Published in June 2016 issue

The Grand Canyon

Mid-air disaster. 60 years later.

By Mike Nelson

On the morning of Saturday, June 30, 1956, a Trans World Airlines (TWA) L-1049 Constellation with 70 people aboard and a United Air Lines DC-7 carrying 58 people collided in mid-air over the eastern end of the Grand Canyon.

Both planes crashed in fiery pieces into the canyon. All 128 on board lost their lives; my uncle, Jack Groshans, was one of them. The quiet underlying grief that his loss instilled in my family is one of the forces that prompted me to write about the tragedy, even to the extent of publishing a whole book about it.

It astounds me that almost no one knows of this accident—not young people, and not even older people who were young adults then. At the time, the tragedy was the worst commercial airline disaster that had ever occurred, anywhere in the world. Newspapers, television, and radio carried countless stories about it. Life magazine featured it prominently  in two issues. Yet, very few remember it.

On the day of the accident, TWA Flight 2, bound for Kansas City (MKC), had been held up in the hangar at Los Angeles (LAX) for essential repairs and could not be towed to its gate on time.

United Flight 718 to Chicago Midway (MDW) had also been delayed at LAX, apparently only because of an unexpected, lastminute crew change.

First Officer Robert Harms had arrived at LAX at about 07:30 local time to prepare for taking out his flight, United 732, to MDW, only to find that the DC-7 intended to be used for the trip had developed mechanical problems. No substitute DC-7 was available; so a DC-6, the slightly slower forerunner of the DC-7, would have to be used instead. To quote what I believe is one of the key lines in my book, “This ostensibly unimportant circumstance was in reality the one on which the man’s entire life and fate turned.”

By law, Pilots were subject to an 85-hour per month flying time limit to preserve their alertness and excellence as flyers. It was the end of the month, the last day of June, and Harms had accumulated over 79 hours of flying time; he could legally be scheduled for a five-and-a-half-hour DC-7 flight to MDW, but not a six-hour DC-6 one. So the crew scheduler on duty had to pull Harms off Flight 732 and find another trip for him. That other flight was United 718.

Flight 2 and Flight 718 left Los Angeles only three minutes apart, with the Constellation, the slower plane, leaving ahead of the DC-7. Normally, TWA 2 would have departed at 09:30 and United 718 at 09:45, 15 minutes later. In that case, United could not have caught up with TWA before or at the Canyon. Having only three minutes’ separation was a contributing factor, but only one of many, all of which, taken together, caused the collision.

Both flights climbed in clear skies, with United to the south of TWA. This meant that, somewhere, their courses would have to cross because United’s destination, MDW, was of course north of MKC, TWA’s destination. The intersection point had already been fixed, in effect, by the courses they had proposed in their filed flight plans—a spot roughly 25 miles east of the Canyon—and the planes were to have met there, quite close, as if synchronized.

A great deal of importance was made of this crisscrossing at the time, but it was actually irrelevant to what made the planes collide. The collision did not in fact happen anywhere near the intersection of the proposed courses. The flights never even got there, and instead came to their tragic ends approximately 25 miles west of this area. Each had made a detour over the Grand Canyon, which was nearby to the north, and that annulled any hazard that might have been posed by their original courses.

The evidence strongly indicates that United 718’s Captain Shirley had not been in the cockpit after the collision. This means that he had not been there at the moment of the collision, since he obviously would not have left in that dire emergency. Shirley must have already been elsewhere; compelling evidence of this is that his voice was not on the tape recording that ground personnel made of United’s extended mayday call; his voice should have been heard in the background, yelling orders. His seat had very likely been vacant at least shortly before the collision, making United less capable of spotting TWA coming from the left. But I see absolutely no element of misjudgment, error, or blame in this. Everyone has to get up during a long flight, and Captains nearly always greeted their passengers personally early in a trip.

Without his Captain’s help once the collision had occurred, First Officer Harms miraculously improvised ways to partially control his airplane, which had lost its left aileron, over a third of its left wing, and the use of its left-most engine. However, even with his makeshift control Harms could not sabe the people and the plane left in his care. The tail came apart very near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, only about a quarter mile above the water, and United 718 hit a promontory of Chuar Butte, right at the rivers’ confluence.

On TWA Flight 2, Captain Gandy and his co-Pilot, James Ritner, had absolutely no chance. The Constellation had lost its entire tail section in the collision itself and went completely out of control three and a half miles above the bottom of the canyon, tumbling end-over-end to the earth.

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Looking for Answers_

People searched for answers in the days that followed. The public was bewildered, shocked, outraged, and saddened. One widely publicized belief that appeased many people was the idea that the crash had been TWA’s fault because, through a little regulations-maneuvering en route, Captain Gandy had ascended to 21,000ft from his proposed cross-country cruising altitude of 19,000ft. This had placed his aircraft at the same pre-planned cruising altitude as United. However, no one had been particularly concerned before the accident that the two planes had been at the same altitude; such a situation happened a hundred times a day, even for planes in close proximity to each other.

There had been a giant cumulonimbus cloud floating over Grand Canyon Village as the two flights had been nearing the area. It had extended well above the planes’ altitudes, much too high for them to fly over it, and so they had been forced to either fly past it or around it. Both TWA’s and United’s company regulations prohibited them from flying through it, even though the federal Civil Aeronautics Administration, the body that administered aviation rules and policies, would have permitted it.

TWA 2’s proposed course had run squarely through this great cloud, giving it a practical reason to turn northward toward the Canyon, but United 718’s had passed amply to the cloud’s south. Yet, United ended up colliding with TWA over an area called the Walhalla Plateau, just west of the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, roughly 24 miles north of United’s proposed course, and 18 miles north of TWA’s. In TWA’s case, this detour was not surprising because, at the very least, it had to take up that latitude in order to pass the cloud. United 718’s presence at the same latitude, well out over the Canyon, is the more critical question.

It was usual for flights passing near the Grand Canyon to divert over the tremendous gorge, to enable passengers to see one of the world’s greatest wonders from the air. The Canyon presents an entirely different perspective when viewed from the air than it does from the rim. In all likelihood, both Captains wanted to please their passengers in this way.

In the eastern third of the Canyon, just over a mile below both flights’ altitude, an expansive cloud deck surrounded the base of the giant cloud. Thus it might seem implausible for either flight to have been over the canyon for sightseeing. TWA 2 actually might not have, but United 718 surely had, because there was no other reason for it to have been there. It had likely found a break in the cloud deck, through which the canyon could be seen, or had been looking for one.

My best guess is that, seeing the huge cloud building in its path far up ahead, TWA 2 had left its proposed course somewhere around Peach Springs Canyon, 60 or 70 miles west of the giant cloud, and had flown out over the main Grand Canyon; its immediate purpose had been to do some sightseeing, and its upcoming purpose had been to pass the cloud to its north. Near Peach Springs, its proposed course had been so close to the Grand Canyon that it could easily have done some great sightseeing over a large area eastward of it. The lower cloud deck started further up the line.

United 718, on the other hand, had been too far from the Grand Canyon at the same time to make a sightseeing detour practical. But nearer the eastern end of the Canyon, on the far side of the giant cloud, it would have had to skirt close enough to the gorge for the jaunt to be reasonable. It is likely that the crew could see at that distance whether or not the detour would have been fruitful.

I believe that United 718 had entered Grand Canyon airspace just beyond the cloud, and that TWA 2 had done so on the opposite, western side of the cloud. Their positions can be estimated and calculated in several ways, the best probably being to work backwards from the collision point, which, in turn, can be reliably determined based on where falling debris was found later. It appears very likely that, two or three minutes before the end, they had been at diagonally opposite corners of the huge cloud, TWA 2 flying eastward and United 718 northward.

There may have been a second, much smaller cloud near the northeast quadrant of the giant one. If so, this would have obscured the flights’ views of each other for a deadly moment. The chance of a second cloud is not far-fetched because a Captain named Lionel Stephan flew through the area only minutes after the disaster and observed several smaller clouds to the northeast of the big one. I believe that the smaller cloud had been present because it would have robbed both flights of the chance of spotting each other for a length of time sufficient to make a collision plausible, rather tan incredible.

They most likely struck each other with United turning east from its northerly course, and TWA already flying eastward. They saw each other at the last moment, but too late to save themselves. This can be demonstrated by at least three circumstances, the simplest being the 10-degree difference in pitch between them at the moment of impact, which was evidenced from the dents and scratches found in fragments of wreckage. This showed that at least one of the planes was either diving or climbing— maneuvers that could have served no purpose other tan that of an emergency evasive action. United was trying to fly under TWA, or TWA was trying to fly over United, or both. The people on board each aircraft saw the other, and that must have been the scariest, most horrible experience of their lives.

Many civilians and many newspapers at the time tried to answer the seemingly crucial question, “Who hit whom?”

Most adopted the ill-founded belief that United was the offender. United had been the faster plane, and it had left Los Angeles after TWA, so it seemed reasonable that it had caught up to, and rear-ended, TWA. What actually happened was that United struck TWA in the rear, not from the rear, and from the side, not from behind.

The DC-7’s left wing essentially cut off the rear end of the Constellation, opening the passenger cabin to the sky, and the Constellation’s upper rear fuselage essentially sundered a portion of the DC-7’s left wing from underneath, causing everything outboard of that point to tear off the plane.

The two struck each other side-to-side, like two cars sideswiping each other, and so they were equally blameless.

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The Final Moments_

The Constellation fell through the cloud layer over a mile below and was gone; the aircraft, its crew and passengers ceased to exist, disintegrating on the shallow footing of Temple Butte, about a mile and a quarter south of the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, before the DC-7 even emerged from, or possibly before it even penetrated, the cloud layer. With its terribly shortened left wing, 35 instead of 55ft, the DC-7 probably entered a left-turning, descending spiral, although it would appear that Harms ultimately found a way to counteract this or make it gentler.

I believe that Harms’ plan was to crash-land on the river. It was his only chance, provided that no other breakdown was precipitated by the collision damage; but one was. While he was still headed toward the shoulder of Chuar Butte, which he still hoped to avoid, the DC-7’s elevators tore off, followed almost immediately by its horizontal stabilizers, leaving only the vertical tail fin and the rudder still attached. The plane quickly pitched, with its nose angling downward, descending rapidly in the process. It was this that sent it into the rocks; otherwise, it would have overflown the promontory or circled around it. United 718 just barely clipped the crest, crashing only 10 feet below the ridge.

All that was left of the planes and of the human beings aboard them were two large fields of unidentifiable, shredded, mangled objects under huge fires, each of which was an eerie, otherworldly inferno, untraceable to human actions, especially in that primordial setting.

While he still held hope of not losing his mortal battle, Harms had sent the mayday message, “Salt Lake…uh…718. We are going in.”

It had been so garbled that no one had heard it clearly at the time; a recording of it had to be played back later for it to be deciphered. In Pilots’ jargon, those final four words—“We are going in”— meant, “We are going to crash.” Harms radio had continued transmitting for a comparatively long while afterwards, during which the Flight Engineer could be heard in the background, but not the Captain. Some stories claimed it was the other way around, but the truth is that friends of the Flight Engineer later identified his voice as the second one on the recording.

Salt Lake City Air Route Traffic Control had received no current position report from either flight. Both reports had been due at 11:31, which the flights had forecast based on their position, how fast they were moving, and the time at which they had sent their previous position reports. At 11:31, or within a grace period of five minutes after, both flights should have reported—but they had collided with each other at about 11:29. In a tragic sense, Harms had reported; by pure coincidence, he had sent his mayday call at exactly 11:31.

Stuart Halsey was the duty watch supervisor at the Salt Lake facility. At about 11:35, he was alerted to the absence of the two planes on the airwaves and, at 11:40, he initiated an exceedingly thorough radio search for them, calling each on a great variety of frequencies. Of course, he received no reply. Among many other efforts, Halsey set up a joint telephone conference with United’s dispatch office at Los Angeles, TWA’s dispatch office at Los Angeles, and the US Air Force.

After some discussion, a conservative waiting period was agreed upon during which radio and military radar would continue trying to locate the planes. When the period expired, about an hour later, Halsey regretfully declared the oficial Missing Aircraft Alert, and the Air Force launched a full-scale search and rescue mission.

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The terrible aftermath_

A base was established at the Winslow, Arizona, airport in the belief that the missing planes would be in its vicinity. The huge effort lumbered off to a slow start. Most of the aircraft involved in the search were relatively slow helicopters and single-engine transports that had to travel nearly 400 miles from March AFB to get there. Most made it to Winslow by mid-afternoon or later. The search began in the Painted Desert, where the planes should next have reported and where their courses crossed.

Two private Pilots, flying together, came upon the disaster scene just before dusk on Saturday and relayed the location to authorities. The Air Force made the official identification of the two planes early Sunday morning. At about 10:00, two Air Force helicopters landed at the TWA site to search for survivors. When the men reached the wreckage area, they were unnerved by the scene. The stillness made it immediately obvious that no one was alive there. After a brief examination, the men and their machines left.

On Tuesday, July 3, the Coconino County Coroner pronounced all of the persons on board the TWA aircraft dead. The following day he circled the United site in a helicopter and, without even setting foot on the ground, which was deemed far too perilous, he took the professional and moral risk of pronouncing all of the United passengers and crew dead. Once the coroner had made this declaration, the Air Force officially withdrew; its function had been to search for and rescue survivors.

The US Army took over and, in little time, evacuated the human remains from the TWA site. The United site was an entirely different matter; it was high above the river on a shoulder formed of nearly vertical walls. It appeared impossible to reach, even by helicopter, for lack of a safe space to land. However, on Thursday, July 5, after climbers had been unsuccessful in finding a way to scale the promontory, a daring Army pilot decided to try landing on a treacherous spot near the crash area. It was the best option he had.

No one on board was prepared for his spontaneous decision, and none knew whether they would survive the attempt. But they made it down, and the helicopter didn’t tip over despite the slope of the terrain and the small boulders strewn about.

Once it had been proved that landing was possible near the United site, more trips were made both the same day and the next, ferrying a large group of searchers. Eight of these were from Switzerland, and had volunteered to fly to America to assist.

The DC-7 had crashed in a nearly vertical gully, which leveled out in a small flattish area over 150 feet below and then spilled over a sheer cliff. The terrain was extremely dangerous; at the slightest touch, debris and rocks could be dislodged and cascade down the gully, endangering anyone working below. According to the principal rescuer, L. David Lewis, who had been the first man dropped off at the site, “A good part of the difficulty of this operation was getting the bodies out without killing each other with falling debris.”

The men rigged-up a phenomenal arrangement of ropes and steel cables with pulleys, spanning the crest of the gully from one side to the other and hanging down to the nearly level apron 150ft below. The bodies were enclosed in bags and attached to the hanging cable, then lifted to the horizontal one at the top. From there, they were drawn on a rolling pulley to the side of the gulley where the helicopters landed.

By the end of Sunday, July 8, the men had recovered all of the remains they could find. On Tuesday, July 10, all recovery operations in the canyon officially ceased.

Meanwhile, on Monday, July 9, TWA had held an outdoor funeral at Flagstaff Citizen’s Cemetery for all of the unidentified TWA victims, and for seven of the 10 identified ones. Most stories claim that 67 caskets were buried there, but one of the identified victims was sent home for burial after the service, leaving 66 caskets to be interred at Flagstaff. It was such a powerful ceremony that it can only be characterized as supernatural and divine. Near the end, two buglers stationed on opposite sides of the huge plot played Taps in staggered meter, making each of them sound like the echo, and the foretelling, of the other. The past and the present merged as one reality. All who were there were stripped of their emotional defenses by the timeless, utterly pure salute, and all cried, even the most self-possessed, hardened military men.

On August 2, United held a memorial service at Grand Canyon National Park Cemetery for 29 unidentified and two identified victims. The identified two were a 5-year-old boy and a 59-year-old man. All 31 names were engraved on the large, standing monument. Only four coffins were buried there, because it took no more than those to enclose the unidentified remains; as many as 25 of the victims were missing altogether.

The effect that all of this had on the families cannot be measured. The grief and agony they endured was beyond all bounds. It started with the absolutely rending shock of finding out that their loved ones were unaccounted for. Then, they had to wait overnight for the first concrete word, suffering the most horrible night in their lives, experiencing much the same feelings as the torture and desperate devotion endured by parents whose children have been kidnapped. Then, on Sunday, July 1, came the dreaded word that both planes had crashed and that no survivors were expected. Many people could not take the strain and had to be kept sedated.

During the mass funeral in Flagstaff, only nine days after the accident, the last thin strands of hope or denial or avoidance dissolved for the TWA families, as they squarely faced the horrendous truth. Passing single file in front of the altar and of the many rows of caskets behind it, many family members collapsed and had to be carried on stretchers to the Red Cross tent that had been set up in anticipation nearby.

From the unfathomable and immediate ordeal of the families, there grew and spread an unending aftermath of repercussions. Each family tragedy profoundly and permanently affected the relatives in ways that evolved, but never diminished, with the passing of time.

The truth could be denied, suppressed, evaded, or even consciously forgotten, but it was passed on from generation to generation. In one form or another, all the persons who had been inescapably crushed by the tragedy imparted the repercussions on to everyone else in their lives.

To carry an old simile to a new level, it is much like the ripples that expand outwards on the surface of a body of water, from the place where a thrown stone has entered it. The pattern of concentric, circular waves steadily and gradually subsides, making the waves progressively less pronounced until, eventually, they seem to have vanished.

But how long does this really take, and have the ripples really subsided, or have they merely become inconspicuous?