Grand Canyon Crash of '56 Led to FAA

Fifty years ago Friday, a midair collision over the Grand Canyon killed 128 people on two commercial planes. As Daniel Kraker of member station KNAU reports, the unprecedented air disaster prompted the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration and the modern air traffic control system.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand. Fifty years ago today, two airliners collided over the Grand Canyon. One of the airplanes was flying to Chicago, the other to Kansas City. All 128 people on board both planes were killed.

At the time it was the worst aviation disaster in history, and as Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports, it led to sweeping changes in the airline industry.

DANIEL KRAKER reporting:

Pilot Mike McComb(ph) is cleared for takeoff at the small airport just south of Grand Canyon National Park.

Unidentified Woman (Air Traffic Controller): Canyon Two, Canyon Tower. Proceed on course. Runway 3 cleared for takeoff.

KRAKER: He's taking a dozen tourists on a sightseeing jaunt over the canyon.

(Soundbite of airplane engine)

KRAKER: We soar over the south rim. Sheer sandstone cliffs plummet to the Colorado River, a silvery blue ribbon 10,000 feet below. While the rest of the passengers listen to a recording that explains the canyon's geologic history, McComb points out where the planes went down.

Mr. MIKE McCOMB (Pilot): Turning left here, it kind of gives you kind of an overview, off to the left, of the eastern half of the Grand Canyon. They figure these, how these two airliners collided at 21,000 feet, I think it was estimated to be like a 35-second freefall for both aircrafts, so it was quite a long time to be falling out of the sky.

KRAKER: You can still see pieces of the aircraft glinting in the morning sun, pools of aluminum melted into the rock. But he says there's been a lot of improvement in airline safety in the past half-century, in fact much of it the result of this crash.

McCOMB: A lot of the equipment we're using in this airplane today was, the technology was developed through this particular accident that occurred in '56. That includes the transponder that we're using, and also the traffic collision avoidance system, the TCAS system that's in this aircraft.

KRAKER: And the cockpit voice recorder, and the modern air traffic control system, and the bureaucracy which manages it all. Safely back on the ground in Flagstaff, Dan Driscoll(ph) says a disaster like this was inevitable. Driscoll is writing a book on the airliner collision. He's a paramedic. His father was a pilot. He explains that back at the time of the crash, pilots were operating on rules written in the late '20s. They could choose to follow air traffic controls, or go off on their own.

Mr. DAN DRISCOLL (Paramedic and Author): They had the option of going on visual flight rules and just going off the airways, pretty much on a straight line to where they wanted to go, which most airliners did to save time and fuel and everything else, and at that point it was just their responsibility to see and be seen.

KRAKER: By the late '50s, Driscoll says those rules were antiquated. Planes were faster, and there were a lot more of them in the post-war years.

Mr. DRISCOLL: In the Reader's Digest, for example, that was on sale the day of the crash, there was an article in there about traffic jam in the sky, talking about how there were so many airplanes and so many near misses, many per day, that something needed to be done.

KRAKER: There were Presidential commissions, Congressional committees, a five-year plan to expand radar coverage, nothing that was going to happen fast. The crash changed all that.

Mr. BILL WALDOCK(ph) (Safety Science Instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University): What this accident did was it gave them a tremendous spur.

KRAKER: Bill Waldock is a safety science instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

WALDOCK: It caused them to realize that maybe the old Civil Aeronautics Administration was not doing what it was really intended to do, which is maintain the safety of aviation, and partly as a result of this accident, the passage of the Federal Aviation Act led to the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration.

KRAKER: The new FAA, Waldock says, was given more autonomy and more funding. It also passed important new regulations. Pilots now fly where air traffic controllers tell them to fly. Dan Driscoll says the changes have relegated crashes like what occurred 50 years ago to the history books.

Mr. DRISCOLL: I can't imagine a scenario where two airliners would be out going cross-country and run into each other anymore. It would just take such an amazing string of system failures for that to happen now. I don't think a crash exactly like this could happen again.

(Soundbite of desert sounds)

Mr. DRISCOLL: I've kind of gotten in the habit of coming out here every so often.

KRAKER: Driscoll is at the mass gravesite in Flagstaff where 66 of the victims are buried.

(Soundbite of desert sounds)

Mr. DRISCOLL: This is really kind of what the whole thing's about, is all of these people and all the people that were on the United plane.

KRAKER: He hopes it won't take another tragedy to spur change in the industry. Air safety experts are increasingly concerned about a possible mid-air near a major airport. They're pushing for a new generation of air traffic control technology to help manage the congestion around terminals. This time, hopefully, before a major crash occurs.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.

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