Around 11:30 am on June 30, 1956, two TWA Super Constellation and United DC-7 planes, carrying 128 people, suddenly crashed at an altitude of 6,400 over the Grand Canyon area.
The air crash ripped off the rear of the Constellation and severed most of the DC-7’s left wing. The Constellation plunged almost vertically and plunged into Temple Butte, a fairly flat area more than 90 meters from the Colorado River. The United DC-7 staggered nearly 2 km northward before plunging to the top of Chuar Butte and falling into the ravine.
The crash of these two passenger jets changed the US aviation industry in a way that is still perceived today. Before the Grand Canyon crashes, aerial crashes were quite common. The 1956 Aviation Week article found that 127 air crashes occurred in the US between 1948 and 1955, involving 30 commercial airlines. Compared to today, the biggest US aviation crash was more than a decade ago.
However, the relatively low speed of the aircraft at that time resulted in a relatively low number of deaths in the accident, only 226 people were killed in 127 cases. Many air traffic controllers in 1955 were concerned that the high speeds of new aircraft could lead to more deaths, and the Grand Canyon crash proved what they feared most was correct. It was considered the most catastrophic US air crash to date and has completely changed the US’s flight safety measures.
An illustration of the collision of the TWA Super Constellation and the United DC-7 in June 1956. Photo: LostFlights Archive.
After both planes lost radio signals, the air traffic controllers and ground staff of the two airlines launched a search. Just before sunset, after hearing the news on the radio about the missing plane, Palen Hudgin, a sightseeing flight pilot with his brother, returned to the place where they had seen smoke earlier that same day. They seemed to have identified the Constellation’s tail and, upon landing, called TWA to announce the discovery.
Earlier that afternoon, Lieutenant Miles Burd, the US Air Force pilot was mowing the lawn at home when he received a call to call Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Burd and another pilot and technical staff boarded a north-facing H-19 helicopter, flying with the second H-19 piloted by Lieutenant Daryl Strong. They landed in the parking lot of a hotel near the Little Colorado River.
The next morning, Burd and Strong boarded an H-19, while Captain Jim Womack and Lieutenant Phil Prince were in control of the other. At the same time, the crew of the SA-16 Albatross from Hamilton Air Base in California was present and discovered the alleged body of United, but was unable to land to confirm it. Burd and Strong flew back and forth over the canyon and was about to divert to Grand Canyon airport to refuel when Burd spotted a light on top of Chuar Butte. Unable to find a favorable position to land, Burd tried to approach and touch the wheel on the ground so that the technical staff tried to reach for the debris.
They returned and landed in Grand Canyon village. Burd told reporters waiting for them “we have found the debris to verify”.
The reporters frantically surrounded the pilots even as they entered the bathroom.
Recovery of the remains of the civilian plane crash was not the mission of the air force, so the pilots returned to Luke’s base on Monday morning. But the accident sites are not accessible by road or too far to walk there, and recovery of debris and the victim’s body has to depend on helicopters. The US Army immediately assumed this task. Their plane had arrived at Grand Canyon airport in the middle of Sunday morning and the search began.
Early on the morning of July 2, Captain Walter Spriggs and Sheriff Howard Proctor boarded the H-21 helicopter with half a ton of equipment and 5 searchers. They let the three searchers descend to the southeastern part of the canyon to ease the payload. The Spriggs and many US Army pilots have flown over many mountainous terrains in South Korea, but have never come across terrain as dangerous as the Grand Canyon. However, the pilots quickly arranged to land on a small mountain peak more than 50 meters from the site of the TWA crash. After removing all the equipment, they returned to the southeast area to pick up the remaining group of people.
The search team witnessed the horrifying scene: a burned body, missing a limb, a copper attached to a woman’s wedding ring. On the first day, the body was filled in five large bags.