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Grand Canyon a game-changer in air travel

By Felicia Fonseca

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- In the mid-1950s, air travel was a shadow of the highly advanced operation of checks and rules seen today. The skies were largely uncontrolled, and pilots outside major U.S. cities relied on sight to avoid catastrophes.

Then, two commercial airplanes crashed over the Grand Canyon in June 1956, killing all 128 people aboard in the deadliest aviation disaster of the time and helping spur an overhaul to flight safety. A country already grappling with increasingly busy skies pressured Congress for major changes to improve air traffic control and radar systems and to create a federal agency to regulate it.

"It really did underscore for the general public, for the first time, that much of the air space in America was uncontrolled at that time," said Peter Goelz, former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board. "Once you got up to 20,000 feet and beyond the terminal radars, it was see and be seen."

Grand Canyon National Park will mark the designation of the crash site Tuesday as a National Historic Landmark in a ceremony overlooking the gorge on the east end where the wreckage was scattered over 1.5 square miles. Some of the victim's remains never were identified, and most of those that were have been buried together in mass at cemeteries at the Grand Canyon and the northern Arizona city of Flagstaff.

The United Airlines Douglas DC-7 and a TWA Lockheed Super Constellation both left California on June 30, 1956, eventually cruising at the same altitude - 21,000 feet - after the TWA pilot requested to fly above the clouds. Shortly before 10 a.m., both pilots reported to different communications stations that they would be crossing over the canyon at the same position at 10:31 a.m.

The Salt Lake City controller who had that information was not obligated to tell either of the pilots they could be on a crash course. It was the sole responsibility of the pilots to avoid other aircraft in uncontrolled airspace.

At 10:31, a message from the United flight was later determined to be: "Salt Lake, United 718 ... ah ... we're going in." The TWA flight was not heard from again.

The investigative agency, the Civil Aeronautics Board, determined simply that the pilots did not see one another. The agency speculated that the pilots were treating passengers to views of the Grand Canyon while flying through scattered cloud buildup.

Meanwhile, pressure mounted on Congress to move faster to make air travel safer. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Airways Modernization Act, and airliners were required to have flight data recorders. What's now known as the Federal Aviation Administration began operating late that year.

The investigators on the Grand Canyon crash pieced together what happened based on the wreckage. No one saw the planes collide.

The family of Leon David Cook Jr., a passenger on the United flight destined for Chicago, was huddled around the television that night awaiting word on what happened. The next morning, dozens of reporters were staked out in front of their Detroit home, said Cook's son Ray, then 12.

The TWA wreckage was found first. More than a mile away and several days later, the United wreckage was discovered.

Ray Cook said the crash destroyed his family. His mother died 14 years later when she drove drunk off an embankment, and his brother committed suicide at 37. Cook, who broke free from heavy drinking after 25 years, couldn't come to terms with the death for several years.

"I used to think every night that my father would walk out of the Grand Canyon, sunburned and scraggly, saying, `They screwed up, I'm fine, here I am,'" he said.

The recovery operation was one of the most extensive and dangerous in the history of the National Park Service. Rescuers had to contend with harsh terrain, swirling winds and the remoteness of the crash sites where the wreckage was twisted, broken and melted. United brought in a Swiss mountain rescue group and the Colorado Mountain Club to help.

Former Associated Press writer Frank Wetzel wrote of military personnel silently lifting olive-drab body bags into aircraft.

"It was my first look at Grand Canyon," the 88-year-old said in an interview. "I hadn't any concept of its grandeur. At the time, the wreckage was spread out because the impact must have been terrible."

The crash sites near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers now are closed off to the public and being preserved for their place in history.

Grand Canyon National Park archaeologist Ian Hough said the sites can serve as a learning tool for understanding the significance of the disaster and its impact on families, some of whom shared their stories recently with park officials as part of an oral history project.

"The Park Service has to manage those sites as the resting place for those 128 souls," he said. "In many different ways, those people are still there."

Jennifer Reed, the only child of United passenger Dwight B. Nims, has just started to grieve. She was 4 when the plane crashed, having been told that her father, a military veteran who was on a business trip, would be back soon. She eventually stopped asking her mother when.

She said the trauma runs deep but she is comforted knowing she can talk about the crash more openly now and that it helped spur major safety changes.

"Their deaths were not in vain," she said.

Join the discussion

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kcarthey July 11 2014 at 5:44 AM

And two years later, two commericial airliners crashed over New York City. Remembering both events very clearly, I think it took the impact of the second crash to emphasize that some actions had to be taken.

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2 replies
Nina kcarthey July 11 2014 at 8:44 AM

Wow. It was very scary how the air traffic controllers had no obligation to notify the other pilot that he was on a collision course. Using their eyes to see other planes. We have come far in air travel. Thank you for sharing the other impact. I had no knowledge of that one.

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3 replies
pschnatz33 kcarthey July 11 2014 at 11:42 AM

United 826 & TWA 266 on 12/16/1960 128 on the planes and 6 on the ground make this more deadly crash.

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still1mdbones July 11 2014 at 6:49 AM

While it's no doubt a tragedy and painful to the families who lost loved ones, I fail to see how the site now after all these years rates becoming a national historic landmark and closed off to the public.

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7 replies
kelly1973m July 11 2014 at 7:36 AM

Why is that area of the park closed permanently?

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6 replies
cbza3600 July 11 2014 at 8:46 AM

why is it, after only one catastrophic event, everyone banded together to change air travel so that it was safer, but after countless gun deaths...?

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9 replies
mhdjl July 11 2014 at 6:17 AM

In those days, the only people that flew were the rich or someone on a business trip. People did not, in general, go to therapists in those days, and many adults tried to shield children from tragic occurrences, even if it was a parent that died.

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3 replies
Dave PSH July 11 2014 at 5:28 AM

Fasinating story. Interesting how families whose likely deceased loved one was never positively identified wondered for years if the person was actually dead.

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4 replies
catsarecooool July 11 2014 at 9:39 AM

I remember it and also the sea disaster off Nantucket , mass. with the sinking of the Andrea Doria after colliding with the Stockholm ,both luxury liners in a fog bank ,in august that same summer ! we take for granted today the air traffic control , radar navigation and safety advances all made possible with government funding , which made them happen ! more not less is still required , regards

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Bill July 11 2014 at 7:52 AM

I was nine years old, living in Flagstaff when this tragedy occurred. It was horrific and I remember it well. A temporary morgue was set up at one of the local cemeteries in an effort to identify crash victims, however few (if any) bodies were recovered - just body parts. DNA testing was not available at the time so these parts were buried in mass graves.
Am glad to see that the crash site is being remembered and noted as a historical location.

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1 reply
Debbie Bill July 11 2014 at 2:46 PM

Thank you, Bill, for your compassion and insight. My uncle, Jack Groshans, died in that crash. He left my aunt and two young daughters, my cousins, who all still grieve for him. Life goes on, but it is never the same for the victim's family.

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cmcclarty July 11 2014 at 6:51 AM

But also the crash of PSA flight 182 changed things also.It was signed into law that all airliners have the TCAS system installed in all of them I belive.

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1 reply
tra1nnut cmcclarty July 11 2014 at 9:12 AM

Actually the collision of PSA 182 and a Cessna 150 (?) that resulted in the establishemnt of the Terminal Control Aareas (TCA) around major airports, which required that all aircraft opreating within the confines of the TCA be equipped with a transponder. The transponder enhances the target or return signal on the radar sccreen on the ground by giving, alternately, the type aircraft, registration number or flight number, altitude and speed of the aircraft. If you don't have a transponder set to the proper frequency or code and are in contact with the controller on th gruound you can't fly into a TCA.

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1 reply
cmcclarty tra1nnut July 11 2014 at 11:07 AM

Thanks for that info :)

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military42brat July 11 2014 at 9:13 AM

Well a lesson. The airlines could have taken corrective actions without the Government by working together. They didn't want to cut into their profits. Before you say anything look how Unions control much of the private sector, yes so federal action, but they dig and do. Always everyone say where is the government, they don't want to take responsibilty of working together to make things safer or better.. Rember the government doesn't always do it better, the controllers strike. Blame the government to help shed lawsuits.

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2 replies
tra1nnut military42brat July 11 2014 at 10:37 AM

Unions control the private sector? Where have you been? Just some little "fun facts." Union membership never exceeded 35% of the workforce in thier heyday. Unions represent less than 10% of the workforce today. That hardly represents any form of union control or influence in the government.

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kphog military42brat July 11 2014 at 10:48 AM

Your statement that the airlines didn't want to cut into their profits demonstrates your bias, that large businesses are the bad guys. The airline industry was a fledgling industry venturing into unknown territory. In 1952 most airline pilots were ex-military and the air navigation equipment was archaic compared to today's standards. Flying was done as it had been for years and that was by "visual flight rules". By the way you mention unions. Braniff Airways was shut down due to a union strike of it's mechanics along with the pilot association joining in as a sympathy jesture. Braniff could not meet the demands of the union (financially) and the union would not budge....no compromise. Braniff went under.
The next time anyone complains about the cost of an airline ticket just remember 49% of that ticket is for the government. The airline industry is currently asking for the government for permission to disclose the breakdown of the cost on your airline. Good luck on that.

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