Today’s the 52nd anniversary of a horrendous accident in the air over the Grand Canyon. Two airliners collided, and 128 people died.
In 1956 there was no national radar system. When commercial flights left airports, often the only contact they had with any form of air traffic control was when the pilots radioed in for weather information, or for landing instructions. Especially there was no system to avoid collisions. As this 2006 story in the Deseret News (Salt Lake City) relates, the modern air traffic control system was spurred mightily by this tragedy.
About 9 a.m. Saturday, June 30, , the TWA flight bound for Kansas City, Mo., and the United flight bound for Chicago left Los Angeles International Airport within three minutes of each other. The TWA flight, carrying 70 people, filed a flight plan to cruise at 19,000 feet. The United flight, with 58 people on board, planned to cruise at 21,000 feet.
About 20 minutes into the flight, TWA pilot Capt. Jack Gandy requested permission to climb to 21,000 feet. An air traffic controller in Salt Lake City turned down Gandy’s request. Then Gandy asked to fly “1,000 on top,” meaning at least a thousand feet above the clouds, which that morning were billowing as high as 30,000 feet. That request was granted.
By the time both planes were over the Grand Canyon, the pilots were flying in and out of the clouds, on visual flight rules and off their prescribed flight plans, apparently typical in those days as pilots veered off course to play tour guide.
No one knows exactly what happened.
It was the last big accident before instigation of the “black box,” so investigators had to piece together details from debris on the ground.
They decided that the left wing and propeller of the United plane hit the center fin of the TWA’s tail and cut through the fuselage, sending Flight 2 nose-first into the canyon, two miles south of the juncture of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The United DC- 7, which had lost most of its left wing, began spiraling down. Capt. Robert Shirley radioed Salt Lake City a garbled message that controllers understood only after they slowed down the recording: “Salt Lake, ah, 718 . . . we are going in.” Flight 718 smashed into a cliff on Chuar Butte.
I’m thinking of the crash today for two reasons. I’m off for a tour of canyons, including both rims of the Grand Canyon, in the next two weeks. The last time I was there was 1986, with the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors. We flew in on a Twin Otter, coming up from Phoenix, over the Roosevelt Dam, up over the Mogollon Rim, over the Glen Canyon Recreation area and stopping it Page. From Page to Grand Canyon, we took full advantage of the huge windows in the Otter — seeing first hand the sights that the controversial tourist flights were designed to reveal. Safety was a key concern, and we talked about it constantly with the pilots.
A few weeks later, on June 18, 1986, that DeHavilland Twin Otter collided with a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter over the Canyon. 25 people died in that crash.
I have flown over the Canyon a dozen times since then — no longer will airliners dip down to give passengers a better view, not least because airliners cruise tens of thousands of feet higher now than they did then. I think of those airplane accidents every time I see the Canyon.
We’re driving in. We’ll spend a day and a half on the South Rim, and another couple of nights on the North Rim. We’re taking our time on the ground. But if we had time, and we could afford it, I’d love to get up in an airplane or helicopter to see the Canyon from the air again.