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Earth Notes

Looking Back at the Canyon Crash

The Grand Canyon

By Daniel Kraker

Tusayan, AZ – 50 years ago today, two airliners crashed over the Grand Canyon. One of the airplanes was flying to Chicago, the other to Kansas City --- All 128 people on board the planes were killed. At the time it was the worst commercial aviation disaster in history. And as Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports, it still has an impact on local pilots.

SFX1: sneak up background intercom ambi under track

Mike McComb is cleared for take-off at the small airport just south of Grand Canyon National Park.

SFX2: Canyon 2, canyon tower, proceed on course, runway, cleared for take off (duck down under track and x-fade with take off sound)

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

SFX3: post sound of take off here for a second or two, duck down and x-fade with intercom ambi

We soar over the South Rim. The Colorado River shimmers like a silvery blue ribbon ten thousand feet below. (SFX1: fade up background intercom ambi under track and actuality) The passengers listen to a recording that explains the canyon's geologic history. Meanwhile McComb points out where the planes went down.

AX1: Turning left here, gives you an overview off to the left of the eastern half of the grand canyon when you figure how these two airliners collided at 21,000 feet, I think it was estimated to be like a 35 second freefall for both aircraft, so it was quite a long time to be falling out of the sky (duck intercom ambi down again and under next track)

You can still see pieces of the aircraft glinting in the morning sun, pools of aluminum melted into the rock. But McComb 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.

AX2: A lot of the equipment that we're using in this airplane today, was developed through this particular accident that includes the transponder that we're using, also the T-CAS system, traffic collision avoidance system (again duck intercom ambi down here, then out below)

And the cockpit voice recorder And the modern air traffic control system, and the bureaucracy which manages it all. (fade out intercom ambi) Back on the ground in Flagstaff, writer Dan Driskill says a disaster like this was inevitable. Driskill is working on a book on the airliner collision. He's a paramedic; his father was a pilot. At the time of the crash, he says, pilots were operating on rules written in the late 20s. They could choose to follow air traffic controls, or go off on their own.

AX3: They had the option of going on Visual Flight Rules, and just going off the airwaves, pretty much on a straight line to wherever 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. (24)

By the late 50s, Driskill says those rules were antiquated. Planes were faster. And there were a lot more of them in the postwar years.

AX4: In the Reader's Digest that was on sale the day of the crash, there was an article in there about a 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 (13)

There were presidential commissions, Congressional committees, a five-year plan to expand radar coverage. Nothing that was going to happen fast. (start sneaking up ambi here) The crash changed all that.

AX5: What this accident did was it gave them a tremendous spur. (keep background ambi under track)

Bill Waldock is a safety science instructor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.

AX6: It caused them to realize that maybe the old Civil Aeronautics Division was not doing what it was really intended to do, which was to maintain the safety of aviation. Partly as a result of this accident, the passage of the federal aviation act led to the creation of the federal aviation administration (20)

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. (fade out background ambi from Waldock scene) Dan Driskill says the changes have relegated crashes, like what occurred fifty years ago, to the history books.

AX7: 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, I don't think a crash like this could happen again. (15)

SFX4: Bring up ambi here from gravesite for a second or two as a transition, birds chirping, etc., then duck down and hold under rest of piece.

AX8: I've kind of gotten in the habit of coming out here every so often.

Driskill crouches over a plaque at a mass gravesite in Flagstaff. 66 of the victims are buried here. Entire families died in the crash. Parents and small children. One passenger even delayed his flight a day so he could film the canyon. Driskill says he likely had his camera pressed to the glass when the planes collided.

AX9: This is really what the whole thing's about, all of these people, and the people that were on the United plane. It's a pretty moving place.

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 Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker at the Grand Canyon.