The Grand Canyon airplane crash: United & TWA planes collide (1956)

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When a United Airlines DC-7 collided with a TWA Super Constellation over the Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956, resulting in the deaths of all 128 people aboard both planes, it was more than just the worst commercial air disaster up until that time — it was a watershed moment in the history of air safety in the United States.

In 1956, there was no coast-to-coast radar system covering the air over the US, and planes were frequently operating what was called “off airways,” or in airspace uncontrolled by a traffic controller.

As a result, the planes involved in the collision were operating based on the “seen and be seen” doctrine, which called for pilots to be visually aware of the aircraft around them.

Unfortunately, with both of the airliners dodging towering thunderheads that day, the United pilots were not able to see the TWA plane until it was too late — their left wing clipping the TWA’s tail, causing both planes to plummet to the earth.

United TWA planes crash Grand Canyon Arizona Daily Star Jul 2 1956 3

Eventually, the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 was passed following yet another mid-air collision — this one between an Air Force jet fighter and another United DC-7 — which created the agency known today as the Federal Aviation Administration, which was given total authority over American airspace.

Air traffic control facilities and procedures and facilities were also modernized and resulted in a reduction in mid-air collisions.

“See and be seen” would continue to be a standard doctrine for flights operating under visual flight rules for many years to come however, and it would take more incidents — such as the collisions of a Pacific Southwest Airlines 727 with a Cessna 172 over San Diego in 1978, and an Aeromexico DC-9 with a Piper Archer near Los Angeles in 1986 — before planes would have a dedicated system put in place to avoid mid-air collisions.

Now all airliners, as well as small planes operating in dense traffic areas, are required to carry traffic alert and collision avoidance systems (TCAS) which alert pilots to potential mid-air collisions before they happen.

United TWA planes crash Grand Canyon Fort Lauderdale News Jul 2 1956 1

All 128 found dead in debris of 2 giant planes in canyon (1956)

Presume airliners collided – Teams in ‘copters brave gusts to study wreckage

Grand Canyon Village, Arizona — Rescue teams reached the site of the world’s worst civilian air tragedy Sunday, and found no sign of life among the charred remnants of two super-air liners that crashed simultaneously with 128 persons aboard.

United TWA planes crash Grand Canyon Fort Lauderdale News Jul 2 1956 2

The Grand Canyon airplane crash

The disaster occurred as federal officials began showing concern over increasingly heavy air traffic and the corresponding increase in the dangers of air collisions.

CAA officials said logs and their monitoring of radio traffic between the death planes and their home port in Los Angeles showed a “distinct possibility” of collision.

A daring helicopter team braved treacherous gusts in the world’s most awesome gorge to land near the shattered remains of a Trans-World Airlines Super Constellation and probe the remnants. They were scattered along a virtually sheer 6,000-foot wall some 500 feet above the canyon floor.

All but six bodies aboard the TWA plane were charred beyond recognition.

A mile away, splattered across the sandstone in a “big charred spot” were the pieces of the United Air Lines’ DC-7. They were 4,500 feet above the canyon floor, inaccessible by foot. A helicopter hovered within 100 feet for a few moments and spotted no movement.

The UAL plan carried 58 persons and the TWA craft 70. Pilots said it appeared they dropped straight down into the Colorado River Gorge, a fantasy in technicolor sandstone and granite cliffs and buttes that has drawn millions of tourists to the ancient Indian watchtower only 12 miles away on the south rim of the canyon.

Both planes left Los Angeles Saturday only three minutes apart. Their flight plans called for them to fly 1,100 feet apart, at different altitudes, until their courses intersected above Arizona’s picturesque Painted Desert, about 30 miles east of the crash scene, where both had a radio check-in scheduled for the same instant, 11:32 am.

MORE: The crash of Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182 (1978)

Plane crash over the Grand Canyon 1956

Instead of the position check-in, three dramatic words flashed out from an unknown crewman on the UAL plane:

“We are going…” Silence after that.

CAB examiner Jack Parshall, Kansas City, said the logs of the radio conversation between the two companies and their pilots, monitored by the Civil Aeronautics Authority, would be closely studied, because they appeared to hold “the best clue so far” to the cause of the disaster.

Neither TWA or UAL would disclose the vital interchanges that occurred in the 90 minutes between take-off and the disappearance of the planes.

But CAA officials said their logs and monitoring disclosed:

1 — The TWA pilot, Capt Jack Gandy, 42, Mission, Kansas, whose flight plan called for flying at 17,000 feet, asked when he ran into bad weather at the California-Arizona border for permission to fly at 21,000 feet.

2 — This was denied by CAA because the UAL plane, which took off first, was flying at 21,000 feet.

3 — Gandy then asked for permission to fly 1,000 feet “above the weather.” CAA officials said this is a normal request and it was granted, another normal procedure.

MORE: See what United Airlines flights in the ’50s were supposed to be like

United TWA planes crash Grand Canyon Arizona Daily Star Jul 2 1956 1

CAA officials said that it is standard procedure then, when the original flight plan is abandoned and the plane goes above bad weather into clear weather, that the pilot of the requesting plane is “on his own” — in other words, off instrument flying and on vision flying.

“That means, if the weather had piled up to a 20,000 feet altitude, that he would have been climbing into 21,000 feet, where the UAL plane was, and he might have come up underneath the UAL plane,” said one CAA official, who refused to permit use of his name.

He said he did not know whether UAL had been informed of the TWA plane’s change in altitude.

CAA records also showed that both the ill-fated planes were flying the “great circle” route instead of the usual regular traffic route eastward from Los Angeles.

The CAA official said the great circle route was optional, a matter of “company policy or what they want at the time.” He said it was faster and more scenic.

Grand Canyon plane crash in Arizona - July 1 1956 - Newspaper headlines

ALSO SEE: Look back at the early days of American Airlines – doing what they did best

Not rejected, either, by Parshall was the possibility that the planes were tossed into each other by the terrific updrafts and downdrafts created in the towering thunderheads typical of the desert sky, or that a lightning storm somehow lashed the two together in a fatal instant.

The wreckage of the planes was found in one of the most rugged and inaccessible parts of the treacherous canyon, much of which still has not been explored. Two helicopters carrying rescuers tried to land at the crash scene, but rough winds drove them away.

United Press correspondents who flew low over the wreckage in small, buffeted aircraft said they saw no signs of life below.

Correspondent Hal Wood said that the charred spots left by the crashes looked like the remains of two huge campfires.

United TWA planes crash Grand Canyon Arizona Republic July 1 1956 2

Air traffic control hit as outdated

Washington — The death of 128 persons in Saturday’s tragic two-plane crash points up weaknesses in the nation’s 21-year-old air traffic control system. A recent government report found it to be “outmoded” and “overloaded.”

The report was made public by the budget bureau. It said action is urgently needed to overhaul the system, devised in 1935, because flying conditions are growing “ever more dangerous.” It said passenger airlines now have an average of four near-collisions a day.

Moved by the urgency of the report, President Eisenhower took the matter out of the hands of routine government agencies and brought in his own special assistant to study the problem.

Delaying the planning of new aviation facilities would “invite further congestion of the airspace, needless hazard, economic loss, inconvenience to users and possible impairment of national security,” the President said.

MORE: The day the music died: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens & Big Bopper killed in plane crash (1959)

United TWA planes crash Grand Canyon Arizona Daily Star Jul 2 1956 2

Appointed to the study post was Edward P Curtis, a longtime friend of the President and chief of staff to Gen Carl A (Tooey) Spaatz in World War II. When he took the post in February, it was estimated he would spend from a year to 18 months on the job.

The Budget Bureau report on traffic safety called for drastic steps to modernize the current system. It said action is urgently needed to revamp air traffic control which is “lagging far behind” aircraft development and national needs.

It said 90,000 active civilian and military planes now operate in the skies over the United States.

Senator AS Mike Monroney (D-Okla), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, said when the report was issued that it proved “the case of those of us who have been protesting against the groundmindedness” of Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks.

He said weakness in the air traffic control system is “the direct result of Weeks’ penny-pinching budgetary policies” where air traffic control is concerned.

The report was prepared after a seven-month survey by eight aviation, business and government authorities serving as consultants to the Budget Bureau.

ALSO SEE: Hawaii-bound plane crashed into the ocean in 1957, killing 44 – and we still don’t know why

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2 Responses

    1. I have been trying to find out more about him and I have been running into a lot of difficulty. He is such an important figure in the history of aviation safety. I would love to talk more about your grandfather with you if you so desire. Reply back if you got this message and hopefully we can coordinate a correspondence.

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