Finding history…

Everyone has heard of the Transcontinental Railway, but have you heard of the Transcontinental Airway? You haven’t? Shame on you. Well, not to worry, in my role as part-time amateur aviation historian, I’m here to help.

In an era before radio navigation, the United States government created a series of air routes marked by a chain of lighted beacon towers. It was a massive, amazing, expensive undertaking. They built 53-foot-high towers every 10 to 15 miles, from coast-to-coast! Pilots flying the night mail used the system to find their way safely over the darkened landscape by flying from point of flashing light to point of flashing light.

Can you imagine what that must have been like, alone in the dark in an open-cockpit biplane, bone-chilling wind whistling through the wires that held wings of cloth and wood together, following a flashing chain of pearls below?

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The beacon towers sat on massive brightly-painted concrete arrows that literally pointed the way by day. Built between 1923 and 1933, the final network of towers and arrows was made up of more than 1,500 sites lighting 18,000 miles of airmail routes. At the start of World War II, fears of Japanese air raids, combined with the advent of radio navigation, led to the shuttering of the beacon system. Then the need for raw materials for the war effort led to most of the towers being dismantled for their steel. Over the following years, time and the elements set in, and today the location of most of the sites is a mystery.
Arrow,-Beacon-Tower,-Shed

I became interested in the transcontinental airway because in the Western part of our state we have one of the few remaining beacon towers, now fully restored, as part of a museum. I had thought an interesting angle would be to fly out to it following the original airmail route, visit the site, then write up a story that blended the flight, the history, and the existing museum and try to sell it to a magazine. (My eldest sister, also a professional writer, thinks it’s idiocy to write anything before you sell it, but I do some of both.)

I’m still planning to do that story, but in doing my initial research for it, I discovered that one of the early airmail routes, the Los Angeles-Amarillo Airway, actually passed a few miles south of my house. At one time there were a dozen beacons and even an intermediate airfield nearby. Holy cow! I wish that airfield were still there, it would mean a 10-minute commute to the family Ercoupe, not a 45-minute one!

Anyway, nobody around here knew anything about the field, so I decided to search for the site myself. I used antique aeronautical charts I purchased on eBay, satellite images on Google Earth, modern GPS, and aerial search techniques that I learned twenty-five years ago in the Civil Air Patrol.

For weeks we burned holes in the sky to no avail. To be honest, we weren’t even sure what we were looking for. Might we be so remote that the towers are still standing? If not the tower, maybe the support shed? And, hey, just what kind of altitude do you need to be at to see one of these arrows, if there was even one to be seen in the first place?

But we struck out time and time again, and I began to believe that the sites were buried under decades of blowing sand, grass, and juniper trees and might never be found. Not, at least, by the likes of us.

But today, criss-crossing empty fields and mesa tops at 100 feet above the ground, canopy open and wind in our hair, Rio and I spotted one of the 30-foot-long stone arrows from the air.

After much whooping, high-fiving, fist-pumping, and generalized happy chaos in the cockpit, we flew IFR–I Follow Roads–to figure out how to get “boots on the ground” at the site. After we landed, hangared Tess, and did all our post-flight stuff, we hit the truckstop for critical supplies (Doritos, water, and beef jerky) and went four-wheeling.

And four hours later…

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Flying the Air Mail, now those were the days of High Adventure! But this… this wasn’t too shabby either!

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