Flying Airmail in the USA – 1920s Style!

Trolling through some philatelic websites few weeks ago I came across an interesting US Airmail postage stamp. It looked intriguing and further searching opened up a whole new world. Have you ever thought how pilots flew airmail across the US in the 1920 – no GPS, no radar, no radio beacons! Well, let me introduce you to the US Beacon and Directional Arrow System for flying postmen.

Transcontinental US airmail services began in 1920. Navigation was crude with pilots dependent on either identifying landmarks or following roads – such as they were. Night flying wasn’t even contemplated.

In 1924 the Post Office introduced an elegant, but very simple system, known as the Transcontinental Airway System, for moving the mail regularly by air. Spaced approximately 10 miles apart, the building of 50 foot towers to show the route from between San Francisco and New York was the first section of the project to be completed. Subsequently additional towers were built to incorporate other routes. At the top of the tower was a giant flashing beacon that could be clearly seen by the pilots. Below the main beacon was a secondary set of red and green lights, flashing Morse Code letters. This helped the pilot to both identify the beacon and its location.

Powering of the lights came from generator huts which also had identifying route and mileage numbers painted on their roofs. At the base of the tower were large concrete arrows painted in yellow chrome pointing in the direction of the next beacon, arrow or airfield. To quote “.. now even the dumbest of air pilots couldn’t possibly get lost.” With the expansion of the service split arrows, indicating other routes, were introduced. Night flying of mail now became a reality with the result that the travel time from coast to coast for mail was reduced to approximately 30 hours.

The Great Depression of the 1930s restricted funding for the service. Advances in navigational technology also sped up the demise of this innovative system. By 1939 it had, to all intent and purpose, outlived its usefulness. Interestingly the last tower was officially closed down in the early 1970s.

Above right is the layout of a typical beacon and arrow. To the left and below are examples of an existing arrow. So the next time you are flying over the States, look out of the window. The arrows are still visible in many places. You can take great pleasure and delight in pointing these out to the passenger in the seat next to you and explaining their role in the history of airmail development.

By Neil Donen

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