Sightseer Flights Collide at Grand Canyon; 25 Killed
A twin-engine plane and a helicopter plunged into the mile-deep Grand Canyon after a mid-air collision Wednesday, carrying 25 sightseers and crew members to fiery deaths.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said 18 passengers and two crewmen were aboard the fixed-wing Twin Otter and that the Bell 206B JetRanger helicopter carried a pilot and four passengers when the two aircraft crashed in flames north of the Crystal Rapids area of the Colorado River about 9:40 a.m.
Burning debris was scattered over the half mile between the spots where the fixed-wing plane and the helicopter smashed to earth, officials said.
Grand Canyon National Park Ranger Charles Peterson, who was dropped off by a park service helicopter near the wreckage on sloping Tonto Plateau about a mile north of the river, reported there were no survivors. He found two bodies a few feet from the burned helicopter wreckage, but none of the occupants of the fixed-wing plane appeared to have been thrown out.
‘Engulfed in Flames’
Peterson told a Wednesday evening press conference at the Grand Canyon Visitors Center that he arrived at the scene about 10 a.m. and “at that time both planes were fully engulfed in flames. My initial impression was that no one could have survived the crash.”
He said he could see “bits and pieces of human remains.” The helicopter had disintegrated to the extent that only its tail boom was recognizable. He said it appeared to have been sheared off.
The helicopter was operated by Helitech and flew out of Tusayan, near the scenic canyon’s South Rim. The De Havilland Twin Otter belonged to Grand Canyon Airlines of Las Vegas and took off from Grand Canyon Airport, about a mile to the south.
Those aboard the twin-engine plane, according to the sheriff’s office, were mostly foreign tourists--11 from the Netherlands, two from Switzerland and one from South Africa. The other six reportedly were from the United States. The 14 foreign victims were on an American Express tour, park management assistant Charles Farabee said, but it was not known where the tour originated.
The four passengers aboard the helicopter were reported to be Americans. Their names were not available.
All the crew members were local pilots, officials said. Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards identified the pilot and co-pilot of the plane as James Ingraham and Bruce Grubb, respectively. He said the helicopter pilot was John Thybomy.
Ingraham and Grubb were described by park superintendent Richard Marks as “veteran pilots who have flown the canyon for years . . . .” He said Thybomy had been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and formerly flew for the park service. Marks called him “very careful . . . very experienced.”
Both aircraft were taking tourists on scenic flights, which have become so numerous that environmental groups have been complaining about the impact of their noise on the serenity of the national park.
The two aircraft plummeted into the canyon about 10 miles northwest of Grand Canyon Village, which is on the South Rim. They struck the plateau east of Tuna Creek at the base of the Mencius Temple formation, an extremely steep red limestone cliff.
The plane’s wreckage was about 1,800 feet above the Colorado River and the helicopter’s debris was about 1,200 feet up.
Area Called Remote
Peterson described the site as being “as remote as any other area in Grand Canyon. It’s a very rugged environment. There’s lots of cactus.”
Although no one on the ground apparently saw the actual collision, smoke was reported by a fire lookout and by a local tour service operator.
U.S. Forest Service fire lookout James Mahoney, at his post 10 miles from the crash site, said he saw smoke billowing out of the canyon. He said it appeared that both aircraft had been flying below the level of the canyon rim.
“They’re not supposed to be flying in there, and they know it,” Mahoney said.
Robert Lippman, attorney for the environmental group Friends of the River, which has been fighting to have sightseeing flights limited, said the Federal Aviation Administration several years ago issued an advisory urging pilots not to fly lower than 2,000 feet above the rim.
Wednesday’s collision, he said, “underscores the dangers that we’ve learned about uncontrolled line-of-sight flying below the rim.”
Marks said an FAA advisory indicates that aircraft should not fly below 2,000 feet above the rim of the canyon but that that is not law. “We are presupposing they (the Otter and the Bell helicopter) were in fact below the 2,000 feet,” he said.
Gary Mucho, National Transportation Safety Board chief in Los Angeles, immediately dispatched investigator Audrey Shutte, and a safety board team headed for the canyon from Washington, D.C., to take part in the probe.
Larry Bjork of the FAA’s flight service station at Prescott, Ariz., said the plane and helicopter were operating under “visual flight rules,” which means they were not monitored by air traffic controllers and were expected to “see and be seen.”
Marks said aircraft flying east to west over the canyon are supposed to be separated by 1,000 vertical feet from those flying west to east. “Thus, you might assume they were flying the same direction,” he said.
He noted that sightseeing tour pilots generally stay in touch with one another by radio, but he did not know whether that was being done by the two pilots on Wednesday.
Recovery of Bodies
The two aircraft crashed in such steep terrain that recovery of the bodies will not begin until today. The job will be done by the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department and the National Park Service. The sheriff’s office reportedly asked for help from Luke Air Force Base.
A temporary morgue was set up at Flagstaff.
The twin-engine Otter, viewed late in the day from a helicopter flying near rim level, was nothing more than a pair of crumpled white wings lying flat on the sloping plateau.
Circle of Gray Ash
Only a large circle of gray ash and debris remained of the fuselage. A second large piece of wreckage lay about 300 yards away.
At 4:30 p.m., the wreckage was still smoking.
As though nothing had happened, other sightseeing flights were taking off from the airport and cruising over the canyon. Far below, rafts loaded with vacationers could be seen drifting down the muddy green water of the Colorado.
However, all Grand Canyon Airlines flights were canceled indefinitely.
Wednesday’s collision was the first major plane crash in the United States this year. It occurred just days short of 30 years since a United Airline DC-7 airliner and a TWA Super Constellation collided when eastbound from Los Angeles and also plunged into the canyon.
That June 30, 1956, accident--at that time the worst air disaster in history--killed 128 people.
10 Died in 1983 Crash
In August, 1983, a sightseeing plane trying to dodge thunderstorms crashed into the face of a mountain overlooking the canyon. All 10 people aboard were killed.
The National Park Service is studying possible recommendations to the Department of Transportation for regulating flights in and around the canyon.
The service estimates that more than 40 small charter companies make about 50,000 airplane and helicopter flights a year across the canyon. They carry tourists craning for looks at such spectacular attractions as Thunder Falls, Ship Rock and a Havasupai Indian village.
Hidden deep within sheer black granite walls, Crystal Rapids is one of the largest and most dangerous cataracts in the Grand Canyon. In 1983, a 37-foot-long motorized pontoon-raft flipped over in the sharp falls and roaring white waters, killing one passenger.
Many professional raft companies require passengers to hike around the rapids, the only such portage of the more than 200 rapids in the canyon.
Crystal Rapids is about 10 miles below Phantom Ranch, a popular hiking site. Except for tortuous trails, there are no roads to the rapids.
Staff writer Jack Jones contributed to this story from Los Angeles.