Thursday, November 21, 2013

Giant Arrows Pointing The Way Across America

They were left by beings from long ago.  Most are gone; but a few remain and can be seen by the few who are adventurous enough to seek them out.
Long before the days of radio (and those convenient little smartphone applications), the US Postal service began a cross-country air mail service using army war surplus planes from World War I, many piloted by former army flyers. To get the planes and everybody’s mail safely across the country by air, the postman was going to need a little help.
In 1924, the federal government funded enormous concrete arrows to be built every 10 miles or so along established airmail routes to help the pilots trace their way across America in bad weather conditions and particularly at night, which was a more efficient time to fly.
Painted in bright yellow, they were each built alongside a 50 foot tall tower with a rotating gas-powered light and a little rest house for the folks that maintained the generators and lights. These airway beacons are said to have been visible from a distance of 10 miles high. 
Visible from 10 miles high?   That would be 52,800 feet, and altitude no airplane could reach at the time, and few can reach now.  Perhaps the claim should have been 1 mile high, 5,280 feet above sea level.  Realistically, it could have been .1 miles, about 500 feet above ground, where most early airmail airplanes flew.


This was high-tech navigation in the years after WWI.  Think about that when you use your smart phone to navigate your way someplace.  Or when you read about a modern aircraft landing at the wrong airport.

Very cool article here.

18 comments:

Sixty Grit said...

Or, perhaps 10 miles as the hypotenuse of a right triangle, the short leg being the aircraft's altitude.

Michael Haz said...

Still pretty high for an open cockpit biplane.

Evi L. Bloggerlady said...

It would be fun to go find some of the remaining arrows.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

It was those postal flights across America that gave rise to the roadside diner.

ndspinelli said...

Very interesting post.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Really interesting. I love learning something new! Now, if I ever come across one of those arrows I won't be mystified.

bagoh20 said...

I use GPS every day, and it's a wonderful aid to daily life, but I miss the way we used maps and a compass back in the day, especially when hiking or flying. It was a very cool kind of game to use those simple tools and the mathematical methods that went with it to plan out trips and find your way - a fun challenge and seemed like magic when you did it right. GPS washed that away overnight. Of course, nobody is stopping a person from doing it old school, but you can't help feeling silly looking at your map when some hipster walks by in shorts and sandals staring at his phone. He doesn't have be prepared or worry at all about where he might end up. That was a big part of the attraction before - the risks, and knowing you had to use your wits to get out. Now you just need a spare battery. Borrrrinnnnggg.

bagoh20 said...

Also lost is the connection with the past that maps and compass provided. You were doing things just like Columbus, and all the men who discovered that big mysterious planet that is now so small.

bagoh20 said...

I bet those arrows have fueled a few conspiracy theories over the years.

Evi L. Bloggerlady said...

Go west young man...

AllenS said...

I wait until night time and then use the stars.

Michael Haz said...

The problem was that once the airplanes made it all the way to the west coast, there were no arrows pointing the way back east.

rcocean said...

I would think a compass would make this unnecessary. Or conversely, why not just follow the RR tracks or Route 66.

Rivers are good too.

john said...

So if all the arrows are pointing west, how did those pilots ever make their return flights?

Something fishy about that.

john said...

Oops. sorry Haz

Paddy O said...

"and all the men who discovered that big mysterious planet"

and all the men whose names we don't know because they died after getting lost.

Paddy O said...

"how did those pilots ever make their return flights?"

No one knows. Some say, that somewhere, somewhere West of everywhere, there's still men in planes carrying bags of mail. Flying west, ever west, faithful to the arrows.

Godspeed westward postal flyers. Godspeed to the eternal West.

bagoh20 said...

Hey Columbus was totally lost and off by half a planet, and he's kinda famous.