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The Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision of 1956: A Story of Two Planes Colliding in Uncontrolled Airspace

The Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision of 1956

Introduction

Welcome to this blog post where we’ll be exploring the impact of the 1956 Grand Canyon mid-air collision on air safety regulations. On June 30, 1956, two passenger planes collided over the Grand Canyon. Resulting in the death of all 128 people on board. This tragic incident served as a catalyst for significant changes in the air traffic control system and the creation of the Federal Aviation Agency (now Administration) to oversee air safety. In this post, we’ll delve deeper into the details of the collision. As well as the outcomes that followed, and the subsequent improvements made to the air traffic control system to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.

The Lockheed L-1049A Super Constellation involved
The Lockheed L-1049A Super Constellation involved (Wikipedia)

The Flight

On the morning of June 30th, 1956, two aircraft were scheduled to depart from Los Angeles international airport. A United Airlines DC-7 to Chicago and a TWA Lockheed Super Constellation to Kansas City.

Flight 718, the United Airlines DC-7 was a 4-engine, piston-powered airliner capable of carrying 105 passengers. It was piloted by Captain Robert Shirley. He was 48 years old and had over 17,000 flying hours logged. The first officer on this flight was WW2 veteran Robert Harms. The flight was carrying 58 passengers and crew.

The second aircraft was TWA Flight 2. A Lockheed Super Constellation operated by TWA. This aircraft was also a 4-piston engine aircraft, and capable of carrying 99 passengers. Piloted by Captain Jack Gandy and First Officer James Ritner. There were 70 passengers and crew on board.

TWA Flight 2 departed Los Angeles at 0901, with a planned cruising altitude of 19,000ft. United Flight 718 departed shortly after at 0904 and climbed to its planned cruising altitude of 21,000ft.

Once outside of Los Angeles airspace, the flights were pretty much free to choose their flight path. However, they were to report to dispatch over specific waypoints. There was no air traffic control or radar to guide the aircraft.

As the two aircraft approached the canyon, they encountered a severe thunderstorm. United Flight 718 adjusted its path to avoid this. Meanwhile, TWA Flight 2 requested with its company dispatch to climb to 21000ft. However, this was denied due to the United flight. In response, the TWA flight cancelled their IFR clearance and elected to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). This meant they were to fly 1000ft above the tops of the clouds. This, however, put them at 21000ft. They were warned about the presence of the United aircraft and were responsible for keeping a good lookout for other aircraft. This was completely normal and happened regularly.

At approximately 1030 that morning, United Flight 718 collided with TWA Flight 2, sending both aircraft crashing into the canyon below. Due to the lack of radar, Air Route Traffic Control Headquarters in Salt Lake City had no way of knowing what had happened. Only when both aircraft failed to report at the next waypoint did they become aware of the situation. At 1151, they put out a missing aircraft alert.

Later that evening a small aircraft belonging to a tour company operating in the canyon spotted the wreckages. He’d spotted smoke earlier in the day. He, therefore, decided to go back out to confirm what he thought he had seen.

The next morning search and rescue helicopters were dispatched to the wreckages. Although due to the terrain, it was near impossible for teams to get access to wreckages. United Airlines ended up bringing in specialist mountain rescue teams to reach the wreckage. When they eventually reached the wreckages, they found that a fire had melted the Aluminum of the aircraft, and fused it to the bedrock. All 128 people on board the 2 aircraft perished.

The Civil Aeronautics Board carried out a thorough investigation and discovered that the wing tip of the DC-7 had collided with the tail of the Super Constellation, causing it to detach from the aircraft. Paint from each aircraft was found on the other, confirming that a mid-air collision had occurred.

The investigation found that both pilots were off their designated route, and were most likely giving their passengers a scenic view of the canyon below at the time of the accident. In 1956, this was perfectly legal as the aircraft were in uncontrolled airspace, and had no requirement to let dispatch know they had adjusted their routes. 

The Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision of 1956 was the most deadly civilian air accident up until that time and is still one of the worst aviation disasters in American history.

A man walks through the debris at the crash site in Grand Canyon National Park. (Photo/NPS)
A man walks through the debris at the crash site in Grand Canyon National Park. (Photo/NPS)

The Aftermath

Following the conclusion of the investigation, in 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Airways Modernization Act. This increased funding significantly for upgrading and expanding air traffic control. After a second mid-air collision in 1958, Eisenhower created the Federal Aviation Agency, (now administration). This replaced the Civil Aeronautics Board and reported directly to the president. Finally, in 1967, the “big sky” days came to an end. Airways and rights of way were created, and air traffic control began using radar monitoring across the majority of the USA. Pilots were still to practice “see and avoid”, but air traffic controllers could now warn pilots of impending collisions.

Today a large amount of debris still exists in the Canyon, despite much of it being removed by helicopter over the years. The crash site has now been designated a National History Landmark, making it illegal to visit or remove debris from the site.

The bronze plaque commemorating the 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site in Grand Canyon National Park. (Wikipedia)
The bronze plaque commemorating the 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site in Grand Canyon National Park. (Wikipedia)

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