible for watching for other traffic.
Pilots radioed to company dispatchers each on their own frequency who, in turn, radioed information to CAA controllers. There was no mechanism to track position in real time; rather pilots communicated their progress by checkpoints passed and estimated time of arrival to the next. This data was recorded on slips of paper. Much of the means of control was simply keeping planes at different altitudes The reporting, according to McComb, was along the lines of, "'OK, I'm over Lake Mead. I'm going to be over the Painted Desert in 30 minutes.' The controller would write it down and pass the message on. No one was looking at a radar scope. They had no big picture."
Reforms began almost immediately after the accident with TWA and United establishing their own internal regulations regarding instrument flight rules. Congressional hearings were also held, leading to a vote to appropriate $250 million to the CAA for radar surveillance systems, air traffic control towers and new controllers.
By 1958, in response to this crash, as well as a 1958 collision between an Air Force jet and a commercial plane over Maryland, military and civilian air traffic control systems were combined under a new authority, the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Congress wanted an independent agency that could manage the rules and the airspace," said McComb.
The crash led to other reforms as well, including a requirement that planes flying between 18,000 and 60,000 feet use instrument, rather than visual, flight rules, use of collision avoidance technology and on board data recording, or the "black box."
"A lot of that technology was spurred by the accident," said McComb. "It has sort of been in development but the push to getting it going was actually the result of these accidents. This was the Titanic of its day in terms of what it changed."