Thursday, July 10, 2014

The crash that started the Federal Aviation Administration: Grand Canyon site designated historic landmark

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. – The National Park Service created a national landmark Tuesday to commemorate a 1956 collision between two airliners over the Grand Canyon, a disaster that helped lead to major changes in aviation safety and creation of what is now the Federal Aviation Administration.

The crash killed all 128 people aboard the two planes in the deadliest aviation disaster in U.S. history at the time. A nation already struggling with increasingly busy skies pressured Congress for major changes to improve air-traffic control and radar systems in response to the tragedy.

About 200 people gathered Tuesday for a ceremony overlooking the gorge where the wreckage was scattered over 1.5 square miles. Park rangers set up binoculars, so people could get a closer look at the buttes where the planes came crashing down. Some of the wreckage still remains in the canyon but is not visible from the overlook.

Mike Nelson, a nephew of one of the passengers, hoped the landmark would help bring new awareness about the crash to the tens of thousands of Grand Canyon visitors. He said most people he meets have never heard of the disaster.

“We are here to care about the victims again, to picture them walking the ground and to tell them how sorry we are,” he said.

The park also unveiled a small marker at the overlook that reads: “This tragic site represents a watershed moment in the modernization of America’s airways, leading to the establishment of the Federal Aviation Administration and national standards for aviation safety.”

Some of the victim’s remains never were identified, and most of those who were have been buried together en masse at cemeteries at the Grand Canyon and the northern Arizona city of Flagstaff.

The United Airlines Douglas DC-7 and a TWA Lockheed Super Constellation both left California on June 30, 1956, eventually cruising at the same altitude – 21,000 feet – after the TWA pilot requested to fly above the clouds. Shortly before 10 a.m., both pilots reported to different communications stations that they would be crossing over the canyon at the same position at 10:31 a.m.

The Salt Lake City controller who had that information was not obligated to tell either of the pilots they could be on a crash course. It was the sole responsibility of the pilots to avoid other aircraft in uncontrolled airspace.

The investigative agency, the Civil Aeronautics Board, determined simply the pilots did not see one another. The agency speculated the pilots were treating passengers to views of the Grand Canyon while flying through scattered cloud buildup.

Meanwhile, pressure mounted on Congress to move faster to make air travel safer. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Airways Modernization Act, and airliners were required to have flight data recorders. What’s now known as the FAA began operating late that year.

“It really did underscore for the general public, for the first time, that much of the air space in America was uncontrolled at that time,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board. “Once you got up to 20,000 feet and beyond the terminal radars, it was see and be seen.”

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