Sunday, January 13, 2013

Concrete Arrows

During our last Flyout, the topic of the concrete arrows found around St George came up and I decided to do some research on the subject.  What I have discovered is nothing short of amazing!  At least for me.

I knew the location of one of them and occasionally could find a second one while flying, but this one was always elusive to find.  Well, now I have found three of them around here and there maybe more.  I was also curious about their shape.  Why do they have this particular shape?  The text below answers that question and their exact location with GPS coordinates can be found below as well.

First, a little bit of history.  I found the following article that describes the need and how the whole thing got started:

The Development of Night Navigation in the U.S.
By John Schamel

After World War One, the U.S. Post Office began operating a series of air mail routes along the East Coast. On August 20, 1920, the Transcontinental Air Mail Route was opened. Extending from New York to San Francisco, it was the first airway to cross the nation. Airways in those days were merely concepts – air navigation charts didn’t exist. Pilots used railroad or early road maps since flying was a fair weather daytime activity. Mail planes of the day normally came equipped with a compass, a turn-and-bank indicator, and an altimeter. Pilots were often skeptical of their instruments and would only fly along a well-known route.

And there was the problem. Mail could only fly in the daylight. Many skeptics looked at Air Mail as an expensive frill, since it offered no clear-cut savings in time. Mail could cross the nation by rail in three days. The short daylight hops aircraft could give to the mail weren’t cost effective.

In February 1921, a grand experiment had been conducted. Two flights would fly the Transcontinental, one in each direction and the flights would continue into the night. Despite a raging blizzard across the Great Plains and the Midwest, one flight was able to make it with its load of mail from San Francisco to New York. The determination of one pilot, Jack Knight, who flew three segments of the route, made it succeed. Jack was able to find his way across the snow swept plains by following the bonfires lit by supportive citizens and postal employees.

Using six aircraft and six pilots, the air mail relay took slightly more than 24 hours to cover the distance from San Francisco to New York. Proof of substantial timesaving was made.

A 1923 experiment conducted by the Army Air Corps in Ohio showed that pilots could navigate at night using rotating light beacons. With this example, Paul Henderson, who was the Second Assistant Postmaster General in 1922 was able to press his requests for the development of a similar system for the Air Mail routes. Congress, in 1923, approved funding for the lighting of the Transcontinental Air Mail Route. Work started immediately on the Cheyenne to Chicago segment. Being in the middle of the nation, flights starting at daybreak on the coasts would be able to fly to either end of the lighted segment before dusk.

What resulted was the first ground based civilian navigation system in the world. Beacons were positioned every ten miles along the airway. At the top of a 51-foot steel tower was a 1 million candlepower-rotating beacon. Pilots could see the clear flash of light from a distance of 40 miles. Also at the top of the tower were two color-coded 100,000 candlepower course lights. These pointed up and down the airway. They were colored green, signifying an adjacent airfield, and red, signifying no airfield. The course lights also flashed a Morse code letter. The letter corresponded to the number of the beacon within a 100-mile segment of the airway. To determine their position, a pilot simply had to remember this phrase – “When Undertaking Very Hard Routes, Keep Direction By Good Methods” – and know which 100-mile segment they were on.
The beacons were also built to aid daytime navigation. Each tower was built on an arrow shaped concrete slab that was painted yellow. The arrow pointed to the next higher numbered beacon. An equipment/generator shed next to the tower had the beacon number and other information painted on the roof.

Regular scheduled night service on the Transcontinental Air Mail Route started on July 1, 1924. Now operating around the clock, Air Mail was able to cross the nation in 34 hours westbound and 29 hours eastbound. By the fall of 1924, the lighted segment extended from Rock Springs, WY to Cleveland, OH. By the summer of 1925, it extended all the way to New York.

An English aviation journalist, visiting the U.S. in 1924, wrote, “The U.S. Post Office runs what is far and away the most efficiently organized and efficiently managed Civil Aviation undertaking in the World.”

On July 1, 1927, the U.S. Post Office ended its Air Mail operation. The Transcontinental Air Mail Route, and other air mail routes, were turned over to the fledgling Airways Division in the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Lighthouses. The Airways Division continued with the development of lighted airways. An improved version of the beacon was fielded in 1931.
On January 29, 1929, the rotating beacon at Miriam, NV was turned on, lighting the last beacon in the Transcontinental Air Mail Route.

By 1933, the Federal Airway System operated by the Airways Division comprised 18,000 miles of lighted airways containing 1,550 rotating beacons and 236 intermediate landing fields. Air Mail pilots routinely navigated the skies during the night, following the “signposts” of the rotating beacons.  

About the author …
John Schamel joined the FAA in 1984 and has been an Academy instructor since 1991. He taught primarily in the Flight Service Initial Qualification and En Route Flight Advisory Service programs. He has also taught in the International and the Air Traffic Basics training programs at the FAA Academy.

In the St George area, we are fortunate to have the concrete foundations of three Airway Light Beacons.   Their identification and latitude / longitude locations are as follows:

·         Airway Beacon 37A located at 37° 3'53.17"N 113°35'43.15"W
·         Airway Beacon 37C located at 37° 7'2.66"N 113°29'15.36"W
·         Airway Beacon 38   located at 37°10'50.03"N 113°24'1.45"W

The identification information came from the Airway Map 133 Las Vegas Nevada to Milford Utah dated December 16, 1930 (download).  I also have Airway Map 134 Milford to Salt Lake, if you are interested (download).  A couple of interesting points to note on this map is that the magnetic variation at the time was 16° 15'E compare to 12° 30'E today.  The number on the beacons increase as you head north.  The arrows point to the next beacon in a northerly heading and there is a mistake in the magnetic heading flying southbound out of St George.  It is listed as 277° when it should have been 227°.  I hope that many aviators back then did not get lost delivering mail southbound!.

The latitude and longitude I got from Google Earth.  If you have Google Earth installed in your computer you can open this Google KMZ file (download) and it will launch Google Earth and show where the Airway Beacons are located.

If we ever run out of Chapter activities, maybe we can restore one of these Airway Beacons to its original glory!

Please make comments below.


  1. Thanks. Very interesting read about an important period in the history of US Mail delivery.

  2. This is fascinating — I would love to see these arrows in person.

    I was taking a mapping class when I found this web-page, and I created a map with the locations for the three beacons in St. George, Utah:

    Map of Air Mail Arrows

    I would love to add any other beacons, if anyone has the lat/long coordinates.

    1. Lat 35.11509119457276 Lon -105.0656920556481 near Santa Rosa, NM

  3. Northeast Texas has a tower still standing. I knew the gentleman that actually kept the generator running for the beacon. When the gov't came out to take it down, he purchased it and kept it. It's still there..... 32.635733, -94.761955

    1. How cool is that? I found it!!

  4. Excellent past history. would be great to at least see them painted once more

  5. Wonderful stuff. I wonder if there is a comprehensive listing of all the beacon sites, with latitude and longitude, available anywhere? It would be fun to go out and find them if you live near the route, and with Google Earth imagery not too hard.

  6. Where'd you get the cool 1930 chart images? I'd like to find them for other areas.


  7. Cool article!
    Here's the archive for them:

    I suppose majority of arrows were broke up and used for riprap or fill, with ground being returned to tillable. I'll have to look in my AO...
    Always so many projects to do~LOL!

  8. No arrows here, but Mount Diablo, CA, has a 10 million candlepower beacon that was installed in 1928. It was just restored and shines once each year, on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. Story here:

  9. Very cool man. Been to St George a couple times and had now idea this great piece of history can be seen there. Will be a must to check one out next time in the area with my buddy who likes history and aviation as much as I do. Thank you for sharing.

  10. I know of a similar site in Pike County, PA complete with yellow concrete arrow and remnants of an old tower but it's 20 or 30 miles north of the airmail route.

  11. The first of the first “Air Mail Pilots” were some of the most Macho Adventure types ever to crawl into an open-cockpit biplane. These guys were absolutely fearless – they launched into “WHATEVER” was out there, just trying to keep some kind of schedule going for the boss.

    Try this out you heavy hauler airline “777” pilot types (if you think you dare??):

    · No weather briefings;

    · No electronic communications;

    · Minimum qualified maintenance (it’s called: “kick the tire, light the fire, up into the blue” for a preflight/taxi/take-off & departure routine – WOW!!);

    · It’s called the beginning of the beginning – the most primary IFR navigation system, and that’s not today’s easy way out: IFR=instrument flight rules – those gutsy guys used the description of IFR to mean: I Follow Roads ! ! Yikes ! !

    · Gee Mom, don’t worry – I just follow the big long white arrows pointing my way from New York to San Francisco – today it would now be called “legalized flat hatting” – I got a taste of that magic elixir when I was crop-dusting – Six Flags Over Magic Mountain doesn’t have a ride that even comes close . . .

    The list could go on and on – fortunately those wonderful, dedicated souls from EAA Chapter 396 in Utah have truly put together the greatest historical summary's you will ever find ! !