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Tragedy and Triumph: Emergency Landings

“Tail is going out. We may get down… and we may not.”

On October 24, 1947, Captain Everett L. McMillan of United Flight 608 relayed these chilling words. The mid-section of his DC-6 engulfed in flames, McMillan was attempting to steer the disintegrating craft to Bryce Canyon Airport for an emergency landing. Moments later, the plane – carrying 47 passengers and 6 crew members – crashed in Bryce Canyon National Park, 1.5 miles short of the runway. Local residents witnessed the crash and rushed to the scene to help. Tragically, there were no survivors.

In the weeks following the accident, investigators gathered thousands of charred pieces of the aircraft to reconstruct the wreckage. During this time, on November 11, 1947, another DC-6 caught fire in flight, but quickly landed without casualties. By examining this plane and the remains of Flight 608, investigators uncovered a critical design flaw. As a result, the entire fleet of 80 DC-6 planes was grounded and repaired, including President Truman’s plane, “The Independence.”

Piecing the Story Together

The crash of flight 608 marked the first time in aviation history that a plane was reconstructed to determine the cause of the accident. By piecing together the main fuselage, investigators discovered that the fire began after a routine mid-air fuel transfer. Unwittingly, the #3 fuel tank leaked fuel out of its air vent. The fuel then streamed into the intake for the cabin heating system, where it ignited. Reconstructing aircraft wreckage is now standard procedure in airline crash investigations.

A Happier Ending

On October 6, 2000, American Airlines Flight 2821 from Denver to Los Angeles reported smoke in the cockpit and loss of cabin pressure while cruising at 33,000 feet. The MD-82 airline was immediately redirected to Bryce Canyon Airport. The aircraft and all 75 people on board landed here safely.

(Plaque located near the Bryce Canyon Airport in Bryce Canyon, Utah)