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Mon, Apr 21, 2008

Families Mark 50th Anniversary Of United 736 Midair Collision

49 Lost In April 21, 1958 Accident Involving DC-7, Air Force Jet

by ANN Managing Editor Rob Finfrock

As Robert Darmody boarded a United Airlines DC-7 on the morning of April 21, 1958, I imagine his thoughts were on leaving his family behind in California, as he left to set up their new home in Omaha, NE.

A veteran of WWII who after the war worked for 10 years with the Strategic Air Command -- most recently in the Ballistic Missile Division -- Darmody had spent the past year in Los Angeles on special assignment with civilian contractor Ramo-Wooldridge. Along with his nine-year-old daughter, Kathy, and his wife Mary... who was pregnant with the couple's second child... Darmody already had his orders in hand to move back to Omaha later that year.

Alas, Darmody -- my maternal grandfather -- and the 46 other people onboard United 736 never made it to their destinations that April morning. At 8:30 am local time, less than an hour after the airliner took off from LAX, an F-100F Super Sabre trainer flying out of Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, NV descended into the path of the passenger plane at 21,000 feet. The jet sheared off a 12-foot section of the DC-7's right wing... and both planes spiraled towards the desert floor, about nine miles south of what is now McCarran International Airport.

The crash also claimed the lives of the US Air Force instructor and the student onboard the F-100F. It remains the worst-ever aircraft accident in Vegas history, reports The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

According to court documents, the student pilot was under the hood in the moments leading up to the collision, practicing a spiraling instrument descent to land at Nellis. The F-100F was traveling at nearly 500 mph; there's some question whether the pilots of either aircraft ever saw each other, though Air Force investigators said the F-100 appeared to veer away from the airliner moments before impact.

United 736 was on an instrument flight plan, and in contact with air traffic controllers at the time of the accident. The airliner was flying along the Victor 8 airway, a common route for airliners heading east from the Los Angeles basin that also crossed a heavily-used departure and approach corridor to Nellis.

Though unthinkable today, in those times military pilots were neither required, nor inclined, to communicate with commercial air traffic controllers, despite their often close proximity to slower-moving commercial planes. In the days after the accident, two other commercial pilots came forward with accusations US Air Force planes often "stunted" near their aircraft along Victor 8.

It was the very dawn of the Jet Age. Everyone was still learning.

"They Were Looking For Papers"

There's more than a little Cold War-intrigue surrounding the crash of United 736. Mark Paris has worked on a book about the mishap for several years. He lost his father, Steve, in the crash; like my grandfather, Steve Paris was returning to Omaha, home to Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base.

Paris told the Review-Journal his father was one of the 13 men onboard the flight who were associated with the Ballistic Missile Division, tasked with developing "the most top secret project in the country at the time.

"This hurt America in a real nasty way that people didn't hear about," Mark Paris told the Las Vegas paper. "This put the ICBM system on its ear for a while.

The accident resulted in top-level changes in Air Force travel procedures, as well. "That's the last time sensitive information and that many personnel with (knowledge of) sensitive information ever flew on the same airplane," Paris said.

Immediately after the accident, FBI agents secured the area where wreckage from the DC-7 had landed. "They were not looking for survivors," says Faith Paris, Steve's widow. "They were looking for papers."

"Something Needs To Be Done"

The downing of United 736 carried repercussions for commercial air travel, as well. Later that year, as a direct result of the Las Vegas disaster -- as well as other midair accidents, including the infamous June 1956 collision of a United DC-6 and TWA Super Constellation over the Grand Canyon -- President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aviation Act, ordering the formation of the Federal Aviation Agency (later Administration) through consolidation of the Civil Aeronautics Administration, and Civil Aeronautics Board.

The order specifically cited United 736 in calling for the creation of the agency. The Act also demanded better guidelines governing commercial and military use of airspace, and much improved communications procedures.

Today, an exhibit inside the McCarran terminal building commemorates the accident. Several families of those lost in the collision have also pushed to have a marker placed at the site wreckage from the DC-7 landed... an area slated to become part of a housing tract for the upcoming Southern Highlands development.

"There needs to be something erected out there. Something needs to be done," says local historian Doug Scroggins, who has pushed for such a memorial for the past 10 years.

"We Were Treated Very Special"

My mother, Kathy, recalls touring SAC headquarters, along with my grandmother, nine months after the accident that claimed her father. In a January 1959 release about their visit, the Air Force notes "Mrs. Darmody... was escorted through the SAC Command Post which her husband had originally helped organize."

"We were treated very special," Kathy Finfrock, nee Darmody, told me recently. "They showed me the big computers. Some of the younger officers showed me around. We played tic-tac-toe on the computers.

"If it would have been under any other circumstances, it would have been a lot of fun for me. I was still amazed and excited about going to the underground," she adds. "[SAC] was such a big deal around Omaha and the nation... It was a very solemn occasion, but they made sure we had a good time."

During a special ceremony that day, SAC Commander-in-Chief General Thomas S. Power presented my grandmother with the Legion of Merit, posthumously awarded to Robert Darmody (above).

I've written before about my grandfather. For a man I never had the honor of meeting, his influence weighs upon me... from a shared love of flight, to an eye for model-making.

I even look like him... well, kind of. My mother, Kathy -- nine years old when she lost her dad -- has said before she sees a lot of her father in me. I do know I've "felt" his hand on my shoulder a number of times, in both good times and bad.

There's one significant difference between Robert Darmody (above) and his grandson, though, one I proudly acknowledge: my grandfather was an unquestionably brilliant man.

I so wish I could have known him.

FMI: Court Documents Related To The Crash, www.strategic-air-command.com, www.lostbirds.com/

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