Giant arrows are for pointing the way!
Once there were hundreds of giant arrows made of cement pointing the way across America, directing traffic for transcontinental airmail routes. In some wild, lonely places where the weeds grew faster than towns, the arrows remain, forlorn without fresh yellow paint, cracked and waiting to be rediscovered by the adventurous or the lucky few.
At right is the same station as it looked in the early 1920s–the two forefront buildings for administration and crew quarters are long gone. In the background you can see the generator house with the prototype black band and the tower.
We’d heard that one of the giant arrows could still be found at Medicine Bow, Wyoming. Last month offered a chance to fly a low course down the wild runway chasing antelope out of the way before flying a proper pattern to land. Later that same afternoon we found the beacon tower at Rock Springs as well.
In 1920 the world’s first ground-based air navigation system was authorized by the Congress of the United States
Pilots flying their wood and fabric taildraggers needed guidance from station to station. This first continent-spanning airway was an impressive beginning but in inclement weather with reduced visibility or in the dark of night a pilot couldn’t reliably follow railroad tracks and early road maps. These open-cockpit airplanes only had a magnetic compass for navigation plus a turn and bank indicator and altimeter for flight instruments.
A system of lighted beacons atop giant arrows was needed to keep the airmail moving
In a fierce blizzard (1921) a relay of six airplanes and six pilots flew routes coast to coast in opposite directions. One determined pilot named Jack Knight flew three segments of the trip from San Francisco to New York. He succeeded in large measure because of a long series of bonfires along the remotest parts of the route that were tended by postal employees.
As a result of this grand proof of concept, funds were appropriated in 1923 and work began immediately on the first segment of lighted beacons from Cheyenne to Chicago. Why here in the middle of the country? A pilot could start at either coast and reach the long stretch of numbered and color-coded beacons by nightfall to follow them through the dark landscape.
By 1926 a 650 mile route from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City was marked every 10 to 15 miles with a yellow painted arrow and a 51 foot steel tower topped by two 100,000-candle 24” rotating beacons pointing back and forth along the airway. A generator shack for continuous power and quarters for crew to keep it running completed the scene. At night pilots could see the flashing lights over forty miles away and flying closer to the beacons a clear panel at the top projected light onto the overlying cloud deck to help determine the ceiling.
The first of the giant arrows and its beacon were built at Rock Springs, Wyoming
By 1929 the giant arrows spanned the continent with 13 intermediate stops. Mail could now travel from New York to San Francisco in just 30 hours. So much achieved in so little time!
One airmail pilot offered route advice; decades later his words give a pretty good idea of the challenges faced by aviation pioneers:
- CHE + 0 (miles from) Cheyenne Wyo. — Can be identified by the barracks of Fort Russell. The Cheyenne field is three-quarters of a mile due north of the town and due north of the capitol building, whose gilded dome is unmistakable. The field, though rolling, is very large and landings may be made from any direction. A pilot landing here for the first time must “watch his step,” as the rarified atmosphere at this altitude (6,100 feet) makes rough landings the rule rather than the exception. Fly west over or to the north of Fort Russell, which is about 4 miles from town, following the Colorado & Southern tracks to the point where they bend sharply to the north.
CHE + 80. Elk Mountain Wyo. — To the north of the Medicine Bow Range, a black and white range of mountains, the black parts of which are forests and the white snow-covered rocks. Elk Mountain is 12,500 feet high. Fly to the north of this conspicuous mountain over high, rough country. The Union Pacific tracks will be seen about 15 miles to the north gradually converging with the course.
- CHE + 134. Rawlins Wyo. — Follow the general direction of the Union Pacific tracks to Rawlins, which is on the Union Pacific tracks. The country between Walcott and Rawlins is fairly level, but covered with sage brush, which makes landings dangerous. Rawlins is on the north side of the Union Pacific tracks at a point about a mile east of where the tracks cut through a low ridge of hills. Large railroad shops distinguish the town. The emergency field provided here lies about 1¼ miles northeast of town at the base of a large hill. Landings are made almost invariably to the west. Surface of field is fairly good, as the sage brush has been removed. Easily identified by this, as the surrounding country is covered with sage brush. Landings can be made in any direction into the wind if care is exercised. Several ranch buildings and two small black shacks on the eastern side of the field help distinguish it. Leaving Rawlins follow the Union Pacific tracks to Creston.
CHE + 231. Rock Springs, Wyo. — After passing Black Butte, Pilot Butte will be seen projecting above and forming a part of the Table Mountain Range. This butte is of whitish stone. Head directly toward Pilot Butte and Rock Springs will be passed on the northern side. The field is in the valley at the foot of Pilot Butte about 4 miles from Rock Springs. It is triangular in shape, the hangar being located in the apex. The surface of the field is good. The best approach is from the eastern side.
- CHE + 246. Green River, Wyo. — Follow the Union Pacific double-tracked railroad from Rock Springs. There is an emergency field here which is distinguished [on] account of its being the only cleared space of its size, near the town. Green river is crossed immediately after the city of Green River is passed. Here the course leaves the railroad which continues in a northwesterly direction. By flying approximately 230˚ compass course from here, Cheyenne [Salt Lake City] will be reached.
Technologies have always changed us and made new opportunities
But technology never stands still–within twenty years the giant arrows were outdated. Most of the steel in the decommissioned towers went to the war effort. In most places the evidence is entirely gone.
There are exceptions. The Aviation Heritage Museum in New Mexico, has successfully restored one of the old sites, similar to those rediscovered in Utah and elsewhere which inspire hopes for their preservation.
Others like Medicine Bow are mouldering away in the sun, backdrop to cattle ranching and wilderness. An incredible place to visit. Whether you’re a pilot or not, AirNav gives particulars for the primitive airstrip (80V) that are fascinating. I learned for instance that there are on average only 20 aircraft operations a year, that the runway we landed on is graded annually and is in fair condition (the other is not maintained and is considered poor), that there is a lot of wildlife in the vicinity of both runways. There are gopher and badger holes, berms, ditches, fence obstructions, soft when wet, rough and uneven the entire length. And of course, there are no services.
Except we learned that the small hotel in town would pick you up if you called. Nice!
NOTE: In March 2014 five of my photos (with credits to Sharyn Richardson – Light Pixie Studio) were published in The American Surveyor magazine (the top journal for professionals in land surveying and GPS technology) to illustrate the cover story, “Arrows Across America,” by Mike Mickelsen, including the two-page lead. Check it out here.