On the morning of June 30, 1956, a TWA Super Constellation L-1049 and a United Airlines DC-7 took off from Los Angeles International Airport. The two airplanes flew more or less in the same direction but eventually separated, following their own flight paths. TWA was en route to Kansas City, Missouri, while the United Airlines flight was destined for Chicago. When they crossed the eastern portion of the Grand Canyon, the planes diverted from their path, and at 21,000 feet, the two planes collided in midair, resulting in the most tragic American commercial-airline crash of its time. The TWA plane fell out of the sky and impacted the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon about a mile from where the United flight impacted the inner Canyon. There were no survivors among the 128 people aboard the two planes. Considered the “impossible accident,” the 1956 Grand Canyon crash brought about a much-needed shift in aviation regulations and technology.
Now, 58 years later, Grand Canyon National Park has succeeded in designating the accident site a National Historic Landmark. We spoke with Ian Hough, an archaeologist and the park’s Vanishing Treasures Program manager, to explain the details of the accident and its impact on aviation, as well as the site’s designation.
Q: What is speculated to have caused this accident?
A: They did an investigation of the accident, and in 1957 they released a report. In the report it stated that the two planes collided simply because the two pilots failed to see each other in time before the collision. They could only speculate why the two pilots didn’t see each other. Some of the reasons that were listed in that report include that perhaps the two flights may have diverted over the Grand Canyon to give their passengers a better view. There was very little visibility out of the cockpit of both of those planes, and so their field of view was very small. They were also occupied with flying the aircraft and interacting with the passengers of both flights. They speculated that many things contributed to the pilots not being able to see each other in time.
Q: What was the significance of the incident at the time that it happened?
A: Prior to the investigation and the political response to the accident, the very first response was that it was the “impossible accident.” Everybody expected that something like this could happen around major metropolitan airports where the airways were very busy. No one expected two modern aircraft to collide in uncongested airspace in an area that has wide-open skies and views. But somehow the two planes were at the same place at the same time, and at the wrong place at the wrong time. So that was the initial significance — that nothing like this had ever happened, and that it was a failure of modern aviation technology. At the time, it was the worst airline disaster. There were certainly accidents prior to 1956, but nothing on the scale of what happened in June 1956. These were two ultra modern, large, transcontinental aircraft with 128 people aboard both planes. It was unprecedented in that regard.
Q: What was the political response to the accident?
A: Following the accident and after the investigation, it became significant because of the changes that the country went through in terms of putting attention to the antiquated airline safety, both the federal regulation of airline safety and the technologies in use at the time. In 1958, two years after the accident, the Federal Aviation Agency, what later became the Federal Aviation Administration, was created by executive order. That was a major reorganizing of the federal government in a direct response to this accident and several others that happened following 1956. So, up until that point, the problem was known and people were working on it, but it wasn’t happening fast enough and or getting enough attention. This accident was the watershed that really made that happen.
They also deployed nationwide radar and hired air-traffic controllers to run that radar technology across the country. Prior to 1956, the budget for the agency that ran aviation safety had been cut. After June 1956, they had hundred of millions of dollars being poured into this bureau of the federal government. The Federal Aviation Agency enacted rules that addressed the problem of pilots being able to fly under visual flight rules. Funds also started to be dedicated to aviation safety technologies, including collision-avoidance systems and black-box technology, what we know as flight-data recorders and cockpit voice recorders. Its impact on the federal government and the public was huge. It wasn’t just a local story of the Grand Canyon or Arizona. It was a national story.
Q: What led Grand Canyon National Park to pursue National Historic Landmark status?
A: In 2006, for the 50th anniversary of the accident, the Grand Canyon Association and the Grand Canyon Historical Society partnered with Grand Canyon National Park to host a lecture series in commemoration of the anniversary. As cultural-resource managers, we use that 50-year mark as a mark when resources can be considered as archaeological sites. In 2006, those two impact sites met the 50-year rule and the park considered recording and documenting both locations as a historic archeological site. We did that primarily to document what was there, the condition it was in and the condition that the wreckage was still in. It also affords the park some levels of protection, so if you have a resource that is a documented registered archeological site, then there are several federal laws that the park can use to help protect it. The National Historical Preservation Act of 1966, the Antiquities Act of 1906, and the National Park Service’s code for federal regulations help us preserve and protect our archeological sites.
Q: Were there any obstacles to achieving the designation?
A: When you record an archaeological site, one of the things you do is evaluate it for its eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. In that evaluation, if you find that the particular site you are working on has not just local or state significance, but it has national significance, then you evaluate it for the next higher level of recognition. And for this site, the next level was for National Historic Landmark. We worked with the landmark’s program in Washington, D.C., to pre-evaluate if it would be eligible. They gave it 100 percent support and helped us write the National Historic Landmark nomination. We partnered with Northern Arizona University to help us do the historical research and documentation that is required for the nomination. Once that was completed, then the landmarks program reviewed it and had historians and scholars do a peer review on the nomination, looking at the incident within the bigger picture of U.S. history.
After the National Park System and advisory board reviewed and agreed with our nomination, they made one particular recommendation, which was to have Grand Canyon National Park notify any family members whose loved ones may have been on the TWA or the United Airlines planes before the nomination would be signed by the secretary of the interior. It was a very difficult thing to do, because we didn’t have the contact information for any of the family members that may have lived through that time. We partnered with the Grand Canyon Historical Society to do genealogy research and find as many relatives as we could and send them a notification, which simply stated that the park intended to nominate these crash sites as a National Historic Landmark, and we provided them with information if they wanted to contact someone in the park. We got an overwhelming response after sending almost 50 letters of notification, which took 15 months of research to find those people. The response was mainly very supportive of our efforts. On April 23 of this year, it was officially signed by the secretary of the interior, designating it National Historic Landmark status. It was a huge effort by many different people and partners to make this happen.
Q: What does the designation mean to Grand Canyon National Park?
A: The National Historic Landmark designation allows the park to do three things. First, it allows the park to remember those people who lost their lives. It was the sheer tragedy, and the number of people who lost their lives, that was a very compelling reason for the changes that we saw and the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration. We need to remember that and always make the link between a national event and real people. Second, the national landmark designation allows us to preserve and protect most of the physical remains of the crash and the history and stories that go along with it. Preservation and protection are a major part of the designation. And finally, it allows the park to educate the public about the accident and its importance.
Q: What are the events planned to commemorate the 1956 accident?
A: [Today, the 58th anniversary of the accident], Grand Canyon National Park is hosting a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial of both the TWA flight, which is in the Flagstaff Citizen Cemetery, and the United Airlines flight, which is in the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery. There will be remarks by national park representatives and also a blessing and color-guard performance. We have invited the family members to that, and it is our hope that they will be there for the anniversary and perhaps for the first time visit the memorials for the passengers on the two planes. Later that day, we will be having a reception for the family members in the park to acknowledge their contributions and the remembrance for the passengers on the two flights.
Also, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Desert View Amphitheater, near the eastern entrance to the Grand Canyon on the South Rim, we will have ranger talks and interpretive programs. The Desert View area is where we will be installing the National Historic Landmark plaque. It will be installed for the public who wish to visit to learn and understand what happened, but it is also for the family members who want to come back on their own and have a place to go to remember and reflect on the accident.
On Tuesday, July 8, at 10 a.m., there will be the National Historic Landmark dedication event, and that’s the official unveiling of the plaque with speeches and remarks by agency representatives.
To learn more about these events, visit http://www.nps.gov/grca/parknews/1956-nhl-designation.htm.