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.
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.
Meanwhile, climbers tried in vain to scale a 1,000-foot Redwall limestone cliff to reach the DC-7, which had rammed into a promontory on Chuar Butte halfway between the 6,394-foot mesa and the river. Wreckage was showered across the rocky slope and into the adjacent crevasse.
Climbers didn't reach the United site until July 5, when they discovered a shelf above the wreck that was wide enough to support a helicopter. Boulder, Colo., climber Dave Lewis, then 20, was among the first to arrive.
"I walked to the edge of the flat ground and I was suddenly staring at a steep gully packed with blackened wreckage and all surrounded by spectacular scenery," Lewis said in a recent interview. "It's indescribable if you've never seen a plane crash that burned. It's just chaos. How do you describe particular brands of chaos?"
The TWA wreckage, about 1 1/2 miles south of the United site and 500 yards above the river on Temple Butte, was more accessible.
For several days, investigators were reluctant to speculate about what caused the crash, until they found a mangled piece of the DC-7's left wing at the TWA site. Embedded in a tear on the wing was material from the Constellation's rear cabin ceiling.
After collecting aircraft parts and hauling them out of the canyon, as well as tape recordings from air traffic control centers in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, investigators began piecing together what happened.
At congressional hearings in Las Vegas a week after the collision, federal aviation officials testified that when the planes hit, the pilots were flying outside designated airways and several miles off course.
A few minutes after TWA Flight 2 lifted off the LAX runway at 9:01 a.m., investigators said, Capt. Jack Gandy had asked for a change in altitude from 19,000 feet to 21,000 feet to avoid thunderstorms. Seeing on their radar that United Flight 718 was at 21,000 feet, Los Angeles controllers denied the request. A Salt Lake City controller radioed a colleague in Los Angeles "their courses cross and they are right together."
After he was denied the altitude change, Gandy asked to fly 1,000 feet above the clouds. His request was granted, and he was told the United flight was in the area, but not its altitude. Gandy climbed to 21,000 feet.
At the hearing, the Salt Lake controller testified he didn't warn the pilots about each other because they had left controlled airspace to fly more directly to their cross-country destinations and consequently he had no idea what routes they would follow.
The public disclosure that so much of the nation's airspace was uncontrolled shocked a country confident after victories in two world wars and overtaken by Elvis mania, where efforts to build a federal highway system had dominated Congress' attention. At the time, editorial cartoons displayed newly signed highway bills next to airway plans covered with cobwebs.
In early 1957, the Civil Aeronautics Board -- a precursor to the National Transportation Safety Board -- released a 25-page report that found the probable cause for the accident was that the "pilots did not see each other in time to avoid the collision." Investigators wrote: "It is not possible to determine why the pilots did not see each other."
The evidence did suggest, they said, that "attempting to provide the passengers with a more scenic view of the Grand Canyon area" could have been a factor.
The report emphasized that under air traffic rules at the time, the pilots had been required to separate themselves from other aircraft using a "see or be seen" principle. This was necessary because the nation lacked the controllers and equipment to track airplanes outside of designated routes.
Since the 1930s, air traffic at high altitudes had been controlled by a rudimentary system based on radio communications. Pilots would periodically radio their heading, altitude and speed to their company's ground station, and the company would relay the information to air traffic controllers. The controllers would scribble the details for each flight on strips of paper and place them on a metal tray lined with horizontal slots. Each slot represented 1,000 feet of airspace -- helping controllers visualize how to keep aircraft they could not see separated from one another.
Aghast that the system was largely operated on such a primitive concept just two years before jets were set to make their long-awaited commercial debut, lawmakers ordered drastic upgrades.
Many of the changes -- including integrating the civil and military air traffic control systems, and ordering radar and other equipment to help controllers actually see each plane's location -- had been proposed for years but failed to receive adequate funding.
It took decades for federal officials to install enough equipment and build enough control centers to monitor all high-altitude traffic over the United States. By 1971, airspace above 18,000 feet was reserved for aircraft carrying transponders that were able to communicate a plane's flight number and location to radar installations on the ground.
Word of the crash reached families of the victims slowly, as what began as a mystery of missing planes hardened into grim reality.
Neil Davis' sister, Beth, 24, was one of two flight attendants on TWA Flight 2. When he learned of the crash, Davis drove all night from his home in Ogden, Utah, to TWA headquarters in Kansas City. Once there, George Levering, a TWA manager, told him: "There is no hope: everyone was killed. Your sister is gone."
Beth Davis, one of five siblings in the tight-knit family from upstate New York, had been only a month away from leaving TWA to accept a Ford Foundation scholarship to study teaching at Cornell University in New York.
"I went completely crazy," Davis recalled in a 1994 memoir he wrote about Beth. "I jumped up and ran out of the office and out of the building into the parking lot, not to my car or anywhere in particular, just away."
In Washington, D.C., another Davis sister, Jayne Szaz, didn't realize Beth had been working on the Super Connie and was now missing until she received a call from another brother, Wayne.
"I couldn't sleep I was so stunned," Szaz said. "When the morning came, I went home on the train -- it took me nine hours to go from Washington to central New York state."
After grieving with her parents and siblings over the death of the family's "emotional center" -- Szaz took the first airplane ride of her life to attend a memorial for her sister in Flagstaff, where the remains of TWA Flight 2 passengers are buried. Some United passengers were laid to rest in a common grave at the Grand Canyon cemetery.
The death of Whittier resident James Jang, a chemical engineer for Fluor Corp. also traveling on TWA Flight 2, sent his wife into a deep depression. She was hospitalized two years later in Belmont, Calif., where she received electric shock treatment.
"My mother and my father got into an argument before he left," said Jon Jang, a San Francisco musician who was a little more than 2 years old when his father died. "She didn't want him to go. She never got over that -- to leave in an argument."
When he turned 39, Jon Jang requested letters from his dad's closest friends, who referred to him as "Jimmie," and described a disciplined, intelligent man whose "power of concentration was awesome."
James Jang, a 5-foot, 2-inch former Boy Scout and amateur magician, also had a keen sense of humor: "On a dare, [he] asked a 6-foot blond at a nightclub to dance with him -- she did," wrote his childhood friend Eddy Way.
The accident hit TWA employees particularly hard. They lost 17 colleagues flying as both passengers and crew, including Tom Ashton, an industrial relations supervisor who had recently posed as one of the Andrews Sisters for a company skit. Also on board was Joe Kite, an assistant to the construction director, Kite's pregnant wife and his two daughters. When employees flipped their company calendars to July on the day after the accident, they found a picture of the Grand Canyon.
Fifty years later, the crash still scars the Grand Canyon.
Wreckage remains scattered on the near-vertical walls of Chuar and Temple buttes, the treacherous canyon so forbidding in 1956 that investigators stayed just long enough to collect the human remains and several aircraft parts. To prevent looting, the National Park Service closed the sites for 20 years. In 1976, park rangers asked the airlines to remove several large pieces, saying tourists "may consider the visible aircraft remains as blight on the natural scenic beauty of the Grand Canyon." Then they reopened the area.
Even so, flash floods that follow summer monsoons continually unearth pieces of wreckage. By some accounts, 40% of the Super Connie remains, along with 85% of the DC-7.
At the TWA site in 1990, hiker Mike McComb found a tan purse containing identification, a TWA schedule, a stamp book, a scarf and several sticks of gum. "It was kind of a time capsule," said McComb, a pilot who has made the strenuous 50-mile journey to the site several times and flies tourists over it daily.
"As I approached the TWA site, there were little teardrops of melted aluminum that had splashed on the canyon," said Driskill, the Flagstaff paramedic, of a recent hike to Temple Butte. "Then I saw solid puddles of melted aluminum spilled down rocks. There were big chunks of aircraft aluminum -- bigger than a person -- buried under boulders."
Family members remain similarly marked by that day.
"The world should benefit in some way from the untimely loss of a worthy person; there should be a trade-off," Jayne Szaz wrote of her sister Beth. "But search as we might, we could find no such meaning in Beth's death."
Szaz has painstakingly collected pictures of Davis and letters she wrote various family members and placed them in a three-ring binder. Included are slides Davis took during her three years at TWA.
There are scenic spots in Germany and Italy, and a picture of the Grand Canyon, which Davis shot from an airplane window several months before her death.
"Being the studious person that Beth was," her brother Neil wrote, "she had annotated almost every picture and slide.... On this particular one of the gaping canyon below, she had written: 'What a place to die!' "
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Ill-fated flight paths
A midair collision over the Grand Canyon in 1956 killed 128 people and sparked air traffic reforms. Controllers knew the planes would pass near each other, but the crash occurred when pilots veered off course, dodging storms and possibly trying to give passengers a better view of the canyon.
Worst airline crashes 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 156 Aug. 16. 1987 Romulus, Mich. Northwest 135 Aug. 2, 1985 Dallas-Ft. Worth Delta 134 Dec. 16, 1960 Staten Island/Brooklyn, N.Y. United/TWA 132 Sept. 8, 1994 Aliquippa, Pa. USAir 128 June 30, 1956 Grand Canyon, Ariz. United/TWA
Note: Does not include deliberate deaths in terrorist attack at World Trade Center.
Sources: Air Disaster Volume 4, The Propeller Era; PlaneCrashInfo.com; Air Transport Assn.; ESRI; TeleAtlas; USGS