After our sudden snow experience near Cedar Breaks, we drove down Highway 89, leaving it for the Utah Scenic Byway #12, through Red Canyon and to Bryce Canyon, passing Bryce Canyon Airport.

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While you can book a balloon tour here, or helicopter/airplane flights to Bryce Canyon, what truly makes this airport interesting is its history and original purpose, at least for an aircraft and airflight nerd like me. In 1936, it was built as an emergency landing strip for commercial airlines. This is especially notable, as commercial airlines were still in their infancy, and nobody could foresee the huge amount of air traffic we have nowadays.

Still, the people who planned this airport were aware that there was a vast stretch of the Rockies between Denver and Vegas, where lousy weather conditions and other emergencies might force an airplane to land, which is why this tiny airport almost in the middle of nowhere has a 7400ft asphalt runway.

Unfortunately, the first flight to need the services of this airstrip as emergency landing point didn’t make it quite to the runway. United Airlines Flight 608 – a DC-6 – was on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago when it crashed at 12:29 pm on October 24, 1947, about 1.5 miles southeast of Bryce Canyon Airport, killing all 5 crew members and 47 passengers on board.This crash had far reaching impact. After the crash thousands of pieces from the wreck were gathered, to reconstruct the plane and find out what happened. It was the first time a plane was reconstructed from its wreckage to help determine the cause of the crash, which is standard procedure today, and lead to the foundation of the National Transport Security Board in 1967.

As a consequence of this meticulous work, a design flaw of the DC-6 was discovered, so that all existing DC-6 could be grounded and repaired.

A cabin heater intake scoop was positioned too close to the number 3 alternate tank air vent. If flightcrews allowed a tank to be overfilled during a routine fuel transfer between wing tanks, it could lead to several gallons of excess fuel flowing out of the tank vent and then being sucked into the cabin heater system, which then ignited the fuel. This caused the fire which destroyed the United aircraft at Bryce Canyon

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According to this sign near the road, another incident happened in 2005 with American Airlines flight 28, but according to Wikipedia (and more reliable, this article in the Las Vegas Sun dated Oct 6, 2000), it was flight 2821 on the exact date.

On October 6, 2000 American Airlines flight 2821 departed Denver International Airport bound for Los Angeles International Airport. As the MD-82 aircraft was cruising at 33,000 ft (10,000 m), there was a report of smoke in the cockpit area and loss of cabin pressure. The airliner was immediately redirected to the Bryce Canyon airport in southwestern Utah. The single runway airport only handles small prop planes daily, but was actually built to handle larger aircraft in case of emergency for the long stretch flights between Denver and Las Vegas. The American Airlines flight 2821 and the 75 people on board landed safely at 8:45 A.M.

The airport has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. The log hangar, built from ponderosa pines, is a very remarkable piece of architecture and a hallmark of the airport.

I loved finding an unexpected piece of aviation history along the road side – quite interesting and fun.


Read on: LostFlights.com – Commercial Aviation Archaeology > October 24, 1947, United Air Lines Inc., Douglas DC-6 (NC37510) Bryce Canyon, UT