A retrospective of the tragic Grand Canyon mid-air collision, and how air traffic control and flight safety changed drastically from one event.

Shawn Arena

I think all of us regardless of profession or interests, can instantly recall dates of certain events in our lifetimes that still resonate many years later: Assassination of President Kennedy (11/22/63), the beginning of Operation Desert Storm (1/16/1991), and ‘9/11’ (9/11/01). And for those of us in aviation or aerospace, events/dates such as the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy (1/28/86) and the Shuttle Columbia break up upon reentry (2/1/03) come to mind. However long before any of the above events occurred, one historical aviation accident changed forever how we aviators successfully navigate and communicate in today’s complex airspace – the Grand Canyon mid-air collision on June 30, 1956.

Two Commercial Aircraft Conducting ‘Flight-Seeing’ Activity

United Airlines Flight 718 (a DC-7 aircraft), and TWA Airlines Flight 2 (a Super Constellation aircraft) had taken off minutes from each other at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). United 718 was en route to Newark (EWR) via Chicago Midway (MDW), and TWA 2 was en route to Kansas City (KCI). As was customary in those days of commercial aviation, aircraft captains may ‘opt-out’ of Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight protocol to fly ‘off-the-airways.’ In this case, the flight is then governed by Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and the flight crew would now be responsible to ‘see and be seen’ [ which remains today the VFR standard]. In the case of United 718 AND TWA 2, the respective captains decided to fly VFR for the same reasons.

For those unfamiliar with meteorological phenomena in Arizona, about late June or early July every year, there is a southwesterly flow aloft, brought in from Baja California. This creates thunderstorm activity in the afternoons over most or portions of the state (i.e. very prevalent in northern AZ and the Grand Canyon area). So, with the weather conditions as such, both United and TWA crews wanted to avoid the billowing thunderheads along their routes, and they both flew at the same altitude of 21,000 feet (flight level 210) – on converging paths. To make matters worse, both captains decided to provide a little ‘flight-seeing’ activity for their passengers over the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision and Ramifications For Air Traffic Control and Safety

Imagine if you will, you are sitting in a right window seat of United 718 or the left window seat of TWA 2 and the feeling of terror and helplessness as you see both planes get closer and closer until you hear metal collide. 128 passengers and crew of both aircraft plummeted to the ground just below the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers – one of the most inaccessible areas of the Grand Canyon.  Mind you, at the time, the news was not instantaneous as our connected world is today, so it took a bit for word about the accident to get out. When it did, a public outcry arose.

This was the deadliest US airplane disaster of any kind up to that point, and the first time more than 100 people were killed in a crash. And it shattered the public’s illusion of a safe air travel system. Air-to-ground communication in 1956 was as archaic as we consider dinosaurs today. Air Traffic Controllers relied on pilot reports for positioning. Controllers literally had a large board or display area that they pushed ‘shrimp boats’ along the reported route. VFR was common (as stated above), and most shockingly there was only ONE (1) radar facility in the United States, in the Washington DC area.

Like many things in governmentally controlled industries, changes or improvements aren’t made until some tragedy. As a result of the Grand Canyon mid-ar collision, Congress, and President Eisenhower increased funding to modernize ATC, hire and train more controllers, build additional radar installations, and perform a complete overhaul of the navigational rules (also still applying today). Above flight level 180 (18,000 feet) all flights are to be positively controlled and are flown IFR.

But airspace authority was split between the CAA (Civil Aeronatuics Authority) and the military, and after another crash in 1958 between United Airlines Flight 736 and an F-100 Super Sabre, the public demanded more. So with the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, the Government dissolved the CAA and formed the Federal Aviation Agency (which became the Federal Aviation Administration we know today in 1967), and gave the FAA complete airspace authority.

In Conclusion

Those of us who fly today can thank our predecessors (commercial, military, and general aviation operators) for establishing what is considered the safest air traffic system (though not without flaws) that exists in the world today.

So each time you fly, keep in mind the 128 passengers and crew that perished on June 30, 1956, in the Grand Canyon mid-air collision, and say thanks. In part because of their sacrifice, our aeronautical adventures are possible.

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Featured Image: Darshan Meda

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