Grand Canyon a game-changer in air travel

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Grand Canyon a game-changer in air travel
This Sept. 12, 2013 photo released by the Grand Canyon National Park Service, shows a National Historical Landmark plate overlooking the east end of the Grand Canyon, Ariz. Two commercial airplanes, United Flight 718 and TWA Flight 2 crashed on June 30, 1956 over the Grand Canyon, killing all 128 people aboard in one of the deadliest aviation disasters in the U.S. On Tuesday, July 8, 2014, the Grand Canyon National Park will mark the designation of the crash site as a National Historic Landmark in a ceremony overlooking the gorge where the wreckage was scattered over 1.5 square miles. (AP Photo/Grand Canyon National Park Service)
FILE - This July 5, 1956 file photo shows the view from across the Grand Canyon, where an Army helicopter was to drop one of the mountain climbers who was trying to reach the wreckage of a United Airline UAL DC-7 that crashed after colliding with a TWA Constellation. The crash spurred improvements to the air traffic control and radar systems, and led to the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration. On Tuesday, July 8, 2014, the Grand Canyon National Park will mark the designation of the crash site as a National Historic Landmark in a ceremony overlooking the gorge where the wreckage was scattered over 1.5 square miles. (AP Photo/David F. Smith, File)
Members of Swiss mountain climbing team sort 2,000 pounds of equipment brought to aid them in search for bodies of victims of UAL plane that crashed at the Grand Canyon on June 30, shown July 6, 1956. Besides regular equipment, gear includes parachutes and wheel-equipped stretchers. Team expects to reach scene early. (AP Photo/David F. Smith)
Two members of a Swiss mountain climbing team, who arrived in Grand Canyon, Arizona to assist in recovering bodies of victims of a UAL plane crash in this canyon on June 30, are handed a coil of rope by Spc/3 Robert Lee as they leave by helicopter for the wreck scene, July 6, 1956. From left are Lee, Anton Spinas, who will direct the team, and Max Stampfli, Swiss pilot. (AP Photo/David F. Smith)
Two of twelve UAL officials selected for their experience in mountain climbing and rescue work prepare to leave for the site of UAL plane in Grand Canyon, Arizona, that crashed in this rugged country Saturday June 30, killing 58 persons, to organize recovery attempts of victims, July 3, 1956. From left: Clyde Searles, UAL C.W.O. Billy Pearson, army helicopter pilot, Lt. John Ahern, Army; and F.A. Clarke, UAL. (AP Photo/David F. Smith)
Palen Hudgin, right, shows brother, Henry, on map where two planes crashed on June 30, killing 128 people in the Grand Canyon, July 1, 1956. Pair first discovered wreckage of world's worst commercial airline disaster. (AP Photo)
First of eight more bags containing portions of unidentified people who died in the crash of a TWA Constellation near here on Saturday, June 30, is loaded aboard a plane for flight to the coroner's office in Flagstaff in Grand Canyon, Arizona , July 3, 1956. Seven more bags are expected to be flown out from the crash where 70 died. This will complete the TWA search and four bags from the UAL crash are expected to be flown out. (AP Photo/David F. Smith)
This is the view looking up the Colorado River with Chuar Butte at left, seen July 1, 1956. The wreckage of the TWA Super-Constellation is at left, and the wreckage of the United Air Lines plane is at the far end of the butte. (AP Photo/David F. Smith)
Swiss and Colorado mountain climber prepare to descend into vertical crevice to reach wreckage of UAL DC-7 that crashed here June 30, shown in the Grand Canyon, Arizona, July 7, 1956. Rope stretched across picture (center) will be used in the difficult descent. Wreckage in steep chasm has been virtually unexplored. (AP Photo)
Transport, Air Disasters, USA, 1956, Two arrows mark the spot in the Grand Canyon, Arizona, where two passenger jets crashed on 30th June 1956, after a mid-air collision over the canyon, The TWA Constellation and the United Airlines DC7 lost all their passengers numbering 128 killed, while the cause of the crash was thought to be the pilots not seeing each other until too late, after asking for permission to fly into undesignated airspace (Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Coffins of Grand Canyon airplane crash victims awaiting burial. (Photo by A. Y. Owen//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Passenger's coat lying on the rim of the Grand Canyon following plane crash. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

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.
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