Grand Canyon Plane Crash Site Is Now A National Landmark

The National Park Service has designated the site of a devastating 1956 plane crash as a National Historic Landmark. On June 30th of that year, a Trans World Airlines (TWA) Lockheed Super Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 collided at 21,000 feet over the Grand Canyon. It was the deadliest civilian air crash to date.

Many crash sites have memorials to honor the crew and passengers, but this particular crash provided valuable lessons that changed the way air travel is done in America. It led to the establishment of the Federal Aviation Administration. At the time, radar hadn't been implemented for commercial air traffic, and Air Traffic Control was primarily responsible only for the airspace around airports, clearing planes to arrive and depart. ATC received information relayed to them by the airlines' dispatch departments as pilots reported their position throughout the flight. Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS), nationwide radar and flight data recorders were also implemented as a result of this specific crash.

Grand Canyon Plane Crash Site Is Now A National Landmark

TWA Super Constellation horizontal stabilizer at the base of the Grand Canyon [National Parks Service]

The planes had departed from Los Angeles International only three minutes apart and were headed to destinations in the U.S. Midwest. The United flight was bound for Chicago Midway, and the TWA flight was going to Kansas City. Their courses took them past the same way points on their journey East. TWA flight 2 encountered some turbulence, and requested to change altitude to 21,000 feet. They received clearance but were warned to be on the lookout for the United flight which was also at that altitude in the vicinity. As the TWA plane ascended, it struck the left wing of the United DC-7, severing the tail of the TWA plane and part of the DC-7's wing. All 128 people on the two flights were killed.

The NPS is not disclosing the specific location, but it is known that the United plane wreckage landed on the side of a cliff near Chuar Butte, while the TWA wreckage fell to the base of the Canyon near Temple Butte. Hikers have occasionally happened upon the site, but due to its new status, the public will be forbidden from visiting it now.

Because of its remote location, much of the debris remains in the Canyon, in spite of efforts to recover artifacts from the incident in the 1970s. The Park Service has the new responsibility of maintaining the site as-is. The Historic Landmark status is unique, because the designation for this site is the first in which the event occurred in the air.

Top image: TWA Super Constellation by Robert Hufstutter / United DC-7 by Bill Larkins. Both images are from Flickr with Creative Commons licenses for commercial use.

Sources: LostFlights, The Atlantic