On November 1, 1955, United Airlines Flight 629 went up in flames just moments after takeoff. No one knew what caused the explosion - until the contents of a passengers’ handbag revealed some much needed clues...
Just Another Day
At 6:11 pm, November 1, 1955, United Airlines Flight 629 landed at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport. After departing from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport earlier that day, it stopped for a layover in Chicago.
A new flight crew mounted the plane for the next flight, which was scheduled at 6:52 pm and would arrive in Portland, Oregon. Despite the two flights that had been made that day, it wasn’t deemed necessary to check for any engine problems. And no one could have expected what happened next.
Lights in the Sky
The plane left on schedule, with no issues whatsoever. So far everything was normal, and the flight captain contacted the control tower to report that things were running smoothly. But the smooth ride wouldn’t last for long...
Just seven minutes later it all changed in a flash of light. At 7:03 PM, two bright white flashes appeared in the sky over Stapleton International Airport. The ground crew and air traffic controllers watched it all happen… first in shock, and then in horror.
Flight 629 Falls
The flashing lights were strange enough, but what happened next made everyone’s heart skip. The two lights weren’t just flashing - they were falling! The ground crew knew immediately what was happening, but could do nothing to stop the explosion when the plummeting plane hit the ground.
One of the worst fears for flight staff had actually happened. Flight 629 had fallen straight out of the sky and crashed somewhere in the distance. In no time at all, local police and search-and-rescue were scouring the area, trying to find what (and most importantly, who) had survived the crash.
Raining in Longmont
Within a short time, the Longmont police station was being bombarded with calls. Longmont was a town just 30 miles from the Stapleton International Airport. Locals across the town were filing reports concerning loud explosions, and what appeared to be metal rain.
It was immediately clear what was going on. Flight 629 had exploded in the sky, and the debris had rained down over Longmont and the wider Weld County. Authorities rushed to look over those six square miles where the strange metallic rain had been reported. What they found next was heartbreaking.
Surveying the Scene
Police and first-responders arrived at the wreckage of 629, hopeful that they might pull survivors from the crash. Instead, they realized they were too late. Of the 39 passengers and 5 members of the crew, none had survived the devastating accident.
The news spread instantaneously, through Colorado and beyond. The youngest victim of the crash was only 13-months old, and the oldest was 81. The nation was stunned and saddened, and waited with bated breath for more information. But what investigators found was strange, to say the least.
A Frightening Smell
Workers at the crash site had gathered up all of the pieces of the wreckage to be analyzed and then removed. But a strange smell permeated the debris, putting investigators at the scene on edge. The smell was one associated with explosive materials specifically, which could only mean one thing.
The plane crash was no accident, after all. Flight 629 had been torn apart by explosives mid-flight. This conclusion was further supported by the fact that there was no evidence of an engine malfunction, or indeed any mechanical issues. So what did that mean?
Someone Planned It
It meant that someone, somehow, had purposely planned and carried out an attack on the flight. Once this was established, theories and questions began flying from authorities and investigators involved with the case. What had been used to blow up the plane? And, more importantly… Why had it happened at all?
After all, 44 people had passed away in the tragic incident - there had to be some motive to commit such an awful crime. The immediate issue was that investigators had zero leads to go on, and they wanted to refrain from making big assumptions without any evidence… but that was about to change.
Traces of Evidence
At first, there wasn’t a shred of evidence or even a clue that could unlock this baffling case. Investigators scoured the crash site, examining every inch of the remaining wreckage for any signs that might open up the case. And then it happened - a piece of evidence that confirmed everything.
With this one discovery, the case shot to national significance. Pieces of the surviving sheet metal from the plane had been found with chemical traces still remaining on them. The same chemicals needed to make... dynamite. In an instant, the FBI was called in, and it was time to get to the bottom of this.
Did The Passengers Know?
So the authorities began to work with what little information they had. That meant, not only investigating the crash itself, but examining the details of every person involved. Yes, that included the victims of the explosion. For all they knew, one of the deceased passengers could have been the person who rigged the plane.
The FBI set to collecting as much information on each passenger and crew member as possible. Through their investigation, they were able to narrow down the possibilities, by discluding non-native passengers from the suspect list. If anyone on the flight was involved in the attack, they were likely to be from Colorado.
Calamity in Colorado
But why did they come to this conclusion? Well, think back to the flight log for United Airlines Flight 629 on November 1. On that fateful day, the flight had made a number of trips without issue, until the plane left Denver. Therefore, it was reasonable to assume that the culprit had been someone who came onboard in Colorado.
One of the first things that caught the FBI agent's attention was something that several of the passengers had in common. These passengers had all taken out life insurance policies not long before the flight, which seemed suspicious. And it was one of these individuals in particular who caught their eye.
Then Came Daisie King
At first, nothing about Daisie King seemed suspicious. The 53-year old woman from Denver, Colorado, looked every part like the normal middle-aged woman. Not only that, but she was a mother and a business owner. To many, she seemed like one of the least suspecting passengers.
And Daisie’s reasons for travel were even less suspicious - She had been flying to Alaska to spend time with her daughter. But these weren't the things that had alerted the investigators. That award went to something strange that they located amongst the plane wreckage… something that belonged to Daisie.
The First Suspect
It wasn’t just sheet metal scraps found in the plane wreckage. There were also personal items of the flight passengers scattered across the crash site. Amongst these items was a handbag that belonged to Daisie King. And inside? Newspaper clippings, all featuring a criminal named John Gilbert Graham.
But John Gilbert Graham wasn’t just any criminal. He was Daisies' son! Immediately the FBI was on high alert. Given the circumstances, it was concerning that a passenger on a targeted flight might have such a close connection to an established criminal.
John's Difficult Childhood
John Gilbert Graham was born in 1932, the only offspring from Daisie’s second marriage. But his birth was marred by tragedy, as not long after he entered the world, his father was taken from it. After the death of her husband, Daisie King was distraught and felt she was unable to support her newborn child.
And so she decided to give little John up to an orphanage. This decision would give her some time to find a job and some stability for herself and her son. And that had been the initial plan - to gain financial security and return to her baby. But what she planned and what she did were two very different things.
He Was Left Abandoned
Once she returned to adult life with no children to look after, Daisie’s fortunes took a turn. She met a man who became her third husband and soon settled into her comfortable new life. The idea of returning to the orphanage to bring young John home was far from her mind. She left him there without another word.
And in the following years, Daisie King had plenty to distract her from thoughts of her son. Her third husband passed away, and she used the inheritance money to start her own business - the Crown-A Drive-In Diner. The diner was a success. But her son was still out there, and despite her actions, she had not forgotten him.
They Reunited Years Later
As time marched on, a middle-aged Daisie began to think about the son she had left behind 22 years ago. It was 1954, and her daughter from her third marriage had grown up and moved to Alaska. She had never remarried and was beginning to wonder what had happened to the baby she’d left behind.
So Daisie reached out to her “forgotten” child and met him just one year before the tragedy that would take her life. And upon meeting him she likely felt equal parts shocked and guilty because her estranged son was a hardened criminal with a laundry list of offenses. Perhaps it was guilt that led her to make an unusual decision.
Daisie Left Everything to John
Investigators discovered that not long after reuniting with John, Daisie took out a life insurance policy. And the beneficiary of that policy was her long-abandoned son. As if that wasn’t strange enough, Daisie's diner had also taken damage from an explosion not long before, leaving her (and John) “in the money,” as the saying goes.
It was no surprise that once the details of her insurance policies were revealed, Daisie’s son became the prime suspect in the investigation. The FBI wasted no time in hunting John down, confident that his arrest would lead them to the evidence they needed.
A Shocking Discovery
And John was certainly feeling confident. In his eyes, there was no way that the crime could be connected back to him, and the investigation would all be for nothing. After all, he’d taken every precaution. If only he had known what was in his mother’s purse on that fateful night...
And sure enough, John confidently denied any involvement when FBI agents arrived on his doorstep. But armed with a search warrant, they swarmed over his residence, and what they found finally confirmed their suspicions: pages of life insurance policies! And when they entered his garage, it all fell into place.
Explosives in the Garage
From the moment the FBI agents walked in, John was adamant he had nothing to do with the explosion. He even had an alibi that supposedly explained that he couldn’t have touched his mother's luggage. But inside his garage was everything one person would need to build a bomb. The kind of bomb that could tear a plane apart mid-flight.
The explosive materials in his home were damning, but that wasn’t all. Several witnesses were called in and asked about John’s relationship with his mother. They all testified that the pair were not close, or at all loving, and they were prone to fights and arguments. At this point, John barely had a leg to stand on.
Who Packed Daisie's Bag?
The last blow arrived when John insisted that only his mother could have packed the explosives in her luggage. He simply hadn’t touched them. It was almost believable, until his own wife, Gloria, disagreed. She herself had seen her husband pack his mother's luggage.
It was seemingly the last nail in John’s coffin. The evidence was piling against him, and there was no way to deny his involvement in the explosion. Everyone knew what was coming next; it was just a matter of waiting for John to crack. And crack he did.
Before too long the young man was backed into a corner with no other options. He confessed to the crime, admitting to the FBI that he had surreptitiously placed a stick of dynamite inside Daisie’s luggage while he helped her pack. He had killed his formerly absent mother and 43 others, and for that, he was given the death penalty.
On January 11, 1957, before entering the gas chamber, John Gilbert Graham shocked the world as he made one final statement: “As far as feeling remorse for these people, I don’t," he confessed. "I can’t help it. Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes.”
But the truth is that Graham's disturbing deed affected more people than those aboard the DC-6B aircraft. After all, the tragic attack also pointed to a disturbing truth regarding the safety of our nation: at the time of Flight 629's crash, commercial air travel had very few security restrictions.
Sure enough, after the infamous trial, nothing would ever be the same. Shortly after the 1955 attack, a new law was set into place as a preventative measure. Signed by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on July 14, 1956, the intentional attack of any commercial airline was officially deemed illegal.
"The O.J. Simpson Trial of its Day"
Fast forward 60+ years, and the horrific bombing's impact is just as strong today. Perhaps that's because the historic crash - and infamous investigation that soon followed - was not only documented by eye-witnesses, but by reporters around the nation - a first in America's history.
That's right: the trial of John Gilbert Graham marked the first to ever be televised, making it "the O.J. Simpson trial of its day," as author Andrew J. Field put it. From the television cameras allowed in the courtroom to the troubling words that left the defendant's mouth, The State of Colorado v. John Gilbert Graham was truly like no other.
Another Tragedy Strikes
Unfortunately, though, Flight 629 wasn't the only shocking crash to change flying as we once knew it. As a matter of fact, less than a year after the infamous attack, another tragedy struck thousands of miles above the skies: the collision of Flight 2 and Flight 718. Ring a bell?
On a sunny day in June 1956, two planes that had recently taken off from Los Angeles wreaked havoc over the Grand Canyon. What went wrong? Unfortunately, both flights were flying in uncontrolled airspace, leading to their horrific collision - and the deaths of all 128 passengers aboard. Safe to say, its impact was felt tremendously...
The $250 Million Plan
The 1956 accident marked one of the deadliest plane crashes of the time, something Air Traffic Control vowed to never let happen again. Sure enough, their words soon rang true: after announcing a much-needed $250 million upgrade to ATC, air safety was given an entirely new meaning. But that's not all.
The historic accident also paved the way for other technological advances. In 1958, the Federal Aviation Administration was established - designed to oversee and regulate all sects of civil aviation. Since then, commercial aviation has slowly transformed into one of the safest forms of transportation in the world.
Only Up From Here
From John Gilbert Graham's horrific scheme to the 1956 collision that changed the name of aviation forever, our journey through the skies has been met with several bumps. But given the major strides in both technology and air safety that have been made since then? We're hopeful for a better future.
As FAA's official website proudly states, "Our continuing mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world." While only time will tell what the future has in store, these incidents have certainly left a mark.