Flight Two - A Tragedy Revisited
Posted - September 19, 2003

by Jerry Cosley

It was mid-August in 1976, and we were standing on the floor of the Grand Canyon, two miles downstream from the junction of the Big Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers and about 100 yards in from the west bank. At our feet, there wasn’t a helluva lot left of TWA Flight 2, just clumps of bent, shredded and twisted aluminum, but nothing really recognizable of what once had been a magnificent flying machine -- the Lockheed Super Constellation.

We all felt sadness, considering the tragedy of what had happened at this spot 20 years earlier. Our Park Ranger/pilot noticed me staring up at the west rim of the canyon, and asked, "Do you know what that is?" I had been gaping at what appeared to be sunlight reflecting off metal just below the rim, some 1,000 feet up and perhaps a mile or so away. "No," I replied and he said, "That’s all that’s left of United 718 … we’ll go by there on the way out for a closer look."

On June 30, 1956, 128 people had died there in the grandeur of this American landmark, when TWA’s Flight 2, bound from LAX to MKC, and United Flight 718, a DC-7 also out of L.A. and headed for MDW, collided overhead at 21,000 feet. Both stricken aircraft plummeted into the canyon, and following the investigative recovery of human remains and major aircraft structures, considerable amounts of metal had been left behind at the two crash sites.

The United location was almost totally inaccessible, and an occasional eyesore only when the angle of the sun was just right to glint off thousands of small metal fragments scattered just below the canyon rim. To reach these skimpy remnants, one had to rappel over the edge of the canyon, which was not permitted by the Park Service, and few tourists would have wanted to try in any event.

But the TWA wreckage was too accessible. Each year, thousands of river rafters would tie up at the bank and stomp through the grass and wild flowers to pick at the metal scraps looking for souvenirs. To help preserve the wilderness, the Park Service wanted the wreckage removed from both sites as soon as possible, and the ranger had flown me, and a California roughneck named Rudy Schlesinger to the site in a government helicopter to survey the job.

It was a very eerie sensation to lift away from the TWA site in the helicopter, and start the climbing turn toward the United site. We set down about 100 feet from the rim and walked over to the edge. The ranger cautioned us not to go closer than 20 feet as the ground was "very unstable and might give way." He didn’t have to tell me twice but Rudy, the boss of a west coast commercial salvage outfit called "Task Incorporated," was all over the place taking Polaroid pictures and voluminous notes. My "take" on Rudy was that he was a bit of a no-rulebook pirate, but watching him do a tiptoe suicide dance up there convinced me he also was certifiably crazy.

Several weeks earlier Bill Neff, TWA’s VP of Maintenance and Engineering in Kansas City, had called me to his office to lay out the Park Service request, give me Schlesinger’s phone number in L.A., tell me to handle it, and "please, keep a low profile and pull it off without the news media getting wind of what you’re doing." Easier said than done, it turned out. Multiple phone calls to Rudy and the Park Service set up the survey trip, and work began about a month later.

Rudy showed up at the canyon with a dozen or so employees, and they began using a Sikorsky heavy-lift helicopter, a smaller Bell machine, ropes, nets, slings and massive amounts of sweat and profanity to scour the wilderness clean of wreckage at both sites. Helicopter operations were restricted to the early morning hours when cooler temperatures provided the most effective helicopter lifting capability. All told, over three weeks they hauled about 70,000 lbs out at about 800 lbs per lift, depositing the metal on the canyon’s east rim where flatbed trucks dragged it off to a smelter.

While the work was under way, I had called Jane McCabe, my secretary in Kansas City, to "check in" and she advised that Jim Hartz of NBC’s Today Show in New York was anxious to reach me. I returned his call and learned that he was a producer/reporter who knew what we were doing out there … NBC thought it would make a wonderful story … and how soon could we begin filming … and are there any snakes(yes) … and what should we wear, and …?

But as we talked, I began to sense that even though he was a TV-type, Hartz was really a reporter at his core and might be tempted by the "larger story" involved. My hanging around with the likes of TWA operations people and UPI aviation editor and author Robert J. Serling had allowed an interesting fact to snag in my brain -- the 1956 mid-air collision had been the catalyst that launched a congressional investigation, the formation of the FAA as a separate, independent government agency, and an extensive overhaul and upgrade of the country’s air traffic control system with real-time total radar monitoring, coast-to-coast, at all altitudes and in all weather conditions.

As we talked, his interest shifted from the scene at the Grand Canyon to the gee-whiz-bells-and-whistles of maneuvering jet transports coast-to-coast, and when I threw in the chance to ride and film such a flight in the cockpit of a "typical" TWA flight, he bit down hard and exclaimed, "How soon can we do it?"

Thus, on November 22-23-24, Tom Brokaw on the Today Show aired a three-part special program on the wonderful magic performed by flight crews and controllers, tracking an L-1011 LAX/JFK non-stop trip with cameras in the cockpit and various ATC facilities on the ground as the trip moved across the country.

In total, the program seemed more like a 45-minute commercial for TWA Flight Operations than a news story.

Jerry Cosley (1960-1985) served in Public Relations/Corporate Communications in CHI, LAX, SFO, MKC and NYC.

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Jerry Cosely - jcosley@earthlink.net

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