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WE ARE GOING INTHE STORY OF THE GRAND CANYON DISASTER
By Mike Nelson
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Mike Nelson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTo approach Los Angeles International Airport from the air was like coming upon a large aquarium with many small fish gliding slowly in it, coasting lazily around at various depths. There were many aircraft in the area, at many altitudes and moving in many directions. Seen from aloft and from a distance, all of the planes in the sky near the airport seemed to be floating on air, moving too slowly to be held up by their own wings, peacefully drifting in the invisible currents in the atmosphere.
For a fanciful moment of daydreaming, it seemed as though mankind had finally freed itself of haste and aggression, as if it were a view of a utopian future where people were neither driven by fear and ambition nor burdened with disrespecting and resenting one another. It was a scene that was at once busy and calm, as though mankind were conducting its ventures purely because they mattered or felt good, not because of insecurity or vanity or want.
From nearer in, the flyer would see two long runways close together and parallel to each other, extending a great distance westward toward the Pacific Ocean on a huge plain. They were like futuristic concrete highways left curiously unfinished, going nowhere, so advanced that they had nearly rendered themselves unnecessary. There was no need of more pavement, because what was there launched the vehicles that traversed it into the open air.
In the summer of 1956 these pathways to the sky were about 8,000 feet long, set on grounds covering several square miles and spreading to the seashore. A string of small buildings ran parallel to the runways, removed to the north by a distance of about 2,000 feet. There was a TWA maintenance hangar in line with the thresholds of the runways at their eastern ends, followed westward by the control tower, the Los Angeles Department of Airports Administration building, several airline terminal buildings and an included restaurant, and then more hangars arranged in a quarter-circle pattern that curved away northward. A wide band of concrete bordered the buildings on the airfield side and was parceled off into parking aprons for airliners, immediately to the south of their respective company terminal buildings. Separating this pavement from the runways, and likewise separating the runways from each other, were fairways of grass crisscrossed by paved taxiways.
The control tower was an austere, purely functional setup, hardly more than a box on stilts. It consisted of a small roofed enclosure encircled with windows and sided with corrugated steel, which sat high atop an open structure of steel girders, built along much the same design as a high-tension electrical line tower. To reach the room on top, called the cab, controllers had to walk up several flights of fire escape-like stairs, open to the elements. From this humble facility, controllers performed the remarkable job of safely coordinating and guiding the departures and arrivals of about seven hundred fifty commercial, business, private, and military flights daily. This was an average of one every two minutes, only half of that handled by Chicago's Midway, the world's busiest airport at the time, but that was like saying, "Only half a deluge," which is still a torrent. There was always activity at Los Angeles International, like a city that never sleeps, and at peak times the rate at which planes came and went became hectic.
United Air Lines and TWA shared the terminal building nearest the runway thresholds. It was divided inside by a wall that made it a duplex. Like all of the terminal buildings, it was a two-story structure facing northward toward the parking lot, with passenger facilities on the ground floor and offices on the second floor. As viewed from the parking lot, the United half was on the left and the TWA half was on the right. Each side featured a brick façade with a large glass picture window, and a pair of double glass doors that greeted approaching visitors. On the roof of the building each airline had its own weather station, for the use of its dispatch department in advising flight crews.
The ground floor lobbies where passengers waited gave the overall impression of a stylized bus terminal. In each there was a concession stand with a magazine rack and candy, chrome-bar chairs with leather upholstery worn shiny, and a bank of rental lockers going for ten cents apiece. From the ceiling hung numerous fluorescent lighting fixtures and fire-extinguishing water sprinklers. The floors were of asphalt tile aged with countless scuff marks and scratches, strewn with cigarette butts during the busier times and almost all of the time in the areas that could not be readily swept, like far under the seats. People not only smoked freely in public buildings then, but they also dropped the still-lit butts to the floor and crushed them out with the soles of their shoes. The check-in and ticketing counters were appealingly designed and well kept, and the employees were generally friendly even though they were frequently rushed.
When it was time for a flight to board, passengers would walk out the back of the building, the south side, across a shared observation patio, and out onto the airfield along the ramp. This was a partly covered, fenced-in, ground-level walkway analogous to a marine pier. The ramps extended from near the observation patios of all the terminal buildings southward, toward the runways, and could accommodate several aircraft on each side. United Air Lines and TWA shared the ramp nearest the runway thresholds. Five airliners could be parked on each side, and each airline had five passenger gates on its own side, all of which were enclosed in shelters for the comfort of the passengers while they waited their turn for their tickets to be checked. Here they were protected not only from the weather but also from blasting, gritty air blown by nearby airliners' propellers, and from the noise. They could hear the gate agent, whereas outside the shelter with a plane departing nearby, no one could have heard anything.
To get from the observation patio to the ramp, the passengers had to walk down a flight of stairs to a short tunnel that sloped upward to it, passing under a causeway for vehicles such as baggage tractors. Vehicles frequently crossed the narrow area between the ramp and the patio, and the idea was to have the passengers walk underneath rather than across the causeway, for the sake of safety.
To the west of the joint United Air Lines and TWA ramp were two others, serving American Airlines, Pan Am, and others. The terminal building just west of the United and TWA one was larger and housed Mike Lyman's Flight Deck Restaurant on the second floor. The most obvious attraction of the dining room was a bank of picture windows that looked out directly on American's aircraft, and afforded excellent views of takeoffs and landings on the runways beyond. Waiters dressed in tuxedos served elegant meals, and patrons could enjoy the food and the sights in air-conditioned comfort, which was still something special in 1956.
TWA Flight 2 and United Air Lines Flight 718 had occurred hundreds of times without the least hint that there might be something unusually dangerous about them, and in fact there was not. They both always left Los Angeles at around the same time and traveled separate routes to the area of the Grand Canyon, where sightseeing was a customary bonus for the passengers. And every time since their inception, they had both made it to their destinations. But on Saturday, the thirtieth of June, in that fateful year, all of that was to change. Never had they nearly collided over the Grand Canyon, but on this most tragic of days that impossible event happened. Like a storm building invisibly beyond the horizon, the coming disaster gave no sign of itself. Everything seemed normal that Saturday morning, as normal as it normally was.
The flight crewmembers for TWA 2 that day were Captain Jack Silvetus Gandy, First Officer James Henry Ritner, and Flight Engineer Forrest Dean Breyfogle. They arrived a little before 8:30, and their first stop at the airport was the ramp office (plainly enough, the office near the ramp, also called the dispatch office), where either Captain Gandy or First Officer Ritner signed all three of them in. Here they received the latest weather reports and forecasts for their route and a dispatch release, a document that formally authorized a captain to operate the particular airplane that would be used for his flight. The dispatch release specified the terms under which the plane would be released to the captain.
The dispatcher filled out this form prior to the crew's arrival, in consideration of the current local weather, the anticipated weather down the line, and any special circumstances in the condition of facilities along the route, such as construction at the destination airport, a radio station along the way being out of order, and so on. He took into account anything that might affect the flight and from that determined any necessary deviations in the route. Based on that, and allowing for the crew to use the engines in the least fuel-efficient way, he calculated the maximum fuel required to reach the destination. To this he added enough fuel for the flight to be diverted to an alternate airport near the intended destination, in case some unforeseen problem were to prevent the flight from landing where it had planned. Finally he added more fuel for the plane to circle at the alternate airport for an hour, which included the forty-five minutes' worth required by law and another fifteen minutes' worth stipulated by TWA's company policy, in order to exceed rather than just meet the federal safety requirements.
All of this was represented in the dispatch release and was presented to the captain as an educated proposal. The dispatcher and the captain were a team, although the captain had the greater authority, commensurate with the greater responsibility he would take in having the lives of all on board his plane directly in his care. The captain could dispute the dispatcher's selection of an alternate airport and other matters, and he could insist on even more fuel being loaded, but never less fuel than the dispatcher recommended. This policy made doubly sure that a flight would have at least as much fuel as it needed, by always using the greater of the dispatcher's and the captain's fuel estimates whenever they did not agree.
While Captain Gandy considered the release and read the weather reports and forecasts, First Officer Ritner began to fill out the company flight plan. This was a record of the trip that would be completed en route and turned in at the destination, for the use of the company's dispatch department. On this he wrote in the crewmembers' names, the fleet number of the plane, and the date, to which he would add the specifics of the fuel load and the alternate airport, and other details, once the captain made his decision and signed the release. During flight, Ritner would add estimated times of arrival at certain points along the way and actual arrival times for comparison, along with ground speeds he would calculate between points.
Ritner also filled out the Air Route Traffic Control Flight Plan (ARTC Flight Plan), which notified the cross-country air traffic control network of Flight 2's intentions in specific terms and served as a request for approval. On it he wrote the airline name and flight number, the type of plane, their proposed departure time and estimated time en route, their proposed cruising speed and altitude, the airfields of origin and destination, and the particular route desired, detailed in all of its segments, including a specific series of locations from which the flight would check in with someone on the ground. Once the captain okayed it or altered it, Ritner filed this flight plan. The crew would receive confirmation of the plan later while they were under way, whether ARTC approved it as filed or with changes.
At about the same time as the crew of TWA 2 arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, Mrs. Lorraine Nelson happened to glance at her clock and noted that it was almost 10:30. She was in her kitchen in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park, 1,700 miles and two time zones away, and she was thinking about her brother, Jack Groshans, who was to be flying that day from Los Angeles to Chicago. The unsettling realization occurred to her, "If anything happened to Jack, I would be an only child." She said a prayer for his safety and then returned to her day: cleaning the house and taking care of her two children, my sister and me. Just over an hour later, Jack Groshans boarded United Flight 718.
While she was saying her prayer, only one of the persons who would board United 718 was at the airport: First Officer Robert Harms, the copilot. United 718 was not scheduled to depart until 9:45 a.m. PDT, and he was early. He had been scheduled for Flight 732 to Chicago, departing at 8:30, but the DC-7 on which Harms was to have flown had developed a mechanical problem and had to be replaced with another plane. This ostensibly unimportant circumstance was in reality the one on which the man's entire life and fate turned. There was no DC-7 available for the substitution, so a DC-6 had to be used instead. A minor consequence of this was that the trip would take about half an hour longer, since the DC-6 was not quite as fast.
The legal limit on flying time for pilots of commercial passenger airliners was eighty-five hours per month, a limit imposed to ensure for its part that they would never be exhausted while they were flying. (Pilots actually worked quite a few hours more than this per month, the remainder consisting of making flight plans, performing ground checks of their airplanes, taking on-going training classes to keep in step with the continual improvements in equipment and safety, and so on.) It was the end of the month, the last day of June, and Harms had accumulated over seventy-nine hours of flying time. He had just enough time left for a five-and-a-half-hour DC-7 flight to Chicago, but he could not legally be scheduled for a six-hour DC-6 flight to Chicago. As a result, the crew scheduler on duty had to pull Harms off of Flight 732 and try to find another flight for him. That flight was 718.
The crew scheduler telephoned the copilot who was scheduled for Flight 718 at his home in the northern Los Angeles suburbs, and he asked him if he would take the earlier Flight 732 in Harms' place. This other copilot was a man of less than amiable temperament, who detested last-minute changes and customarily would have made quite a stink over the phone or even refused, but that day he responded with equanimity and agreed to the change without objecting or even questioning it. Years later he and the crew scheduler would meet by chance and share what had been their mutual puzzlement and awe at his out-of-character response.
A little before 8:00, Harms said goodbye to his captain and flight engineer. They left him and became absorbed in the world of the living, the world that had been Harms' world, while he remained at the ramp office and became enveloped in a separate world—one that would forever part him from them. And there he waited, probably drinking coffee, already gone from this life. The choices had been made, and his fate was decided.
At about 8:30 Harms was joined by his new fellow crewmembers, Captain Robert F. Shirley and Flight Engineer Girardo Xavier Fiore. The first passengers for either flight walked through TWA's doors just about then, and not long after, Flight 732 departed—late, because the substitute copilot had had to drive too far for the time available when he was contacted. He had gotten there in a hurry but was late nonetheless. Harms may have seen or even greeted the man that chance or destiny had chosen to live in his place, as he quickly passed through the ramp office on his way out to the waiting DC-6.
Soon, passengers were beginning to arrive for United Flight 718, and many for TWA Flight 2 had already congregated in TWA's terminal. Some drove themselves and left their cars in the parking lot, intending to return and retrieve them in a few days or a week; some were brought by friends or relatives, or a chauffer; some came by taxicab, some by rental car, some by bus. Far more diverse were their personalities, their lifestyles, their occupations, their social and financial statuses, and the circumstances that had brought them to the airport for these particular flights. Some of these differences were superficial or extraneous, but even the most important of them were secondary to what made everyone alike: in the act of checking in, they had committed themselves to an uncertain venture in which their lives were at stake. Each one who was old enough to make his own decision had placed his trust in the airline, and all of them were about to take the same risk.
Excerpted from WE ARE GOING IN by Mike Nelson Copyright © 2012 by Mike Nelson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Table of Resources....................403
Glossary of Terms....................433