The Tragic Mid-Air Plane Crash That Changed the American Aviation Industry Forever

Around 11:30 a.m. on June 30, 1956, a TWA Super Constellation and a United DC-7, together carrying 128 people, collided over the Grand Canyon at 21,000 feet. The collision ripped the tail off the Constellation and severed much of the DC-7’s left wing. The Constellation plunged in a near vertical dive and crashed about 300 feet above the Colorado River onto a relatively flat area called Temple Butte. The United DC-7 staggered about one mile north before it slammed just below the top of a formation named Chuar Butte and slid into a rugged gulch.

This crash of two passenger planes would change the U.S. aviation industry in ways that are still felt today. Mid-air collisions were fairly common prior to the Grand Canyon accident: one 1956 Aviation Week article noted that, between 1948 and 1955 there were 127 mid-air collisions in the U.S. with 30 involving commercial airliners; today, by comparison, the last major airline crash in the U.S. was now more than a decade ago. But the relatively low speeds of many of those incidents meant that overall fatalities had remained low. (Those 127 accidents led to a total of 226 deaths.) Air-traffic controllers were already worried by 1955 that the increased speeds of newer aircraft would increase fatalities, and the Grand Canyon collision proved their worst fears to be correct. It was the worst American aviation accident up until that time, and would permanently change flight safety measures in the U.S.

After both aircraft missed a radio report, air traffic controllers and airline ground personnel launched a search. Just before sunset, after hearing a radio broadcast about the missing aircraft, sightseeing pilot Palen Hudgin and his brother flew to where he had seen smoke earlier in the day. They tentatively identified the Constellation’s tail and, after landing, called TWA to report their finding.

Earlier that afternoon, Air Force pilot 1st Lt. Miles Burd was mowing his lawn when a phone call summoned him to nearby Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Burd took off with another pilot and a flight surgeon in one H-19 helicopter and headed north, accompanied by a second H-19 flown by 1st Lt. Daryl Strong. They landed in the parking lot of a hotel near the Little Colorado River.

At dawn the next day, Burd and Strong took off in one H-19, and Capt. Jim Womack and 1st Lt. Phil Prince took off in the other. By then the crew of an amphibious aircraft, an SA-16 Albatross, from Hamilton Air Force Base in California, had spotted what they assumed was the United wreckage, but they couldn’t land for confirmation. Burd and Strong flew back and forth at random over the canyon and were about to head to Grand Canyon Airport to refuel when Burd spotted a glint on Chuar Butte. With nothing flat to set down on, he touched one wheel to the ground, and the flight surgeon leaned out and grabbed a piece of the wreckage.

They landed back at Grand Canyon Village and Burd told the waiting reporters, “We found the crash and we have a piece to verify it.”

The reporters went crazy. So crazy, they even besieged the pilots when they went into the bathroom.

Recovering remains from a civilian crash wasn’t an Air Force mission, so the helicopter crews returned to Luke on Monday morning. But the crash sites were inaccessible by road and too remote to reach on foot; helicopters were needed to recover remains and wreckage. The Army jumped at the chance to do the recovery. Their aircraft arrived at the bare-bones Grand Canyon Airport midmorning on Sunday and “Operation Granite Mountain” began.

Early on July 2, Capt. Walter Spriggs and Chief Warrant Officer Howard Proctor took off in an H-21 with about a half-ton of equipment and five searchers. The helicopter left three searchers on the southeastern rim of the canyon to reduce weight and dropped into the canyon. Spriggs and many of the Army pilots had flown in Korea’s mountainous terrain, but they had never encountered anything as rugged as the Grand Canyon. However, the pilots easily negotiated the landing on a small pinnacle about 60 yards from the main wreckage at the TWA site. After off-loading, they returned to the rim to ferry the remaining searchers.

The searchers confronted a horrific scene: charred bodies, missing limbs, a penny embedded in a woman’s wedding ring. That first day, the searchers filled five rubberized “crash bags” containing human remains. A few articles were unscathed, including a toy boat and 148 letters that somehow survived from 66 pounds of U.S. Mail.

Spriggs and Proctor next headed to the United site at Chuar Butte, which jutted 1,400 feet above the river on a nearly vertical slope. The combination of terrain and high temperatures created swirling winds and violent drafts that shot the helicopter up and down like an elevator and thwarted two landing attempts.

Army pilots made three more flights into the canyon that morning, hauling government and TWA officials along with more gear and removing the crash bags. By 10:00 a.m., 60-knot winds and severe turbulence shut down flying, a pattern that would repeat over the next two days, as the H-21s shuttled in personnel and supplies and carried out 21 more crash bags. The remains of the 70 TWA passengers were buried in a mass grave in Flagstaff after a combined Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Mormon service.

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The helicopters dropped off 13 mountain climbers to complete the task at the more difficult United crash site. Five climbers were from Colorado and eight from Switzerland. Over the next four days the climbers removed all 58 United victims using a “Tyrolean traverse” system of ropes and pulleys devised by the Swiss to hoist the bags up the cliff to the waiting helicopters. The coroner identified half the bodies.

Finally, on July 10, one last helicopter dipped below the rim for a final search. In its haste to return to Fort Huachuca, the Army abandoned most equipment and supplies; a 1976 cleanup crew later found C rations, ropes, a piton and an empty can of Schlitz beer.

The Air Force pilots and crew, along with 24 Army officers and warrant officers, received medals at the White House.

The deadly collision and recovery, highlighted in front-page newspaper headlines for days, brought the issue of airline safety to the public’s attention. A week after the accident, a Congressional hearing was held in Las Vegas to start finding out what had gone wrong. Accident investigators determined that, although the pilots had simply failed to see each other, the U.S.’s antiquated air traffic control system, which relied heavily on visual cues by pilots and estimates by controllers, was largely to blame.

As a result of the investigation, Congress passed legislation in 1957 that formed what became the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board. The FAA updated the ancient air traffic control system in the United States. Working in concert, the two federal organizations transformed commercial aviation into the safest form of transportation in the world.

Eileen Bjorkman is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and author of Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind, available now.

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