Backpacking through Europe in my 20s, my sense of direction served me well—until I hit the cities with the truly medieval street plans. So in Florence, after renting a motorcycle, I devised a clever way to find the garage again: Next to the garage was an impressive, obviously important brick building, with a large arrow and some Italian words pointing to it. I observed these same signs along the street pointing back towards this building, so I knew that if I got close enough, the signs would lead me back to the building and the garage.
Attempting to return at the end of the day, I located the signs, began following them—and was soon hopelessly lost. It was only after going in a complete circle that I realized what was written on the sign—Senso Unico—was Italian for "One Way."
To follow arrows is human-behavior-meets-graphic-design 101. So it may not surprise you to learn that these gigantic concrete arrows dotting America, from east to west, are for wayfinding.
In the 1920s, America began coast-to-coast Airmail service, but the pioneer pilots had trouble navigating the route, since navigation charts of the day were fugazi and you couldn't exactly pull over to ask a farmer for directions. And traveling at night, when it would have been most efficient, or in bad weather was impossible. To solve this Congress then funded these gi-normous arrow-shaped Airmail Beacons, some up to 70 feet long, to trace a route across the country.
The arrows were painted bright yellow and each was accompanied by a tower up to 50 feet in height. At the top of each tower was a powerful gas-powered light, and at the bottom of the tower, a shed to hold the gas.
The easily-discernible design made the arrows visible from a distance of ten miles, and each arrow pointed the way towards the next, some three miles distant. That's according to the Postal Museum; however, this blog claims the towers were 10 miles apart with a 40-mile visibility. It's possible the former is describing the earlier towers and the latter is describing updated versions.
What's not in dispute is that the beacon towers are all gone, the steel having been broken up and recycled for America's World War II effort. But the no-longer-used arrows remain, their paint long since worn off by the elements, the arrows themselves too difficult to make breaking them up worthwhile. And unless Omer Haciomeroglu sends his Concrete Recycling Robots into the American hinterlands, they'll likely be there forever.
Above: Airmail Beacon on exhibit in the National Postal Museum Atrium (Beacon on loan from the National Air and Space Museum)
Above: Revolving light beacon towner being built, Omaha, 1920s. .
Above: Beacon tower in Nebraska - emergency landing field mid 20s.
The first transcontinental airmail route was 2,629-miles long, stretching between San Francisco, California and New York, New York. In order to keep mail flying around the clock, the postal service had to ensure the safety and success of night flight. To do this, the Post Office Department mounted airmail beacons, such as this one, along the route. This string of beacons helped guide pilots to emergency and regular landing fields. By the summer of 1924, enough beacons had been placed along the western route to light the 1,912 miles between Cleveland, Ohio, and Rock Springs, Wyoming, and the postal service was able to begin regularly scheduled transcontinental airmail service using night flights. The airmail service had 18 terminal fields, 89 emergency fields and more than 500 beacon lights in operation that year.
The ground navigation support system beacons were 5,000 candlepower acetylene-gas powered lights. They were installed at three mile intervals, visible for about 10 miles out. Some beacons were harder to position than others. The beacons had to be mounted on high ground for optimum visibility. Some locations could be reached only by mules, which were used to haul in materials and equipment. Despite the challenging geography of the mountainous west, mounting beacons was more difficult along the more heavily-populated eastern portion of the route. Before beacons were completed along that route, night flights were regulated to the comparatively flat 885 miles between Chicago and Cleveland. Since towns and cities were closer together in the east, beacons did not need to be set up every three miles as they were along the western segments of the route. Instead, those that were put up were attached to the highest point in designated areas.
Emergency landing fields were set up every 25 miles and were equipped with rotating 18-inch incandescent electric beacon lights mounted on 50-foot towers. These lights were set to sweep the horizon approximately six times per minute, at .05-degrees above the horizon. On clear nights, emergency field beacons were visible 60-75 miles away from the field.
The Post Office Department continued to use the reliable de Havillands for the night flights. The planes were equipped with landing and navigation lights, and most critically for the pilots, illuminated instrument panels. Of the ninety-six DH-4Bs still in service, 61 had been equipped for night flight by 1925 when the New York, New York to Cleveland, Ohio portion of the transcontinental route was equipped with beacon lights.
Written by Nancy A. Pope
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