High Desert Hangar Stories | Major catastrophe in the air leads to loss of life

I am not one to do book reviews, but on a recent trip, a book on display caught my attention. Its subject matter was an event that, at the time, was called the most terrible airline catastrophe ever. Having worked at the Valle Airport near the Grand Canyon off and on over the years I was very aware of the June 30, 1956, event, when a TWA aircraft and a United Airlines aircraft came together over the Grand Canyon, resulting in the violent crash of both aircraft into the famous tourist attraction.

We are Going in by Mike Nelson (Courtesy photograph)

All the souls on board were lost as the two aircraft came to rest at two different locations. Nothing strikes fear in the heart of aviation enthusiasts then the thought of the word “midair,” for most of the time it results in a tragic loss of life be it one person or many.

In this case, the story of two airliners full of travelers really pulls at one’s heart especially when you remember the lost souls that were just going about their lives on a summer day traveling to all different types of jobs and activities, not knowing that day would come to such a dramatic end.

Wanting to know more about that event had me purchasing We Are Going In, by Mike Nelson. Nelson also has a personal connection, as one of the passengers was his uncle.

The story, as he tells it, covers a lot of ground about the investigation and the “whys” of the crash and how it played out. Looking back at 1956, he pointed out how, back then air travel was not as well-regimented as it is today and that aircrews did not have many of the advancements that modern day aircraft do to prevent such events.

Even one aspect of the story really shows how far we have come when, after the crashes, it was the fact that the first clue that something was wrong was that the airplanes never arrived at the gates, and landline telephones were used to find the answers.

What really makes this book different, and a standout, is how Nelson goes about dealing with the 128 people who lost their lives that day. The sad fact is of all the 128 passengers and crew members, only three sets of remains were ever identified.

The rest were buried in a common grave, each airliner having its own monument and gravesite remembering the lost.

The mass grave for the victims of United Airlines Flight 718 in Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery. The cemetery is located near the South Rim. (Courtesy photograph)

Nelson spends a lot of this book telling stories of those individuals and telling the stories of their lives — from the kids heading out on vacation, to corporate leaders making business trips. Today, most of the remains of the two aircraft — a Lockheed Constellation and a Douglas DC-7 — have been removed from the canyon as the two airlines were asked back in 1973 to clean up their respective aircraft.

Much of the wreckage was removed, but still today artifacts of that day remain. The memories of those lost have now faded over time, and it was nice to see those lives revisited and to tell their story that at the time, was overshadowed by a national tragedy — a tragedy that made people rethink their travel plans and created an uptick in rail travel for a short period of time.

I highly recommend this book as it does its job very well because it’s entertaining — if that can be said about a subject that is so horrific — and it’s done in a manner that keeps one flipping the pages.

But more importantly it brings back the lives of those lost in time, that now share a common grave, never realizing when they boarded their respective flights that it would be for eternity with their fellow passengers.

Peace my friends, and until next time, Bob out …

The victims of TWA Flight 2 are in at Citizens Cemetery in Flagstaff, Ariz. (Courtesy photograph)
An artist sketch of the tragic event … (Courtesy photograph)
The National Historic Landmark in the Grand Canyon. (Courtesy photograph)

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