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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Crash Set a New Course

The collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon 50 years ago led to an overhaul of the nation's antiquated air traffic control system.

June 03, 2006|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

On a day that would transform aviation history, fog hung over Los Angeles International Airport. But it did nothing to dampen the festive mood as passengers lined up eager to start their Fourth of July holiday.

At one ticket counter, 64 checked in for Trans World Airlines Flight 2 to Kansas City, Mo. Next door, 53 registered for United Airlines' Chicago-bound Flight 718.

The two sets of passengers probably saw each other as they walked breezily through the terminal and outside onto the tarmac, where they boarded the first-class-only flights on rolling staircases. At the top, flight attendants requested their names, took their hats, and pointed out smoking lounges and bathrooms with terry towels.

The propeller-driven planes took off three minutes apart. The TWA Super Constellation, dubbed "Star of the Seine," flew northeast over the San Bernardino Mountains. United's flight plan took the DC-7, known as "Mainliner Vancouver," east over Palm Springs. Then they leveled off and flew on almost parallel tracks toward Arizona's Painted Desert, dodging scattered thunderstorms.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 126 words Type of Material: Correction
Air disaster: An article in Saturday's Section A about a 1956 airline collision over the Grand Canyon was accompanied by a list of the nation's deadliest airline accidents. It omitted three crashes, which are shown in bold in the corrected list below.
*
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX) Ill-fated flight paths
Eleven most deadly airline accidents over the U.S.
*--* Deaths Date Location Airline 273 May 25, 1979 Chicago American 265 Nov. 12, 2001 Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y. American 230 July 17, 1996 Off East Moriches, N.Y TWA 217 Oct. 31, 1999 Off Nantucket, Mass. EgyptAir 156 Aug. 16, 1987 Romulus, Mich. Northwest 153 July 9, 1982 Kenner, La. Pan American 144 Sept. 25, 1978 San Diego Pacific Southwest 135 Aug. 2, 1985 Dallas-Ft. Worth Delta 134 Dec. 16, 1960 Staten Is./Brooklyn, N.Y. United/TWA 132 Sept. 8, 1994 Aliquippa, Pa. USAir 128 June 30, 1956 Grand Canyon United/TWA
*--*
*Does not include the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Source: PlaneCrashInfo.com

No one knows if, as they approached the Grand Canyon, anyone aboard was aware that the two aircraft were creeping closer and closer together.

It was 10:30 a.m. on June 30, 1956.

At 21,000 feet, four miles above the world famous gorge, the DC-7, traveling at 469 feet-per-second, scraped over the Constellation, its left wing tip slicing through the Connie's fuselage and detaching its signature triple-fin tail.

At 10:31 a.m., controllers received a radio transmission that was so garbled it would take weeks to decipher: "Salt Lake, United 718, ah, we're going in."

*

The airliners plummeted into the desolate canyon 10 miles north of the Desert View outlook on the South Rim. The force of the impact drove parts of the Constellation 20 feet into the Precambrian granite, twisted silverware into the shape of pretzels, and fused a dime and a penny in a woman's change purse. All aboard both planes -- 128 passengers and crew members -- died.

The spectacular midair collision was the worst commercial aviation accident at that point in the country's history. And for the flying public, it revealed a dangerously antiquated air traffic system. Advances in aircraft instrumentation after World War II allowed more pilots to fly in bad weather, even as bureaucrats struggled to figure out how to keep track of a burgeoning number of planes moving faster and carrying more passengers.

At the dawn of the jet age, aviation experts had repeatedly warned lawmakers that a midair collision between two large, fully-loaded commercial aircraft was inevitable due to increasingly crowded skies and traffic control procedures that relied largely on radio communication rather than radar. After a plane left the airspace encircling a large city airport, radar tracking stopped; its crew was left to watch for other planes by looking out the windows.

Aviation historians would later write that the effect of the Grand Canyon disaster was "as galvanic as if it had happened over Washington itself." Congress would allocate $810 million to buy navigation equipment and long-range radar, and begin a sweeping reorganization of the nation's fledgling aviation system.

"The Federal Aviation Administration was created out of the ashes of that Grand Canyon crash," said Sid McGuirk, an associate professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

As the aircraft burned in the canyon that morning where the roaring Colorado River met the sedate Little Colorado River, controllers radioed frantically in search of the two planes, neither of which had reported in.

They wouldn't be found until dusk, when two brothers who operated an aviation sightseeing company, Palen and Henry Hudgin, flew over the wreckage in their tiny, fixed-wing craft.

"When we saw the fuselage of the United plane it had not burned up yet, and was completely intact, including the pilot compartment," Henry Hudgin said in a recent interview with The Times, noting that the fuselage had become lodged in a 500-foot deep fissure on the side of a cliff. "We were both really surprised the next morning when we flew out there to see it was totally burned up."

On July 1, federal investigators, TWA and United representatives, military units and hordes of reporters descended on the canyon. The rugged terrain "created the worst recovery conditions in the history of airline accidents," declared an article in the July 5, 1956, TWA employee newspaper, "Skyliner."

Pilots made 76 trips into the gorge over the next 10 days in banana-shaped, twin-rotor helicopters. Years later, some recalled that dropping 7,000 feet from the rim to the river through turbulent, 120-degree air was more frightening than missions they later flew in Vietnam, said Dan Driskill, a Flagstaff, Ariz., paramedic who is writing a book about the crash.

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