Lessons from Tragedy over the Grand Canyon
By Jon Proctor

N6902C, Star of the Seine, is seen on a pre-delivery test flight. Small cockpit windows, which had limited visibility from the cramped cockpits of piston-powered airliners, are evident in this photo, although the 1049 had better window visibility than earlier Constellation models. (TWA/Author’s Collection)

The TWA cabin floor plan reflects seating for up to 64 passengers plus a seven-seat, aft lounge. Berth accommodations for eight (shown) would have reduced overall capacity to 56, but were not utilized on Flight 2’s final flight. (TWA/Author’s Collection)

A Los Angeles-based TWA DC-3, used for pilot instrument checks, was pressed into service during recovery efforts. (Bob Archer/Author’s Collection)

Chuar Butte is visible in the center of this 1991 photo taken from a Grand Canyon Airlines flight. It shows the magnitude of the recovery efforts necessary to extract bodies from such an isolated area. Below is the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. (Author)

The Grand Canyon

LIFE Magazine picture and caption showing gravesite on the day of the service, July 9, 1956.

A plaque lists 66 victims interred in a common grave at the Citizen’s Cemetery in Flagstaff. . (Author)

TWA grave site. (Author)

The unidentified remains of 29 victims from the United Flight are listed on this monument at the Grand Canyon Cemetery. (Author)

United’s first DC-7 was photographed in the identical configuration and livery of the accident aircraft. It was confirmed that neither aircraft was equipped with weather radar. United was the first airline to install this feature fleet-wide, but according to the airline, it had not completed the modifications to N6324C. Large aircraft were required to have radar by January 1, 1962. TWA retired its remaining 1049 Constellations before the deadline and did not equip that fleet. In any event, this device would not have warned either aircraft of traffic.

This is a variation on Jon’s original, very stirring manuscript which was published in the August, 2006 issue of Wings Magazine, available now in major bookstores. Edited by Jon, this version emphasizes details of particular interest to members of the TWA family.

A marine layer of moist air stretched over land from the Pacific Ocean, covering much of Los Angeles International Airport as dawn broke on Saturday, June 30, 1956. Obscuring the rising sun in a thin, gray haze, it produced what many called “June gloom,” an overcast condition that rose to 2,500 feet and looked like rain but produced none. Visibility was sufficient for operations and the morning schedule of airliners coming and going was not affected.

TWA Flight 24, a Lockheed 049 Constellation arriving from San Francisco, landed on schedule at 8:40 a.m., Pacific Daylight Savings Time, completing its first of five segments. It would continue at 9:15 to Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland and New York’s La Guardia Airport. As they left the aircraft and walked down the open-air concourse towards the terminal building, 12-year-old Bob Woodling, his parents and two brothers passed TWA Flight 2, a 1049 Super Constellation that was scheduled to leave at 9:30, also headed for Kansas City and St. Louis, then Washington National Airport. Inside the terminal, Bob’s father – a TWA executive based at Kansas City – stopped to chat with several company employees that were standing by in hopes of finding open seats on Flight 2.

Registered N6902C and named Star of the Seine, the first Super Constellation delivered to TWA in 1952 also held the distinction of operating the industry’s first scheduled transcontinental nonstop flight, on October 19, 1953, from Los Angeles to New York’s Idlewild Airport. That role had since been taken over by the airline’s more recently acquired 1049G “Super G” Connies, with the 1049s relegated to medium-haul schedules like Flight 2.

Most airline flights of the day were still operating with one class of service, unlike today’s modern jets. Flight 24 was an all-coach, 81-seat airliner, while Flight 2 featured the comfort of first-class for 64 passengers. On this shorter, daylight trip, the eight sleeping-berth configuration would not be used.

Although it was to depart 15 minutes behind Flight 24, the faster Super Connie was scheduled to arrive at Kansas City 33 minutes earlier. Pass-riding TWAers faced the dilemma of trying for a seat on the coach flight or waiting for the preferred accommodations on Flight 2; they would have a long sit should it leave without them. In the end, there was sufficient space on the Super Connie for all 25 “non-rev” standbys, consisting of airline employees and family members; one was an infant, technically leaving a single passenger seat vacant. Among the non-payers was Bob DeLonge, on his way to interview with the airline for an aeronautical engineering position. Almeda Evans , wife of an Ethiopian Air Lines pilot, was using an interline pass.

After saying good-bye to their friends traveling on Flight 2, the Woodlings collected luggage and continued their vacation in Southern California, visiting Disneyland and TWA’s “Rocket to the Moon” attraction, which happened to be featured on the current company timetable cover. They would return home to Kansas City a few days later on Flight 2.

On the opposite side of the same concourse, United Air Lines Flight 718, called “The Hollywood” in the airline’s timetable, was being readied for its scheduled nonstop flight to Chicago-Midway Airport with continuing service to Newark via Detroit and Philadelphia. The 58-seat DC-7 Mainliner Vancouver, N6324C, had been delivered to the carrier only 18 months earlier. With 5,100 hours of time on her airframe, she was considered like-new. Fifty-three passengers and a crew of five were aboard when the airliner left its gate on time at 9:45.

Delayed 10 minutes for routine maintenance, or perhaps to get all the standbys on board, the Super Connie taxied towards its departure runway just ahead of Mainliner Vancouver. After engine run-up, N6902C lifted off from Runway 25-Left at 10:01, followed in line, only three minutes later, by United 718.

Commanding the Kansas City-bound Constellation was Jack Gandy, a 41-year-old, 17-year TWA veteran with no less than 177 previous flights over this route. First Officer Jim Ritner, a four-year employee, and Flight Engineer Dean Breyfogle, with 11 year’s experience, rounded out the working cockpit crew. In addition, Flight Engineer Harry Allen hitched a ride on the flight by utilizing the cockpit jumpseat. Allen was heading back to Kansas City to collect his wife and young son for their move west to his newly assigned Los Angeles domicile. Hostesses Traci Armbruster and Beth Davis began preparing lunch for their passengers, to be later followed by a light snack.

As the two airliners climbed through the overcast to their planned altitudes, each was flying on instrument flight rules (IFR) on assigned “airways.” Using only radio, Air route traffic control centers (ARTCs) monitored these aerial roadways, which were 10 miles wide and with clear airspace 1,000 feet above and below them. The planes took divergent routes that were to cross over Arizona’s Painted Desert. United 718 headed to 21,000 feet on a southerly course while TWA 2 was cleared to 19,000 feet and flew nearly due east, although the TWA crew asked for and received a slight change in routing soon after takeoff. The Connie’s true airspeed at cruise was specified at 270 knots (310 mph).

Forty-eight-year-old Captain Bob Shirley had been flying “left seat” for 16 of his 18 years at United Air Lines. First Officer Bob Harms, a qualified DC-3 captain, had opted for the right seat on the DC-7 two years earlier. Like most flight engineers, Gerard Fiore began his career as a United mechanic, having upgraded to his cockpit position in 1953. Stewardesses Nancy Kemnitz and Margaret Shoudt were relatively “junior” in crew parlance; both had joined the airline in 1955. Like their TWA counterparts, they had an elaborate meal and snack service to complete, although for fewer passengers and on a longer flight. The slightly faster DC-7 would fly at a true airspeed of 288 knots (330 mph) while gulping down its fuel load of 3,850 gallons.

As Flight 718 continued its climb to 21,000 feet above Palm Springs, California, the United crew estimated it would be “overhead” the Painted Desert, Arizona checkpoint, just east of the Grand Canyon, at 10:34 a.m., Pacific Standard Time. Forty minutes later, while passing over Needles, on the California-Arizona border, First Office Harms transmitted to Aeronautical Radio, Inc. a revised estimate for Painted Desert: 10:31.

Barely 20 minutes after takeoff, TWA 2’s crew contacted its company radio operator to request a flight plan altitude change from 19,000 feet to 21,000 feet, in order to get above a cloud deck. Gandy added that if that altitude was not available, he would like “1,000 on top,” an imprecise but routine clearance to fly 1,000 feet higher than the clouds until 21,000 feet became available. The request was forwarded to air traffic controllers at the Los Angeles ARTC. They in turn checked with their counterparts at the Salt Lake City center, which monitored the airspace TWA 2 was about to enter.

The request for 21,000 feet was denied because of TWA’s converging flight path with United 718, but 1,000 on top was approved, along with a courtesy advisory that there was traffic in the area – United 718 – at 21,000 feet. The information was forwarded to Flight 2 and repeated back verbatim by Gandy as the Super Connie continued its climb, leveling off at what turned out to be 21,000 feet. Unlike the messages relayed to Flight 2, no traffic information was given to United 718 by Salt Lake, nor was it required by ATC rules.

A few minutes later, Gandy confirmed his 21,000-feet altitude to a TWA radio operator at Las Vegas and estimated that Flight 2 would reach the Painted Desert checkpoint at 10:31; the information was relayed to the Salt Lake City ARTC. Following their flight plans, both pilots guided their airliners away from the assigned airways as they crossed the California-Arizona border, and began flying more-direct headings to their destinations, another common practice. Once “off airways,” the pilots were under VFR conditions and would not receive traffic advisories; they assumed responsibility to avoid other aircraft. In any event, transmitted position reports from the pilots only served to provide a space flow into the next controlled airspace ahead.

Closer to the Grand Canyon, thunderstorms were building, with tops up to 25,000 feet. Both flights probably dodged the clouds and may well have been making turns to give their passengers better views of the scenery below.

At 10:31 Salt Lake ARTC controllers and a few other flights in the area picked up a barely audible radio transmission, but none could hear it clearly. Perhaps an aircraft was experiencing radio trouble.

When the TWA and United flights failed to report passing the Painted Desert checkpoint, controllers and company radio operators attempted to contact the two airliners; within a half-hour, missing aircraft alerts were issued, followed by the initiation of search and rescue efforts.

That weak radio transmission, captured on tape at Salt Lake, was later deciphered at a research laboratory, using sophisticated equipment. It revealed the chilling words: “Salt Lake, United 718 … ah … we’re going in.” In the background, another crew member could be heard shouting the words, “up … up!”

Shock and Awe

As he came to work at Los Angeles Airport that afternoon, 21-year-old Commissary clerk Ron Green had been with TWA barely two months. A hushed atmosphere greeted him; one of the company’s planes was missing and presumed down somewhere in Arizona. Green went about his duties on the ramp as directed by shaken managers, only to come across a United employee who exclaimed, “Hey, we’ve got a flight missing; it left here this morning.” The TWA rookie replied, “We’ve got one missing too.” The ironic coincidence struck them simultaneously: could the two airplanes have hit each other?

At Kansas City, where a crew change was scheduled for TWA Flight 2, hostess Ona Gieschen and her flying partners were rostered to work the continuation of the trip, to St. Louis and Washington National Airport. Instead of receiving routine crew calls, they were told that the Connie was missing and presumed down, but another Constellation was being readied to operate the flight on its final two segments. Remembering that her parents knew she was working Flight 2, Gieschen got off the plane in St. Louis and called to reassure them that she was safe.

In the fading evening light, Grand Canyon scenic flight operator Palen Hudgin made a low pass over a column of smoke he had reported earlier in the day. The pilot spotted the distinctive, triple-fin tail of the TWA Connie a few hundred feet from a smoldering swath of wreckage near Temple Butte, at the eastern end of Grand Canyon National Park; there was no sign of life. Hudgin also reported the possible sighting of another wreck but by then it was too dark for certain identification. A Sunday morning flight confirmed the location of United’s DC-7, on top of and down the slopes of Chuar Butte, a mile from the Connie wreckage and near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers.

On the same morning, a military helicopter approached the TWA site, landing 500 feet above the canyon floor despite dangerous wind gusts in the area. An accompanying medic had little to do but confirm what was assumed: there were no survivors. Another ’copter crew, hovering 100 feet above the United wreckage, reported the same observation; the combined 128 fatalities represented the largest death toll in any civil air disaster to date.

Businesses around the country reopened Monday morning, the first workday of a new month. Those large TWA wall calendars given out by company public relations and salesmen needed an update. In barbershops, banks, travel agencies and offices of corporate clients around the country and overseas, merchants flipped over the large-format page, revealing the month of July and a striking color photo … of the Grand Canyon.

Grim Recovery

Airline and government officials faced a daunting task, even before attempting to determine the cause of this twin-disaster. Recovering the human remains and then the wreckage of two airliners would be challenging and dangerous. The crash sites lay deep within the Canyon, accessible only by helicopter or river raft.

The Connie’s location was slightly less hazardous to reach, on a rock shelf, but helicopters still had a difficult time dealing with winds and heat during the day. Three twin-rotor H-21’copters participated in rescue efforts on Monday morning. After retrieving five bodies from the Connie site, pilots reported increased wind currents gusting up to 60 mph, making any further pickup impossible. This, plus a near-miss between a helicopter and civilian plane, prompted cancellation of further rescue attempts. As a result, 13 people had to spend the night in the canyon; an Army chopper dropped sleeping bags to the group. Among the men were specialists from the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), who were assisting the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), the responsible government agency for the air accident investigations. They found paint from the DC-7’s propeller – red, white and blue – on the Connie’s aft cargo door. There was no longer a question of whether the two airliners had collided.

At the United site on Chuar Butte, 2,600 feet above the Colorado River, recovery crews could do little at first, other than to identify some wreckage from the air. Having hit the butte, the airplane broke apart, sending major sections into an inaccessible chimney and along sheer ledges below the impact site, while some pieces slid down the side of the cliff, towards the canyon floor. It was nearly impossible to land on the butte itself, making recovery even more difficult, and hazardous. On Tuesday, a helicopter dropped recovery personnel on a sand bar in the Colorado River. They hiked to an area a few hundred feet higher, where part of the United wreckage had tumbled down the sheer face of Chuar Butte. The first human remains from the DC-7 were removed from this area.

Meanwhile, five helicopter landings near the TWA wreck were accomplished, with more bodies recovered. Pieces of the Connie showing paint from the DC-7 were also brought out, in addition to small bits of the DC-7 itself. Immediately impounded by the CAB and placed under guard, they represented vital evidence; limited helicopter lifting capacity precluded raising major portions of the wrecks. A DC-7 wingtip assembly, found between the two crash sites, bore deposits of red TWA paint.

By the end of the day Tuesday, all human remains found at the Connie site had been brought up from the canyon floor and were flown to Flagstaff aboard a TWA DC-3 normally used for pilot training at Los Angeles. At Flagstaff, a company medical director, assisted by the FBI and other examiners, undertook the difficult task of identifying the dead.

Recovery of the DC-7’s victims was much more difficult. Except for three bodies found at the base of Chuar Butte, all of which were identified, the rest of the dead were high atop the butte and on ledges just below it. In a July 6 Arizona Daily Sun editorial, it was suggested that these remains should be left in the canyon, opining that it was too dangerous to attempt their removal.

Keeping with the tradition of airlines helping their own, United President W.A. “Pat” Patterson accepted an offer from his Swissair counterpart to immediately transport eight mountain climbers from Zurich to New York, where they would connect with United flights west.

Specially trained in mountain rescue and recovery, the team was considered the only solution to the challenge of recovering bodies at and near the top of the butte. They were later joined by two American climbers and carried out the daunting task at hand. At substantial risk, a helicopter landing on the top of Chuar Butte was accomplished to drop off two mountain climbers who rappelled down the side of the butte to look for bodies.

TWA’s vice-president of public relations, Gordon Gilmore, sound asleep in a motel room at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, received a call at 2 a.m. from Howard Hughes, the airline’s principal shareholder. Hughes expressed his concern and sympathy for TWA crew members and passengers who had lost their lives, and asked that his regards be extended to TWA people working on the scene.

But he was also upset about a Los Angeles newspaper photo showing a bulldozer preparing a mass grave for the unidentified TWA dead. Gilmore assured Hughes that all possible steps were being taken to meet every standard of respect and dignity. A religious service would include clergy from the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant faiths. “What about Mormon?” asked Hughes, who surrounded him self with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints because they neither drank nor smoked. A day later, LDS Elder Delbert Stapley was flown in from Salt Lake City to help officiate at the memorial service..

On July 9, more than 350 people attended a burial service at the Flagstaff Citizen’s Cemetery; 1,500 others watched from near by. At a mass gravesite, 67 of those aboard TWA Flight – 63 of them unidentified – lay in three rows of caskets. Three identified remains had been transported to their hometowns for separate burial. At the last minute, the family of Almeda Evans had a change of heart and asked that her identified remains be sent back to Oklahoma instead of resting with the others. Following completion of the memorial service, Mrs. Evans ’ casket was removed, leaving only 66 to be interred. Unaware of this, wire services mistakenly reported the higher figure throughout the media.

Recovery efforts at the United crash site had ceased by July 10, when Pat Patterson announced that exactly half of the victims on Flight 718 had been identified and shipped home for burial. After a short service on July 12, the other remains were buried in three caskets at the Grand Canyon Cemetery (later renamed the American Legion Cemetery), near Grand Canyon Village and the South Rim, with a later memorial service planned for their relatives. Cemetery officials allowed an exception to the practice of limiting burial there to those who lived at the canyon or were associated with the Grand Canyon National Park.

Once the human remains were recovered, along with relatively small pieces of the two airliners necessary for the investigation, all work at the crash sites ended. It was decided to leave the remaining wreckage where it lay. Airline and government officials felt they had been fortunate enough with recovery efforts that involved 76 helicopter trips to the sites; there was no reason to take further risks by trying to extract anything more from the canyon.

Both Pilots Were On Their Own

A U.S. House commerce subcommittee immediately held an inquiry into the accident. California Representative Carl Hinshaw proclaimed on July 18 that the cause of the accident was sightseeing. “They were too close,” he opined, “because they were both looking at the Grand Canyon.”

At first, the CAB chief investigator placed blame for the crash on TWA, saying it was under VFR with the ability to change altitudes. The Connie crew bore the responsibility to see and be seen, he claimed, while United was flying IFR and maintaining an assigned altitude. But the CAB’s Bureau of Safety Regulations quickly corrected the assessment, stating that United was also flying VFR and “both pilots were on their own,”

During the hearings, many questioned why, regardless of the rules, ATC would not warn the pilots of conflicting courses that would cross at the Painted Desert. A controller explained the checkpoint was actually a position line that stretched 175 miles between Bryce Canyon and Winslow; it was not a single dot on the charts. Therefore, the fact that both flights planned to cross the line simultaneously did not mean they would do so at the same point. Because pilot reports did not provide tracking information; the controllers had no knowledge of where the two flights planned to cross the line.

With contrasting restrictions between VFR and IFR parameters, the CAB regulations were at fault, according to officials of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), who also pointed out the limited visibility from cockpit windows. Coming together gradually, the flights could have been flying close for some time in such a way that the pilots never saw each other’s aircraft until it was too late.

One editorial in a major aviation magazine claimed that it could be said the 128 victims of the collision had “died legally,” because of outdated and obsolete traffic control procedures. Indeed, 131 mid-air collisions between civil aircraft had occurred since 1947, although only 17 involved commercial airliners and in 10 of these instances, the airplanes landed safely. However, near misses were another matter; 452 were reported to the CAB during the last four months of 1956. Of the 131 actual collisions, all but 11 occurred in relatively clear skies with six of them taking place during daylight hours. The Grand Canyon accident was unique in that it occurred in an area of light traffic, instead of the congested skies around major population centers.

What were the odds of two airliners departing Los Angeles three minutes part and colliding over the Grand Canyon? “If we’d tried our level best to make sure they’d meet,” said an airline official, “we couldn’t have managed it in a hundred years.”

Eye Witnesses

Early public hearings turned up witnesses who claimed to have seen the mid-air collision. A couple driving along U.S. Highway 66 near the canyon said that they both saw two airliners appear between cloud breaks and collide, then remain together during the few seconds they were in view. Another couple was driving in the same area but only one saw what she described as an explosion near some heavy cloud formations; no one saw the aircraft fall, and none realized the significance of their observations until they later learned of the accident.

These witnesses were approximately 70 miles away from the collision. The CAB concluded that these people were sincere in their observations, but could not possibly have seen the accident from that far away. Instead, they probably saw other aircraft in the area.

Another witness, Frederick Riley, came forward seven months after the accident and testified that he had seen the collision about 10 miles directly ahead of his position on a road near the canyon. After thoroughly interrogating Riley, investigators decided even he was too far from the event to be of any help. And, by that time, they already had sufficient physical evidence to piece together details of the collision.

The way in which the airliners collided was determined by examining relatively small sections of wreckage. United 718 and TWA 2 were at a closing angle of approximately 25 degrees when the DC-7 overtook the Constellation. At impact, the DC-7 was rolled approximately 20 degrees right wing down relative to the Connie (there was no way to determine their orientation with respect to the ground).

The United airplane’s left wingtip stuck the Connie’s center tail fin leading edge just before the DC-7’s left wing struck the top of the TWA fuselage with destructive force, tearing off the entire tail assembly. A split-second later, the DC-7’s No. 1 engine cut into the Constellation in the area of the aft cargo compartment.

With its tail gone, TWA Flight 2 pitched nose down and fell to the ground, upside down when it hit. The DC-7 descended less steeply, striking Chuar Butte nose down and right wing low. Because neither crew had advised of further altitude changes, it was assumed that the collision occurred at 21,000 feet. The airliners were about 17 miles north of where both pilots had estimated they would be at the time, not unusual in off-airways flying.

This information was determined in an effort to find if either flight crew could have seen the other airplane before the collision. Cloud build-ups were present in the area, adding to the mystery. Based on limited evidence, investigators concluded that if the pilots made visual contact with each other’s aircraft, it was too late to avoid impact. It was pointed out, in support of ALPA’s assertion, that the crew’s normal field of vision was reduced to barely 17% when looking out the cockpit windows of a Super Constellation, and less than 14% from a DC-7.

On April 17, 1957, the CAB released its 53-page report on the probable cause of the accident, which revealed no surprises. The facts in the case were straightforward: these two airliners were flying through uncontrolled airspace in an area where the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) had no responsibility to control traffic. Their pilots were following standard procedures, having violated no rules.

The Fix
At the time of the Grand Canyon accident, en route airliners were nearly all under non-radar air traffic control. Horizontal and vertical separation was based on clock time and radio reports; pilots estimated when they would arrive over very-high frequency omni-directional range (VOR) radio checkpoints. If the time separation shrunk because one aircraft gained on another, one would be assigned a different altitude. Adding VFR and 1,000 on top clearances to the mix was a ticket to disaster made abundantly clear on June 30, 1956.

A day before the accident, the Air Transport Association of America (ATA) issued a prophetic resolution. The June 29 press release announced the formation of a committee of airline representatives that would work with the electronics industry to develop an “aircraft proximity warning indicator,” which would warn pilots of imminent mid-air collisions. ATA leaders wanted the new device installed in commercial aircraft at the earliest possible date.

The U.S. government had already acknowledged the danger of mid-air collisions a year earlier, when President Eisenhower appointed Edward Curtis as special assistant for aviation facilities planning, to oversee preparation of an upgraded system that would allow safe travel in the Jet Age, including en route radar coverage at high altitudes.

A $246-million, five-year plan to modernize air traffic control was approved and Congress appropriated the first $40 million earlier in 1956. Within two weeks of the Grand Canyon accident, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks announced a plan to complete the five-year strategy in 36 months. At the same news conference, Weeks admitted that air traffic was growing rapidly, well ahead of the new jets already on order. Between 1950 and 1955, revenue passenger miles had more than doubled, from 8 billion to nearly 20 billion. A revenue passenger mile is defined as one passenger traveling one mile.

ALPA had been asking for an upgrade of the ATC system for years. Following the accident, union members drew up a comprehensive plan to prevent another Grand Canyon-like disaster. Sharp curtailment of VFR flying was at the top of the suggestion list.

Ironically, on the same day the accident report was released, the CAB held hearings on the merits of a crash-survivable “flight recorder” device that would record the airliner’s altitude, compass heading and airspeed, among other things.

A week after the report became public, the government rolled out a formal plan to provide “positive control” of all aircraft flying above 18,000 feet regardless of weather conditions. Expanded use of radar was to be followed by more sophisticated equipment, such as three-dimensional radar displays. Radio transponders on aircraft would eventually transmit their identity to computers that would display the information to the radar screens.

Not satisfied with promises, many pilots began routinely filing IFR flight plans on their own. Soon after the accident report was issued, the government moved to restrict all flights above 24,000 feet to IFR; no more 1,000 on top or off-airways flying, at least for the new jets; propeller aircraft of the day normally flew at 25,000 feet or lower.

Longer-range radar systems were ordered to cover larger areas of heavy traffic. Collins Radio Company, a major manufacturer of aircraft radio systems, began work on an instrument that would not only warn pilots of approaching planes but also adjust the plane’s flight path to avoid a collision. Similar devices, which only warned of traffic, were envisioned.

The year 1956 also marked the beginning of experimental use of computers to assist with air traffic control, although it would be several years before their use was widely applied to the industry.

Public outcry from the Grand Canyon accident prompted Congress to pass the Federal Aviation Act in 1958. This legislation brought about the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). With independent authority and funding to modernize and run the country’s air traffic control system, it replaced the CAA.

Although progress was made over the four years following the accident, TWA and United were involved in a mid-air collision over Staten Island, New York, on December 16, 1960. Ironically, the identical model 1049 Constellation was involved, this time coming together with a Douglas DC-8. And, like the Grand Canyon accident, there were a total of 128 passengers and crew aboard the two aircraft; all perished, along with five people on the ground. The newer DC-8 was equipped with a flight data recorder, although it only provided altitude, airspeed, heading and vertical acceleration readouts.

The Department of Transportation was created in 1967 to control all aviation safety matters, including ATC. The FAA, renamed Federal Aviation Administration, became part of the department, while the old CAB was left with economic matters such as airfares and route awards. Following U.S. Deregulation in 1978, it faded into the sunset. Accident investigations were shifted from the Bureau of Safety to the newly established National Transportation Safety Board.

Many Improvements

In the current climate, airliners are equipped with a wealth of safety-enhancing aids that did not exist in 1956. Cockpit voice recorders, which were mandated on heavy jets in 1964, and much more sophisticated data recorders are commonplace. More recent additions include inertial navigation systems (INS), global positioning systems (GPS), Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) and Ground Proximity Warning Systems (GPWS). Flight Management Systems automatically and precisely guide airliners through multiple, fixed waypoints to their destinations. Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum, or RSVM, has narrowed vertical separation at high altitudes from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet.

Yet, on July 1, 2002, a Russian-built Tu-154 collided with a Boeing 757 freighter near Uberlingen, Germany. Both crews received warnings of the imminent collision from their TCAS units but an air traffic controller misinterpreted the situation and incorrectly directed the Russian aircraft to descend instead of initiating a climb. Facing conflicting instructions, the Tu-154 pilot followed the ATC instructions and hit the Boeing jet.

Even with the latest, sophisticated devices, safety analysts concede that the possibility of mid-air collisions is still not exempt from human error.


In August 1976, TWA Corporate Communications Director Jerry Cosley stood on the floor of the Grand Canyon, near Connie’s final resting place, surveying the wreckage that still remained. Working with Park Service representatives and a company that specialized in recovery of heavy items, Cosley would act as the airline’s representative while a substantial amount of the rubble was removed from the canyon. Twenty years had passed since the mid-air collision, and now the Parks Service wanted whatever was left of the airliners, especially the Connie debris, taken away. While the United crash site was all but inaccessible, the area where TWA went down was too accessible. Each summer, hundreds of river rafters would tie up at the riverbank and stomp through the grass and wild flowers, looking for souvenirs.

The Arizona Air National Guard assisted private contractors who agreed, in writing, that they would melt down and recycle the metal; none could be resold in another form; recovery photography was also forbidden. There were to be no ghoulish mementoes of this accident.

When NBC’s managers learned of the activities, they contacted TWA for a story. Turning a lemon into lemonade, Cosley invited the producers to let one of their reporters from the Today show travel across the country in the cockpit of a Lockheed L-1011 and report on the advances in ATC that had been brought about by the Grand Canyon accident. By doing this, he redirected NBC’s focus to the positive developments that resulted from the air disaster, rather than the grim details of the debris extraction.

More wreckage was removed four years later, and as recently as 2004, representatives of the Navajo tribe that live in the canyon requested further cleanup of what they thought might be remaining pieces of the wreckage.

Today, many tourists that come to the Grand Canyon travel on commercial flights that are continuously tracked from takeoff to touchdown by air traffic controllers. Although these visitors are probably not aware of it, the enhanced safety of their flights can be traced to lessons learned from a 50-year-old tragedy that ended in this place of natural beauty.

Author Jon Proctor wishes to thank those mentioned TWA employees and friends, who shared their memories of events surrounding the accident. In addition, much of the information gathered for this story came various newspaper articles, accident reports and an excellent website: http://www.doney.net/aroundaz/grandcanyoncrash.htm

Jon Proctor (1964-1991) began as a transportation agent at Los Angeles. He subsequently served in Dining & Commissar, and with Inflight Services at JFK and later was assigned to Saudia..