How a Terrible Plane Crash Over the Grand Canyon Changed History

How a Terrible Plane Crash Over the Grand Canyon Changed History

This general view of the north rim of the Grand Canyon shows the area of commercial aviation's greatest air disaster, involving two airliners and 128 deaths. Arrows mark the crash spots of the United Airlines DC-7 (top) and the TransWorld airlines Super Constellation (bottom).

SourceBettmann/Getty

Why you should care

Because this tragedy is the reason why the safety regulations we have today exist

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Entering from the east side of the park, the Desert View Watchtower provides visitors with their first dramatic glimpse of the Grand Canyon. Overwhelmed by the view, guests can be forgiven for overlooking a humble stone marker commemorating the historic landmark in the Painted Desert below. The plaque reminds those who do notice it that mistakes often spur great advancements. Referring to the 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines aviation accident, the inscription says the site “represents a watershed moment in the modernization of America’s airways.” How it earned that distinction is a story of error and wreckage and a crash site that remains a mystery.

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Coffins of Grand Canyon airplane crash victims awaiting burial.

Source A. Y. Owen/The LIFE Images Collection

It began the morning of June 30, 1956. Two flights, the Trans World Airlines Star of the Seine en route to Kansas City and Mainliner Vancouver of United Airlines to Chicago, had been delayed at Los Angeles International Airport — the former for minor maintenance, the latter because of increased holiday traffic before July 4th. Their flight plans were different enough to avoid concern: Both pilots had flown the route countless times. But a few seemingly inconsequential changes were enough to spell disaster. Capt. Jack Gandy of TWA requested clearance to fly “1,000 [feet] on top,” over the clouds, which were forming thunderheads. The request was standard, and approved. But because he was flying in what was then “uncontrolled airspace,” the maneuver made it his duty to maintain safe separation from other aircraft — a procedure known then as “see and be seen.”

Now the policy is “see and avoid,” one of the many changes resulting from that ill-fated day. Even after Gandy’s shift, his flight course was not destined to intersect with the United flight, a subsequent investigation showed. Crucially, planes flying blind (without outside help) in such conditions were supposed to follow visual flight rules, which means avoiding clouds to try to stay visible. As the weather worsened, both Gandy and the United pilots began to shift to avoid the towering cumulus clouds that were forming.

For years after the event, anybody going down the river … could see a lot of the wreckage from one plane.

Dave Mortenson, vice president of the Grand Canyon Historical Society

And so the two planes collided at 10:30 a.m. after they each passed, investigators believed, the same cloud from opposite sides. The United flight banked to the right at the last moment, a crash analysis found, suggesting the pilots saw Gandy barreling toward them. “It was a see-and-avoid situation for the pilots — and they didn’t,” says Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. The 128 aboard all perished, at the time the most egregious plane accident in U.S. history and the only one with triple-digit deaths.

The subsequent stories would bring into focus the primitive standards of air control at the time. Dead spaces, where radars couldn’t reach, were more common. Traffic controllers often failed to advise pilots of potential traffic conflicts — in fact, they were prohibited from doing so, an official told the Civil Aeronautics Board during the investigation. “In retrospect, the pilots were flying it the way they had been instructed to fly it,” Goelz says. “This accident really galvanized that maybe there was too much peril involved, and there were steps that needed to be taken to minimize it.”

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Army personnel lay out plastic bags holding remains of some of the 128 victims of the two-plane crash in the Grand Canyon for shipment to the temporary morgue at Flagstaff, Arizona.

Source Bettmann/Getty Images

Congressional hearings in 1957 led to increased funding to hire and train more air traffic controllers and to purchase new radar technology. The next year, the Federal Aviation Agency (renamed Federal Aviation Administration in 1966) was created and given total control over American airspace. Subsequent breakthroughs in safety included collision avoidance programming, TKS de-icing systems and ground-warning proximity devices. Materials that once produced toxic fumes when burned, such as cushions or insulation, were removed from cabins, and airplane seats were made to withstand the force of 16 Gs, which has saved lives in runway crashes.

But there remains room for improved flight safety. Just as much of the Grand Canyon was uncontrolled airspace in the ’50s, much of the ocean remains “dead space” today because of the industry’s reliance on radar. The FAA is considering a move toward a satellite GPS-based system for tracking aircraft as a result — the type of next-generation development that could help save fuel, lessen environmental impact by having more precise flight plans, and prevent the loss of airplanes, like Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014.

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Two men in the rescue party survey a section of the wrecked fuselage of the TWA plane that crashed in the Grand Canyon.

Source Bettmann/Getty Images

On April 22, 2014, the TWA-United accident site was declared a National Historic Landmark, the first to commemorate an event that occured in the air. But the exact location of the crash, which has been closed off to park visitors for decades, has remained secret. As a result, it appears to be the only historical site you are actually prohibited from visiting. Dave Mortenson, vice president of the Grand Canyon Historical Society and one of the earliest to raft the Colorado River, says, “For years after the event, anybody going down the river … could see a lot of the wreckage from one plane. It affected you.”

Back at the historical marker overlooking the area, visitors read all this, speaking to each other in hushed tones. From miles above, they point to Chuar Butte and Temple Butte, the two rocky outcrops near where each flight fell. “All but three were interred in a mass grave,” a woman in a shawl and white skirt reads aloud. The man with her, wearing a brown T-shirt with an American eagle illustrated on it, nods. “Poignant,” he says, before walking away to get a closer view of America’s most famous canyon.

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