Episode 7: Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision

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Summary:

In this episode of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, Shelly shares the story of a historic Grand Canyon mid-air plane collision from 1956 that forever changed the way we fly. From the decisions that led to the moment of impact to the investigation that sought to understand what went wrong, this story looks at the incredible legacy each flight left behind.



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The 1956 Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision: United Flight 718 and TWA Flight 2

In Episode 7, we explore what it was like to fly during the “Golden Age of Flying,” a time when air travel was a luxury ride in the sky. And a time when pilots were expected to provide sightseeing opportunities to their paying customers during every flight. But when TWA 2 and United 718 collide over the Grand Canyon in 1956, killing everyone onboard and becoming the deadliest air accident on American soil, the aviation industry examines the steps needed to ensure air travel is not just a ride with a view, but also safe.  

Travelling in “The Golden Age of Flying”

In 1956, the year in which this particular story takes place, air travel is a real luxury: it’s something few people have the chance to experience. To compare the cost of traveling then to what it costs today, people then paid 40% more than we do today (even after you adjust for inflation). The average passenger in the 1950s would pay up to 5% of their yearly salary for a chance to fly.  

Glass dividers separated first class from the rest of the cabin. If you were on a long flight, you might have a bed made up for you. You might see framed paintings on the walls of the interior cabin. Aisles were wider and seats reclined a lot more than they do today and you had lots of legroom.  

All onboard service is complimentary. Without movies and music to keep us all sane on board back then, champagne and brandy flowed endlessly, and a flight seemed like a cocktail party in the sky.  

There was lobster and prime rib and buffet tables.  And passengers sometimes had as many as three hours to eat it.  

People could socialize in the cocktail bar with fellow passengers. And passengers could still smoke on flights – and not just cigarettes. Pipes and cigars were also encouraged. In fact, the only time people weren’t allowed to smoke on airplanes was on the ground, because airlines were afraid that smoking might ignite refueling fumes. 

And people were dressed to impress when they traveled by air. In the 1950s men wore three-piece suits and ties, and women wore dresses, high heels, and pearls. Things relaxed a bit in the 1960s, when a man could get away with a polo-neck shirt or a flowery tie, and a woman could wear hippy beads and a fashionable scarf. 

In the 1950s, air hostesses (that is actually what flight attendants were then called) were like movie stars. They were selected for their looks and had to adhere by regulations on how much they could weigh. They had to be single too. And they wore body-sculpted uniforms, corsets, and sometimes white gloves. And always a hat. Adding to flying’s image of glamour and excitement, hem lines rose to mini-skirt length and colors brightened as the 1960s wore on. 

But beneath this beautiful veneer is a dark underbelly. Racism was also a fact that impacted commercial air travel. If you were not white, you were discouraged from flying. Even if you could afford a ticket as a minority, there was a good chance you wouldn’t be allowed into the same planes as white passengers. When you called up to make your travel arrangements, the operators had been trained to differentiate people’s races based on the way they talked. So, if an African American called up, they would be put on certain flights as opposed to others.  

In all, commercial flying in the 1950s was a luxurious and privileged endeavor for the few who got to do it. And it was risky, too, since flying was a whole lot less safe at that time than it is today. Statistically you have a much better chance of surviving a flight TODAY than you did in the 1950s and 1960s, when crash landings, injuries from turbulence and mid-air collisions were much more common. There were sharp edges in the cabins, glass partitions, inferior seat belts, worse pilot training, and inherent mechanical problems.  

United 718 and TWA 2 Both Takeoff from LAX Headed for a Path Over the Grand Canyon

The date is June 30th, 1956. And United 718, a DC-7, is the newest and fastest passenger plane at the time in America. Onboard we have 3 flight crew: Captain Robert Shirley (with more than 17K flight hours) and fellow pilots say he was highly regarded; First Officer Robert Harms is a former WWII veteran and former flight instructor; and Flight Engineer Gerard Fiore. They are at LAX headed to Chicago with 53 passengers and 2 flight attendants.  

At the same time but at a different area of LAX, TWA 2 is being crewed by Captain Jack Gandy (with more than 15,000 flight hours), First Officer James Ritner, and Flight Engineer Forrest Breyfogle. TWA 2 is headed for Kansas City. Onboard they have 64 passengers (including 11 TWA off-duty employees on free tickets) and two flight attendants and an off-duty flight engineer. 

As this is the Golden Age of Flying, the design and functionality of airplanes at that time should also be emphasized. The DC-7 (the United plane) had 4 turbo prop engines. 

According to the Smithsonian, the DC-7 was introduced by American Airlines on its New York–Los Angeles route in November 1953 and was the first airliner to provide nonstop transcontinental service in both directions. The fastest transport aircraft in service, the DC-7 cruised at 360 miles per hour. A total of 338 DC-7s of all types were purchased by 18 different airlines. Like other piston-engine airliners, it was made obsolete by the introduction of turbine-engine Boeing 707s and Douglas DC-8s. Some DC-7s later served as cargo and charter planes. 

The L-1049 Super Constellation (the TWA plane), or as aviation people called it, the Connie, is an American aircraft, a member of the Lockheed Constellation aircraft line. According to Wikipedia, the L-1049 was Lockheed's response to the successful Douglas DC-6 airliner, first flying in 1950. The aircraft was also produced for both the United States Navy and Air Force as transport, electronics, and airborne early warning and control aircraft. Eventually, it would be remembered as an enduring symbol, the epitome of grace in propeller-driven aircraft. The Connie was initially purchased by TWA to win over a single customer and stakeholder, none other than Howard Hughes. The Connie would be faster than most World War II fighters at 350 mph. And, using award-winning technology pioneered by Lockheed a few years earlier, it would feature a pressurized cabin for 44 passengers that allowed the plane to fly faster and above 90 percent of weather disturbances, what Constellation regulars would come to call smooth sailing. Its distinct design feature was that it has three tails.  

Back on the runway at LAX, TWA 2 takes off at an authorized altitude of 19,000 feet. Soon thereafter, United 718 is cleared for takeoff and given permission to climb to an authorized altitude of 21,000 feet. The flights takeoff three minutes apart. Based on their destinations and routes, both aircraft will be flying converging courses to their destinations. However, they fly at different altitudes, at a manageable distance of about 1,100 feet apart.   

But as we know, things don’t stay that way for long. To understand what went wrong we have to talk more about flying in the 1950s.  Back in the day, pilots had a lot of leeway in where they could fly. For example, on this route, each pilot has a specific course they need to fly above LA, but once they clear LA air space, they can basically go wherever they wanted to within their altitude. As long as they report passing a series of way points, they could divert from the flight plan. It was basically no big deal. And that’s because the existing air traffic control infrastructure that we have today, and all of that technology, did not exist or was not yet in place. And another reason it was not a big deal is because there were not a lot of airplanes out there. Passenger air travel is still growing.  

Pilots are regarded as rock stars at this time – they are larger than life. And they try to make flying really fun and interesting for the passengers so they would fly again or tell others they should fly. They liked to show off a little.  

On this day, Captain Bob Shirley of the United flight wants to show his passengers the beauty of the Grand Canyon. They’re flying at 21,000 feet when they encounter some storm clouds ahead. Things are a little bumpy but it’s nothing to worry about and they eventually make their way around the storm clouds. 

Meanwhile, on TWA 2, shortly after takeoff, Captain Gandy requests permission to climb to 21,000 feet to also avoid the same thunderheads that Captain Shirley spotted on the United flight.  

To process Captain Gandy’s request to climb, first the request goes to a TWA dispatcher to be relayed to air traffic control (ATC), since neither flight crew has direct contact with ATC after departure. Then, ATC approves or denies the request to descend or ascend, and then the dispatcher has to tell the pilot. 

In the case of Gandy’s request to fly to 21,000 feet, ATC denies it because TWA 2 will be at the same altitude as United 718.  And ATC has no means of providing the horizontal separation required between two aircraft at the same altitude. 

Not letting the denial deter his goal of getting the best view, Captain Gandy next requests clearance to fly to what they call “1,000 [feet] on top” over the clouds. The request is standard and approved. As the requesting pilot, Captain Gandy on TWA 2 has the duty to maintain safe separation from other aircraft — this is a procedure known as “see and be seen.” 

Essentially, they are planes flying blind (without outside help) and in such conditions are supposed to follow visual flight rules, which means avoiding clouds to try to stay visible. As the weather worsens, both Gandy on TWA 2 and the United pilots begin diverting from their original flight plans to avoid the towering cumulus clouds that are forming.  

Both crews had estimated they would arrive somewhere along the Painted Desert line – a waypoint – at about 10:31 am Pacific time.  Based on the fact that the planes were coming in at two different angles, TWA's crossing of the Painted Desert line, assuming no further course changes, would be at a 13-degree angle relative to that of the United flight, with TWA 2 to the left of United 718. 

As the two aircraft approach the Grand Canyon, now both at the same altitude and nearly the same speed, the pilots are likely maneuvering around towering cumulus clouds, though VFR requires the TWA flight to stay in clear air. As they are maneuvering near the canyon, it is believed the planes pass the same cloud on opposite sides, setting the stage for the collision. 

TWA 2 and United 718 Are Both Missing

Fast forward to 10:50 AM.  United flight 718 is twenty minutes overdue from their last way point. United dispatchers attempt to make contact with Flight 718. And they get no response. Soon, it is obvious to dispatch that something is quite wrong. 

Dispatchers then call ATC headquarters with the news. And moments later, a TWA dispatcher calls ATC with similar news: they are not getting a response from Flight 2, which is also twenty minutes overdue from their way point at the Painted Desert Line.  

ATC tries to contact the planes. No answer. After an hour of repeated calls from air traffic control, the two flights are officially reported as missing and overdue. 

Wreckage of TWA 2 and United 718 is Found in the Grand Canyon

A search for the airliners was initiated by several military and state agencies, but it is a civilian, Palen Hudgin, and his brother who are flying an air tour with Grand Canyon Airlines that would later recall seeing smoke near Temple Butte earlier in the day. 

And when the two brother return before dark, they bring with them horrifying news: they have confirmed the impact site of TWA Flight 2 on the northeast slope of Temple Butte. And not far from the burning wreckage is the plane's distinctive triple tail smashed against the boulders. 

Authorities act quickly on Hudgin's report of the downed aircraft, and the following morning a military helicopter not only confirms the brothers’ sighting, but also discovers the impact site of United 718 atop a 1,000-foot ledge of Chuar Butte. These discoveries confirm that the remains of two different planes have been found in Arizona, in the Grand Canyon.  

The immediate priority is to rescue any victims. But the Grand Canyon is hostile and remote and nearly impossible to access. Some of the wreckage is 3,000 feet above a riverbed with nothing around it but rock. The remoteness and topography of the crash sites make the process difficult. A team of Swiss mountaineers are brought in to assist in the recovery operation. 

Rescuers first find scattered remains of TWA flight 2 and then the United flight. They soon reach grim conclusions that everyone onboard both planes have died. All 128 passengers and crew. This was the greatest commercial air disaster of its kind for our nation at this time. 

Investigation into Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision Commences

The responsibility for finding out what happened is in the hands of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). Remember this is before NTSB. The team is led by an aviation legend: Jack Parshall who is an experienced pilot and – get this – a crash survivor himself of not one but four plane crashes. 

Parshall does not have any of the knowledge we have today about air accidents or any of the technology. Black boxes also did not exist back then.  All he has are the broken pieces of the planes and his own experience and knowledge. Which proves to be plenty for him and his team.  

After an exhaustive search for eyewitnesses and questioning of potential witnesses, the CAB concludes that there are no reliable eyewitness accounts of the collision. 

When examining the crash site, they find TWA flight 2’s distinctive triple tail over 1,600 feet from the rest of the plane. This tells them the tail came off the plane before the plane hit the ground AND the tail shows the plane’s skin is torn and there are strips of blue paint, which is odd because the TWA plane is red and white. Meanwhile, they find the United plane’s wingtip and it is streaked with red paint (and the United plane is blue and silver).  

When we put all of those facts together, it means something happened in air that puts the planes together. And it basically confirms the cause of the crash is not weather.  

Now Parshall knows there was a Mid-air Collision, but he needs to find out WHY. He has to recreate the last moments of the flights based on all that wreckage. So, they reassemble the planes using all those broken and charred bits and pieces. Pretty amazing feat at the time.  They also build miniature models of each plane to simulate the Mid-air Collision to see which parts of each plane might have collided with the other one. 

After further analysis, here is what investigators deduce happen over the Grand Canyon.  

Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision Investigation Uncovers Gaps in Air Traffic Control 

United 718’s left wing struck TWA 2 from behind. At this moment, the United plane’s left wing comes apart – literally – in midair – due to the impact. It knocks the tail off the TWA plane, and, frighteningly so, the TWA plane plummets to the ground, 17,000 feet below. United still has its engines, and Captain Shirley and his crew struggle to avoid the same fate. But it’s no use. United 718 slams into the wall of the canyon, killing everyone on board. 

It was clear both flights diverted from their original flight plan, which as we discussed, was not unusual. Pilots often filed the original flight plan and then refile what you really want to do, which is to go here and there and here.

Investigators retrace the paths of each plane by looking at the planes’ radio transmissions. It is clear that TWA was to fly northeast to its first waypoint at Daggett. TWA 2 asks to fly to 21,000 feet but the request, as we mentioned earlier, is denied due to conflicting traffic. And that traffic is United 718. Even still, Gandy wants to avoid the clouds in his path, and in this year, he has another way to accomplish it. Gandy advises that he is going VFR – meaning, he is in charge of watching out for United 718. 

TWA’s next report is at the Mojave waypoint, where they are flying 21,000 feet at that time.  At about 10:30 AM the flight paths of the two aircraft intersected over the canyon, and they collide at a closing angle of about 25 degrees.  

Based on a garbled radio transmission sent from the United flight, Captain Shirley’s panicked voice can be heard pleading with the plane to “Pull up! Pull up!” And a final transmission from United 718’s co-pilot Robert Harms, “This is United 718. We’re, uh, going in!” In aviation shorthand, this reference meant that they were “going in the drink” – they were crashing. This shows evidence that United 718 probably saw TWA 2 appear and tried to take evasive measures. And that they knew they were going to crash. Which means the passengers likely did, too. 

One aviation expert said that for the United pilots, if they did indeed see the other plane, it must have been a nanosecond of disbelief and then muscle memory would kick in for any seasoned pilot to grab the yoke and bank in whatever opposite direction of that other plane. And that’s what investigators believe Captain Shirley of United was doing. But, by that point, it was just too late. 

Post-crash analysis did determine that United 718 was banked to the right and pitched down at the time of the collision, suggesting that, again, evasive action was attempted. Using airspeed estimates, Parshall was trying to determine what Captain Shirley and Captain Gandy could see. Windows on the cockpit are very small making it hard to see and avoid. To confirm this, investigators determine that Captain Shirley of United would not have been able to see the TWA plane until it was just too late. 

Investigators believe the two planes both diverted at the same place because of the Grand Canyon: each pilot wanted to take their passengers to do some sightseeing. This was typical. It was the Golden Age of flying and it really is mostly about the experience than anything else. But on this day, it proves fatal, killing 128 people.  

The Legacy of the Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision

This plane crash brought into focus the primitive standards of air control at the time. Dead spaces, where radars couldn’t reach, are common. Traffic controllers are prohibited from advising pilots of potential traffic conflicts. 

Aviation experts said basically that the pilots were flying it the way they had been instructed to fly. This accident really highlighted that there was too much peril involved, and there were steps that needed to be taken to minimize it. 

In a 2014 CBS News article about the Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision, Pete Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB said, "It [this crash] really did underscore for the general public, for the first time, that much of the air space in America was uncontrolled at that time. Once you got up to 20,000 feet and beyond the terminal radars, it was see and be seen." 

According to Wikipedia, the accident was covered by the press worldwide and as the story unfolded, the public learned of the primitive nature of air traffic control (ATC) and how little was being done to modernize it. The air traffic controller who had cleared TWA to "1,000 on top" was severely criticized as he had not advised Captains Gandy and Shirley about the potential for a traffic conflict following the clearance even though he must have known of the possibility. The controller was publicly blamed for the accident by both airlines and was vilified in the press, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing. 

As Charles Carmody (the then-assistant ATC director) testified during the investigation, neither flight was legally under the control of ATC when they collided, as both were "off airways." The controller was not required to issue a traffic conflict advisory to either pilot. According to the CAB accident investigation final report, the enroute controller relayed a traffic advisory regarding United 718 to TWA's ground radio operator, saying, "ATC clears TWA 2, maintain at least 1,000 on top. Advise TWA 2 his traffic is United 718..." The TWA operator testified that Captain Gandy acknowledged the information on the United flight as "traffic received." 

Obviously, the gap identified as a result of this collision was the way in which airspace was – and was not – being monitored. Congressional hearings in 1957 led to increased funding to hire and train more air traffic controllers and to purchase new radar technology. 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 (or FAA) began operating later that year. 

According to a CBS News article from 2019, for the first time by this year, all commercial flights operating in the U.S. and Europe will be fitted with a GPS transponder that talks to a series of new satellites, making it possible to know exactly where more than 10,000 flights currently flying are.

The technology may also make it possible for air traffic controllers to allow more flights to be in the air at the same time on busy routes over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It could also allow for more direct flight paths, which means more flights, the potential for fewer delays, and shorter flights to places like Europe. In fact, the company that developed the technology, Aireon, was able to instantly confirm the last known location of Lion Air Flight 610, the Boeing 737 Max that crashed in the Java Sea in October 2018. 

The Victims of the 1956 Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision

Many 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 in Flagstaff, AZ.

Here are highlights from three passenger stories from an article in the Ventura County Star Report and a CBS news article from 2014. 

Rosemary Bishop, of Camarillo, CA, and her 3-month-old son Stephen, were on their way to Indiana to visit her mother, who had become gravely ill. Her other two young children, Dan and Anita, stayed behind with their father, John. Anita, said, "I'll never forget it," of the moment 63 years ago that her father told her and her brother about the crash. "He took us in the backyard, we sat on a picnic table and he told us what he heard on the radio." 

The family of Leon David Cook Jr., a passenger on the United flight, was huddled around the television that night awaiting word on what happened. According to Cook’s son, Ray, who was then 12, the next morning, dozens of reporters were staked out in front of their Detroit home. Ray said the crash destroyed his family. His mother died 14 years later when she drove drunk off an embankment, and his brother died by suicide at 37. Ray, who broke free from heavy drinking after 25 years, couldn't come to terms with the death for several years. He said, "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.”  

Jennifer Reed, the only child of United passenger Dwight B. Nims, has just started to grieve, according to the same CBS article in 2014. 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. 

The Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision Memorial

Two memorial sites were created for the passengers and crew members on the two airplanes. TWA arranged for a burial site at Citizen's Cemetery in Flagstaff, Arizona, where many of the victims from Flight 2 were interred. Many of the victims on United Flight 718 were buried in a site within the Grand Canyon National Park. 

On April 22, 2014, the US government made the site of the crash a National Historic Landmark, which made it the first landmark of an air crash in our history. The location is in a remote part of the canyon only accessible to hikers and has been closed to the public since the 1950s. 

And THAT is the story of the crashes of United 718 and TWA 2, or the Grand Canyon Mid-air Collision of 1956.  

Show Notes:

We talk about some of the major companies, including Disney and DoubleTree, who are posting some of their most famous recipes online for us to cook at home. It makes us wonder: is it a good idea to share all of your corporate secrets? Or do they think quarantine will never end...

Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered by: Crosse deStreit, Salmon Pond Studios
Graphic design and website by: Adam Hubka
Sound editing and music by: Mike Dunn
Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision

Artist's impression of Grand Canyon mid-air collision. Image Source: Wikipedia

Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision

Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, similar to the plane involved. Image Source: Wikipedia

Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision

Image Source: CBS News/AP

Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision

United Airlines Douglas DC-7, similar to the plane involved. Image Source: Wikipedia

Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision

Crash location in the Grand Canyon. Image Source: Popperfoto/Getty Images