It was Saturday June 30th, 1956. Two aircraft were getting ready to depart from Los Angeles International Airport.
TWA flight 2
Trans World Airlines flight 2 departed at 09:01, it was slightly delayed by a maintenance issue that was fixed. They were 31 minutes late. The Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation ‘Star of the Seine’ was bound for Kansas City. There were 64 passengers onboard, including 11 off-duty TWA employees on staff tickets.
Captain Jack Candy was flying that day with first officer James Ritner and flight engineer Forrest Breyfogle. Another flight engineer, Harry Allen sat on the flight deck but had no duties. The flight attendants were Tracine Armbruster and Beth Davies.
Tracine was 30 years old and had a happy smile and warm eyes. She had been flying for six years. Beth was 25 and had flown with TWA for just under three years since graduating college with her bachelor’s degree.
She was planning to leave the airline after the summer to continue her studies. Beth had won a scholarship for her master’s degree in education. She was originally from New York and shared an apartment with another flight attendant Janice, who was also onboard that day as a passenger. All of the crew were heading home to Kansas City.
Tracine and Beth verified that their doors were locked shut, did their safety checks, and sat next to each other on their jump seats at the rear of the aircraft. It would be a four-and-a-half-hour flight. Once the seatbelt sign was off, some passengers stood up or lit cigarettes.
The passengers were happy and enjoying their flight and flying was only accessible to the privileged few. Tracine and Beth served a customary mid-morning snack of cookies or sweet rolls, with coffee and tea or water.
On the flight deck
The flight crew were flying by Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and ‘see and be seen” and climbed to 19,000 feet in controlled airspace. The captain asked for permission to climb to 21,000 feet to avoid bad weather, but the request was refused due to another aircraft being in the area at that altitude.
The captain requested this time for ‘1,000 on top,’ meaning that they could climb 1,000 feet above the clouds. This was okayed. The captain knew the route well as he’d flown it 177 times. The aircraft turned right into uncontrolled airspace near Daggett, California, and checked in with the radio operators, which was to be the last time.
United Airlines flight 718
United Airlines flight 718 left Los Angeles at 09:04, just three minutes later than the TWA flight. The Douglas DC-7 named ‘Mainliner Vancouver’ was headed to Chicago with 53 passengers on board. The captain was Robert Shirley, the first officer was Robert Harms, and the flight engineer was Girardo Fiore.
In the cabin were flight attendants Nancy Kemnitz, who was 24, and Margaret Shoudt, who was 26. Nancy lived in Chicago and had been a cheerleader at high school. She’d been flying for just over two years with United Airlines.
Margaret was also from Chicago but had family in Philadelphia. It should have been her last trip for a while, as she’d been on reserve duty. She was known to be warm and friendly and had flown just under two years.
On the DC-7 Nancy and Margaret did their safety checks before taking their seats. One sat at the jump seat at the front of the aircraft. The other sat in the lounge area at the rear of the aircraft. The flight had been uneventful, and the passengers seemed happy. Nancy and Margaret served refreshments of coffee and tea. They would have to prepare an excellent lunch in first class later.
On the flight deck
The DC-7 climbed to 21,000 feet in controlled airspace under IFR and checked in with the radio operators close to Palm Springs, California. The aircraft made a left turn near a beacon at Needles into uncontrolled airspace.
The two aircraft were now at the same speed and altitude, and both captains had estimated that they would cross the ‘Painted Desert’ line at 10:31. The aircraft were on different headings and maneuvering around the clouds. The constellation had to stay above the clouds. It is thought that they crossed the same cloud on opposite sides.
What happened next?
At 10:30, the two aircraft collided. It is thought that the DC-7 had spotted the Constellation and tried to take evasive action. It banked right and was pitched down. The DC-7’s left wing clipped the top of the Constellation’s vertical stabilizer and struck the fuselage at the stabilizer’s base, breaking the tail assembly away.
The propeller of the DC-7 number one engine cut gashes into the fuselage. This would have caused an explosive decompression.
The Constellation would have been uncontrollable and plunged into the Grand Canyon at a speed of 700 feet per second. It slammed into a ravine and disintegrated, and there was an intense fire. The tail assembly was found close by. The DC-7s left wing was damaged by the impact and could no longer achieve lift, and the engine was damaged. The aircraft spiraled to the left, could not be recovered and crashed into the rock face and disintegrated.
At 11:51, both aircraft were announced as missing, and search and rescue started their difficult mission. In total, 128 lives were lost that day. The two accident sites were less than a mile apart.
The Constellation was upside down when it hit the ground and now just fragments were left. The DC-7 had also suffered a similar fate – just fragments. Grand Canyon Airlines, an air taxi company, saw some debris and reported it to the authorities.
Helicopters were sent in to search and collect body parts and fragments of the two aircraft. However, it was difficult because of the rugged terrain and remoteness. Mountaineers from the Swiss Air Reserve were brought in to continue the search. No bodies were found intact.
From the TWA flight, only three of the 70 passengers and crew could be identified. Half of the 58 onboard the United Airlines flight would be returned to their families.
Cause and effect
The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) determined that the probable cause was that the pilots did not see each other in time to avoid the collision. Intervening clouds hindered visibility. It is thought that the pilots could have been distracted, too, by trying to offer a bird’s eye view of this natural wonder to the passengers.
There was insufficient air traffic advisory and a lack of ATC. The accident was a major factor in the creation of the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), and major changes were made in the control of air traffic.
“Salt Lake, ah, 718… We are going in…” – Robert, first officer, flight 718 (last transmission at 10:31), as per CAB accident report.
What are your thoughts about this tragedy? Let us know what you think in the comment section.
Sources: CAB accident report; Lost Flights Archive; ‘We Are Going In: The Story Of The Grand Canyon Disaster by Mike Nelson