Lessons from Tragedy over the Grand Canyon
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.”
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.
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.
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..