Midair Collisions at Grand Canyon and New York City (1956, 1960)

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 US Airways was justifiably proud of it, though it was soon to be superseded by the Boeing 707 and other jet airliners.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.”


UA Flight 826 Collides with TWA Flight 266
at New York City

This midair collision at New York City was very different from the one at the Grand Canyon in that both aircraft were under direct air traffic control and flying under instrument flight rules. It was the first time information from an airliner’s flight data recorder featured significantly in an air crash investigation.

The first aircraft involved was a United Airlines DC-8 four-engine jetliner, with seventy-seven passengers and a crew of seven, that had departed Chicago O’Hare Airport and was bound for New York’s Idlewild Airport, now called JFK.

The second aircraft, which had thirty-nine passengers and five crew, was a slower Trans World Airlines piston-engine Lockheed Super Constellation that had come from Dayton, with a stopover at Port Columbus, and was bound for New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Though air traffic control was not informed, the pilot of the DC-8 had told United Airlines that one of its VOR receivers was not working.

The aircraft approached New York at the same time as the DC-8, at 10:25, allowed to take a shortcut to a point called Preston, where it was to hold, circling at five thousand feet, and at no more than 210 knots. Preston was not a beacon but the point where radials from beacons and an airway intersected.

For one reason or another—United Airlines later claimed one of those beacons was not working properly—the DC-8 overshot Preston, and at a higher speed than it should have been traveling, going eleven miles beyond it.

The TWA Constellation coming in to land at Idlewild was allowed to turn right slightly early to intersect the line leading to the runway, at which point it would turn left to line up with it. Though the TWA pilots had been warned of jet traffic to the right, no one imagined it would be where it was.

The engine of the DC-10 struck the fuselage of the Constellation, which broke up. Though parts were found far away, most fell onto the relatively open ground of Miller Army Airfield below. All forty-four people on board died, but no one on the ground was killed.

Having lost an engine and a great part of a wing, the DC-8 flew on, with some observers believing the pilots were trying to land, though the aircraft was doubtless uncontrollable. It crashed on the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, setting fire to houses and buildings, immediately killing all but one of the 128 occupants but, considering it is such a densely populated area, luckily only six people on the ground.

Pictures of the carnage in the streets were shown all around the world, with the story given extra legs by the fact that an eleven-year-old boy was miraculously thrown from the fuselage onto a bank of snow, which broke his fall. Residents rolled him in the snow to cool him and extinguish his smoldering clothes and found he could talk. He was a wonderful boy in all respects. A miracle amidst disaster. Sadly, he died of pneumonia the following day because his lungs had been seared by burning jet fuel.