These midair collisions made the nation realize the air traffic control system was deficient and supervision of civil aviation in the US needed rethinking.
TWA Flight 2/UA Flight 718, June 30, 1956
UA Flight 826/TWA Flight 266, December 16, 1960
TWA Flight 2 Collides with UA Flight 718
at Grand Canyon
On June 30, 1956, two aircraft took off at around nine o’clock in the morning from adjacent runways at Los Angeles International Airport. The first was Transworld Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation Flight 2 bound for Kansas City, with sixty-four passengers and six crew. The second, only three minutes later, was United Airlines Douglas DC 7 Flight 718 bound for Chicago, with fifty-three passengers and five crew.
The DC-7 was the first airliner able to fly almost one hundred passengers across the US from coast to coast nonstop. US Airways was justifiably proud of it, though it was soon to be superseded by the Boeing 707 and other jet airliners. Its powerful engines were fault prone, and ultimately more DC-6s than DC-7s remained in long-term service.
Each aircraft climbed out of Los Angeles along a different controlled airway, with the one taken by the TWA Constellation taking it northeast to a waypoint at Daggett, roughly in line with its eventual route. That followed by the DC-7 took it southwest to one at Palm Springs, more off its eventual route. After they had adjusted course at these waypoints, it so happened that, due to the DC-7’s 18 knot (20 mph) higher airspeed, the aircraft would cross paths simultaneously an hour after takeoff in an area just before the so-called Painted Desert line. This should not have presented a problem, with the Constellation flying at nineteen thousand feet and the DC-7 at twenty-one thousand feet.
The term “Painted Desert line” is somewhat confusing, as it suggests a line in the desert. In fact, it was the name given by air traffic control to a virtual line about two hundred miles long running north-northwest between the VOR radio beacons at Winslow, Arizona, and Bryce Canyon, Utah. Passing to the east of the Grand Canyon, it traversed an area of beautiful rock formations in striated colors that was called the “Painted Desert” (El Desierto Pintado) by an expedition under Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1540, hence the name.
In 1956, air traffic control in the US was very primitive and in many areas virtually nonexistent. After all, the country was enormous, and airliners were so few in number that apart from areas where they would be funneled (bunch up), there was plenty of room for them to avoid each other when flying under visual flight rules, following the principle of “see and be seen.”