Arrows Across America

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I am an Air Force brat. I’ve always been proud of my background, especially of the rich associations I had with those men and women my father worked with. While most young people today make their heroes of those such as singers and athletes, mine were those pilots, navigators and other crewmen who risked and sometimes even gave everything to accomplish their missions. One crewmember who always especially interested me was the navigator who, with sometimes little more than a map and a compass, found their way to their heading and back. With GPS and other tools, aviators have it easier today. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always as easy as it is today, or even in the 50s through the 70s when my father flew.

That’s not to say that pilots in the early days of aviation didn’t use everything they could to get to their destination. If you happen to find yourself hiking through the Southwestern desert, you might find proof of that in the form of large concrete arrows that point the way.

Following the Arrows Across the Country
It doesn’t take much to find them, large concrete arrows that can be found scattered in the scrub-covered nowhere that makes up much of the American Southwest. At first you might think that they’re some kind of survey marker on steroids or for those more esoterically inclined, landing signals for aliens. Regardless, you would be wrong.

The first problem when you might try to explain them is their size. They’re more than 70 feet in length, with large concrete squares on what would be the shaft and the fletching of the arrow. And if you looked carefully, very carefully, you might even see flecks of the bright yellow paint that once covered the entire surface of the concrete. What will probably throw you off, however, is what is no longer there, the structures that once stood atop the squares and helped the arrow accomplish its mission.

From Pony Express to Pilots
In the early 1920s, a mere 60 years after the Pony Express closed up shop, the U.S. Post Office decided to establish a coast-to-coast airmail route. Unfortunately, there were no good maps at the time of the route that was available for pilots to follow. Navigation charts in those days were nonexistent, so pilots used hand-drawn maps or followed roads, telephone lines, or other landmarks to get to their destinations. In some cases, and when all else failed, pilots even landed and asked for directions. Throw darkness and bad weather into the mix, and finding your way could become exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

Much of this problem came to a screeching halt in 1924 when Congress decided to fund a new transcontinental navigation system comprised of a series of lit beacons that would eventually extend from New York to San Francisco. Every ten miles along the route, a concrete arrow painted bright yellow would point the direction to the next arrow. To aid in night or bad weather navigation a 51-foot steel tower lit by a million-candlepower rotating beacon was perched upon the square in the middle of the arrow. The beacon flashed in a code that gave the pilot the identification number of the location. The square that made up the end of the arrow was surmounted by a shed housing a generator which powered the beacon. Further, the location number of the arrow was printed in giant letters and numbers on the roof of the shed. When the beacons were in operation the lights were strong enough to be seen from one arrow to the next, literally making it possible to go from arrow to arrow, regardless of darkness or the weather. You could think of it as flying by connecting the dots, well, the arrows. Utilizing the system, mail could get from the Atlantic to the Pacific not in a matter of weeks, but in just 30 hours or so.

By 1924, just a year after Congress funded the project, the line of giant concrete markers stretched from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Cleveland, Ohio. The next summer, it reached all the way to New York, and by 1929 it spanned the continent uninterrupted, the envy of postal systems worldwide. The post office turned over management of the beacon system to the Commerce Department in 1929. By the time the project was completed there were more than 1,550 beacons making up the system.

Frank R. Yager, The Unsung Hero of Night Flying
On July 7, 1924, Frank R. Yager, an experienced air mail pilot, volunteered to become the first to navigate a nighttime segment of the flight. Yager later explained his willingness to take part in the experiment as a chance to further hone his aeronautical skills and increase his take-home pay; airmail pilots who flew the transcontinental route in the dark of night doubled the mileage scale over daytime pilots. Another reason for Yager’s willingness was that nobody else would take such a needless risk. Even Tex Marshall, another of aviation’s earliest pilots and one that was no stranger to experimentation, refused to take part in the venture. Yager’s effort, however, was hailed as "the beginning of a new era in aviation."

By the end of 1924 Yager had flown 31,473 miles at night, the highest number of miles flown in the darkness by any airmail pilot up to that time. From his date of appointment, August 10, 1920, to his last flight on June 27, 1927, Yager clocked 4,009.04 hours with the U.S. Air Mail Service over 391,616 miles. After the Post Office, Yager signed on with Boeing Air Transport, flying their San Francisco to Chicago route, again at night. When he ended his career in 1950, Yager revealed what he called the secret to his ability to fly cold nights, a jug of cherryflavored North Platte moonshine that he kept stashed between his legs in the cockpit.

The Era Ends
Radio and radar are, of course, infinitely less sexy than a concrete Yellow Brick Road from sea to shining sea, purple mountains majesty, and all that other stuff, but I think we all know that this story does not end happily, at least for the arrows. New advances in communication and navigation technology eventually made the big arrows obsolete, and the Commerce Department decommissioned the beacons in the 1940s. Most of the steel towers were eventually torn down and went to the war effort. Others, such as the one in the Mt. Taylor District of the Cibola National Forest, which sits atop a ridge on the Continental Divide at the Oso Ridge Fire Lookout (elevation ~8700 ft) has been preserved intact and used as a fire lookout. The site includes the base of the long-gone beacon tower, which also held a fire lookout cab, and the original generator hut that housed the power to light the airway beacon. A 1930s cabin that once served as the residence for the lookout is also squeezed onto the small volcanic knob.

In June, 2011, as part of an aviation archaeology program called Passport in Time a crew of dedicated volunteers from Wisconsin, Arizona, California, and New Mexico teamed up to preserve and interpret Beacon Site 61. Today, visitors to the site can not only visit the site which is preserved in all of its former glory, but a newly constructed aviation museum tells the story of the beacon and contains many relics of its history.

Restoration Efforts
There are only a few complete arrows left standing today, complete with their beacon and shiny orange-colored generator shed. And if you’re really nice to the attendants, and your idea of a thrill is really cheap, they might even turn on the beacon for you. There are also several communities near where the beacons are located who are making efforts to restore them to their former glory.

But the hundreds of arrows rem
ain. For the most part their bright yellow is gone, their concrete cracks a little more with every winter frost and no one crosses their path much anymore. But they’re still out there, much to the fascination of coyotes, tumbleweeds, and the occasional hiker.

Michael W. Michelsen, Jr. is a freelance writer in Southern California. He doesn’t need huge concrete arrows to navigate effectively, even though his wife, Lisa, would tell you couldn’t navigate his way out of a potato sack.

A 6.119Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE