Arizona November 05, 2017
One Of The Worst Disasters In U.S. History Happened Right Here In Arizona
Flying has become such a routine method of travel that sometimes it can be difficult to remember that the fairly new technology was once incredibly risky. When traveling by air became more common in the 1950s, crashes, near misses, and fatalities occurred several times per year but little was done to better regulate the skies. It wasn’t until several large commercial airline crashes that resulted in mass deaths that changes were made. One of those incidents happened right here in Arizona.
If you’ve flown through Arizona, chances are you probably got a chance to see the Grand Canyon from above. Vast and rugged, it’s a picture perfect opportunity for anyone with a window seat. In 1956, however, it was the site of one of the largest commercial airline crashes in U.S. history.
On June 30, 1956, two late morning flights for Trans World and United Airlines departed Los Angeles minutes after each other, one bound for Kansas City and the other Chicago. It was over the Grand Canyon that trouble occurred when a combination of weather and impractical flight rules resulted in a collision.
In a time when flight rules were lax and the general guideline for pilots was to "see and be seen," the planes
eventually collided at approximately 10:31am over the Grand Canyon when both were flying in the same direction at the same altitude.
All 128 passengers and crew were killed instantly in the collision. However, the airlines weren’t aware of the collision until at least half an hour later when no word was heard from either planes and park rangers assumed the resulting fires near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers from the crashes were brush fires.
When the wreckages were finally discovered and investigations began, it had been days since the crash occurred. If you’ve ever visited the Grand Canyon—or, flown over it—you probably have an idea just how vast and isolated the landscape is. This made access to the crash sites for the investigation and claiming the bodies far more difficult.
At the time, it was the largest airline crash in U.S. history until a 1960 mid-air collision happened over New York. It eventually led to the creation of the Federal Aviation Agency (later renamed to the Federal Aviation Administration), stricter rules for navigating airspace, and improved air traffic control.
While most of the wreckage and all the bodies were claimed (though not all identified), pieces of the airplanes still sit in the area. The exact area has not been publicly disclosed but has been listed as a National Historic Landmark. Monuments dedicated to the victims can be found at the Grand Canyon’s Pioneer Cemetery and the Citizen’s Cemetery in Flagstaff.
You can read about another tragedy that struck Arizona and impacted the travel industry in
A Heartbreaking Tragedy Struck Arizona In 1997…And It Will Never Be Forgotten.