Air Mail Arrows and Beacons
Imagine it’s 1925 and your biplane is flying somewhere over the Nevada desert, just high enough off the ground to miss the hilltops and ridge lines. Your sweaty hands are holding the stick hard because the wind is rocking you something fierce and the wind-blown dust is obscuring your view of the ground – where your “arrows” are pointing you to safety and your airmail for delivery.
Yea, arrows. No instruments other than a compass; no fancy GPS; just you, your plane and some concrete arrows planted in a line across the USA when airmail was first invented not long after the turn of the century.
ModernJeepers can still follow some of this route on land and enjoy overlanding and Jeeping while imaging the bravery of these early pilots.
The author points the way — Air Mail Nevada Arrow pointing east, giving directions to the low-flying pilots of the 1920’s
How it Began
In 1923, the United States Congress funded a sequential lighted airway along the transcontinental airmail route. The lighted airway was proposed by National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and deployed by the Department of Commerce. It was managed by the Bureau of Standards Aeronautical Branch.
The first segment built was between Chicago and Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was situated in the middle of the airmail route to enable aircraft to depart from either coast in the daytime and reach the lighted airway by nightfall. Lighted emergency airfields were also funded along the route every 15–20 miles.
Construction pace was fast, and pilots wishing to become airmail pilots were first exposed to the harsh wintertime work with the crews building the first segments of the lighting system.
By the end of the year, the public anticipated anchored lighted airways across the Atlantic, Pacific, and to China.
According to Wikipedia
The first nighttime airmail flights started on July 1, 1924. By eliminating the transfer of mail to rail cars at night, the coast to coast delivery time for airmail was reduced by two business days. Eventually, there were 284 beacons in service.
With a June 1925 deadline, the 2,665-mile lighted airway was completed from New York to San Francisco. In 1927, the lighted airway was complete between New York City and Salt Lake City, Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Los Angeles to San Francisco, New York to Atlanta, and Chicago to Dallas, 4121 miles in total. In 1933, the Transcontinental Airway System totaled 1500 beacons, and 18000 miles.
They were at the base of 50-foot skeleton towers that had a 24″ or 36″ rotating beacon and in the early days painted Chrome Yellow. Where electricity was unavailable, they had a generator shed on the feather end of the arrow to power the beacon.
The site number was painted on one side of the roof of the shed, the other side had the airway. They pointed to the next higher numbered beacon station, directing the pilot along his route.
All arrows pointed east on the west-east airways and north on the south-north airways. They were built between December 1926 and November 1932, when metal arrows became the standard.
Arrows by Jeep
Not long ago we had the opportunity to actually follow the route in parts of Nevada, just outside Lovelock. Websites and browsers can help you find the exact locations, but it was a lot more fun for my group to just “hunt” for them in in our Jeeps in the general area of the cross-country route.
It’s imperative that you be sure to respect any private property and stay on designated routes and roads. But even with that, we were able to find several of the arrows and enjoy the imaging of being a biplane pilot. And, well, OK, we used our GPS and maps.
If you’re adventurous, you can include overlanding and geocaching as part of this journey. We chose to overland camp and enjoy as much of Nevada as we could like the Lovelock Caves.
Entrance to Lovelock Cave where early man called home 1000 BC.
Overlander and Geocacher Mike Stoller in the Lovelock Cave – a great side trip while exploring the arrows.
Exploring the airmail arrows (and beacons) is a wonderful step back into America’s history of the brave pioneers who built our great country.
1920’s Airmail plane, Pitcairn PA-2