Trey Brandt found this woman's watch near the TWA crash site, with
the minute hand stopped at the moment of impact.
More Photos (2):
It was the worst commercial aviation disaster ever when two
passenger flights collided at 21,000 feet over the Grand Canyon
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 06.22.2006
There was a plume of smoke. Nothing more. Certainly nothing to
signal what had just become up to that time the worst commercial
air disaster in aviation history.
On the morning of June 30, 1956, Trans World Airlines Flight 2 and
United Airlines Flight 718 collided at 21,000 feet above the Grand
Both airliners, reported The Associated Press, turned into
"hurtling coffins" for all 128 aboard, plummeting into the abyss
about 16 miles northeast of the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village.
The last communication came at 10:31 a.m. Pacific Standard Time,
when the Salt Lake City control center got the garbled message:
"Salt Lake, United 718 . . . ah, we're going in."
And then nothing.
Meanwhile, Palen Hudgin was conducting a scenic flight over the
canyon, one of several flights he and his brothers, Al and Henry,
ran every day as owners of Grand Canyon Airlines.
"He did not see the crash. He saw the smoke but didn't pay any
attention to it. There were forest fires and lightning strikes all
the time up there," says Henry Hudgin, 83, the sole surviving
Not until day's end did Henry and Palen hear about the missing
airliners on the evening news.
"Palen and I got into one of our airplanes and went up to where he
had seen the smoke," says Henry. "We saw both airplanes."
The TWA Super Constellation had slammed into the northeast slope
of Temple Butte, with parts of the plane scattered a few hundred
yards from the Colorado River.
Less than two miles away, they found the United DC-7, which had
struck the south face of Chuar Butte, its fuselage wedged into a
With dusk approaching, the brothers flew home, then alerted both
Early the next morning, Henry and Palen flew over the crash sites
again. "That United Airlines fuselage had been completely intact,"
says Henry. "When we went back to look at first light, it had
burned up to nothing."
In separate planes later that morning, the brothers flew groups of
airline and aviation officials over the site.
"They were just amazed at what had happened," says Henry.
Recovery of the bodies from the rough terrain began the next day,
using helicopters and mountaineers, some from the Swiss Air Rescue
Many of the unidentified were buried at Grand Canyon Cemetery.
By then, the finger-pointing was well underway, with bad weather,
human failure and an antiquated "see-or-be-seen" system for pilots
The tragedy led to the creation of the Federal Aviation
Administration, as well as a radar control system for
Through it all, the Hudgin brothers — who also ran Hudgin Air
Service in Tucson — continued to fly over the Canyon.
"We were asked not to fly over the crash site, but we weren't
interested in showing the public that part of the Grand Canyon
that swallows up airplanes," says Henry.
In 1967, the Canyon almost swallowed up him and his single-engine
Piper Cherokee as well.
"I had an engine failure. Passengers were with me," says Henry,
who glided onto a sandbar next to the Colorado River, about six
miles north of where the TWA and United planes had gone down 11
"The Lord put me on that sandbar," he says.
In 1969, the Hudgin brothers sold the business. Still, Henry gets
back to the Canyon every chance he can.
In the last 50 years, few have hiked into the remote region of the
crash site. One who has is plane wreck chaser Trey Brandt, who in
the spring of 2005 hiked into the Canyon, along with two friends.
Inching along cliff trails with 400-foot dropoffs and rafting
across the Colorado, they arrived at the crash sites in three
With most of the United site inaccessible atop an 800-foot spire,
they hiked over to the TWA site.
"The aft cabin of the TWA fell free for four miles. A lot of the
stuff was sucked out," says Brandt, who found a TWA food service
tray, a purse and a woman's watch with the minute hand stopped at
the moment of impact.
"I thought it would be fascinating to photograph the site," says
Brandt, who left it all as he had found it. "But what I had not
counted on was the human element. There were little kids on board,
babies, men and women.
"I felt I was on sacred ground."