Thursday, July 9, 2015

The land of big arrows

I was riding my bike the other day and noticed this arrow painted on the bike path.  Certainly there is nothing unusual about it – there are plenty around, sometimes alone, sometimes with a bike icon nearby.

It got me thinking about a fascinating piece of history in the USA that was a really big deal when it happened, which didn’t last long, then basically left the public's consciousness.  However, even today, nearly a hundred years after it began and nearly ninety years since it ended, there are still relics of it scattered across thousands of miles of the continental USA.  And I suspect archeologists hundreds of years from now will find them and scratch their heads.

I’m talking about the arrow and tower system, known as the airmail beacon system, that was put in place initially from New York City to San Francisco to guide the first airmail pilots.

By 1920, formal airmail service was in place in several places in the world, from India (by the Brits), to Australia, to the USA.  In America, because of the vast distance between the coasts, it was immediately apparent that flying mail would be substantially faster than sending it by rail.

In researching this piece, I was flabbergasted by the size of the Post Office at the time.  In the fiscal year ending June 1921, the Post Office shad old over $411 million of stamps and other postal items, including almost 14 billion stamp.  In its first year of service, the airmail system carried over 1.1 million pounds of mail, with an average load being only 400 pounds.

From the Postmaster General's report, 1921

In early 1921, a test flight was made from San Francisco to New York, flying both day and night.  It took a total of 33 hours and 21 minutes, of which 25 hours and 16 minutes was flight time.  This gave an average speed of about 104 miles per hour for the 2629 mile route.  In his annual report, the Postmaster General used this to indicate how service could be improved using better trained pilots flying faster aircraft with greater load capacity.

The question, of course, is how could planes fly cross-country, day or night, and arrive at the intended destination.  Safely!

The answer is in the arrows and the towers.

Airmail beacon on Airmail stamp
Across the country, huge concrete arrows were constructed, pointing in the direction of the next arrow.  These arrows were between 50 and 70 feet long, painted bright yellow for visibility.  On top of each arrow, there was a tower, about fifty feet tall with an acetylene gas-powered lamp of about 5,000 candle power.  These towers were initially only 3 to 5 miles apart to make them visible.  About 1,500 of these beacons were built.  Each tower could be identified from the air by red and green lights that gave the Morse code identifier for the tower.

In addition, every twenty-five miles or so, a landing strip was prepared for aircraft servicing, refueling, and safety.

Later the brightness of the lights was increased dramatically to a million candle power, enabling them to be seen from 10 miles away.

Then in the early 1930s, long-range radio navigation started taking over, and by 1940, the arrow and beacon system had fallen into disuse.  During World War II, many of the towers were razed, and their steel recycled for the war effort.

Arrow showing where tower was constructed
However, nothing was done about the arrows.  

According to one website I found (, site owners Brian and Charlotte Smith have taken up the challenge to locate as many of the arrows and towers as possible.  At present they have found 80.

As you can imagine, most of the towers have disappeared, and many arrows are in a state of disrepair.  However there are some that are still in good shape, and there are efforts in a number of places to create mini-historical sites around the beacons.

Reconstructed beacon on Los Angeles to Albuquerque route
Those airmail pilots were either very brave or very foolish!  I can’t imagine flying over the Alleghenies and Rockies with my head out of the window looking for a light rotating over a yellow arrow.

So, for those of you who are hikers, if you stumble across a gigantic arrow in the middle of nowhere, be rest assured that it has not been put there by aliens, but by the postal service.  Please note the GPS coordinates, and photograph it multiple times from multiple angles.  Then send all of that to the Smiths.  You may be adding to their collection.

 Stan – Thursday

PS.  I have taken photographs and drawings from various sites, including the Smith’s, for which I thank them.


  1. Stan, How delightful! I awoke this morning and was greeted by heart-sinking, mind-roiling discourses on the Greek financial debacle. Powerless to do anything about that except grieve, I then read this and was transported father than those airmail letters and packages ever went. Thinking over that transformation in my mood, I realized something about why I love to read and to write historical novels: those stories take us away from the daunting reality of a scary, chaotic present to an equally scary and chaotic past. The difference is that we know the outcome of the past. People survived. Life went one. Hooray and thanks!

    1. Oh, and bi-planes. Is there anything more romantic than the image of a bi-plane?!!

    2. Next time you do it, can I come? I can pretend I am doing it just for research. :)

    3. I loved it for many of the same reasons as Sis, though I feel as if I'm leaning out over the Himalayas, upside down, awaiting a decent "bailout" proposal... in all meanings of the word.

  2. What a great story of daring do! I presume they flew below cloud level .....

  3. Great, Stan! Somehow I've managed (until now) to have never heard about these. New day, new thing learned. I can take the rest of the day off...

  4. Wonderful images, Stan. I'd never heard of these towers either, but it's logical there had to be some means of navigation before technology stepped in.