Oklahoma's Lighted Airways - 1930s
The latest Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 88, No. 2, Summer 2010, had an interesting feature written by Thomas A. Wikle, entitled Transcontinental Crossroads: Oklahoma's Lighted Airways in the 1930s.
Wikle stated that during the early 1930s a network of high intensity navigation lights were constructed in Oklahoma to support nighttime airmail and passenger flights. Aircraft were able to follow a chain of bright beacons, smaller flashing lights by day and night to reduce the mail and passenger delivery times, enabling east-west transcontinental trips, completed in hours rather than days.
Oklahoma's central location became one of the most important crossroads for coast-to-coast lighted airway segments. It linked Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.
Navigation lights, night airways were supported by small airports and emergency landing fields staffed by employees of the Post Office Department and later by the Department of Commerce Lighthouse Service.
In Oklahoma aviation had an affect on both transportation and communications patterns. It established a foundation for modern passenger and air cargo routes, also providing connections to rural areas removed from major highways, railroads.
Many small airports, such as Waynoka's TAT, in Northwest Oklahoma owed their initial development to the need of auxiliary landing fields during the establishment of these early airways.
All this talk of lighted airways came from a desire to reduce mail delivery times at the end of World War I. Aircrafts were viewed as slow and incapable of carrying payloads that could generate a profit. Officials of the Post Office Department in Washington, DC saw possibilities for mail delivery by air.
It was following a series of trials in 1918, when an airmail service was established between New York and Washington, DC. Flying open cockpit biplanes with few instruments and no radios, pilots navigated by observing roads and town locations on highway or railroad maps. Weather and mechanical problems were common, with frequent delays.
September 8, 1920, a daytime transcontinental airmail service was initiated between New York and San Francisco. The coast-to-coast journey required 72 hours (a savings of 36 hours over the most direct rail route).
The post officials realized that flights would need to be made at night as well as during the day to be competitive with delivery by train. A heavily publicized, successful around the clock relay flight was carried out between San Francisco and New York with help from the residents of mid-western towns who built fires in upended oil drums to assist pilots to navigate in the darkness. That began the construction of facilities for coast-to-coast day/night operations.
It was during the early 1920s the US Army Air Corps began its experiments to determine if pilots could navigate in darkness using beacons similar to those installed in coastal lighthouses. They discovered a rotating beacon could more easily be distinguished by pilots flying over populated areas.
Aeronautical beacons were designed to aim slightly upward rather than towards the horizon, enabling them to be seen from the air.
Some landing fields were equipped with 36-inch arc searchlights, while additional airway beacons with 18-inch rotating lights were placed on the top of fifty foot steel towers at intervals of 25 miles. Smaller, acetylene gas powered lights blinking one hundred times per minute were positioned at 3 mile intervals as supplements to the more powerful searchlight beacons. The auxiliary beacons could operate for up to 6 months before their gas cylinders needed to be refilled.
Postal officials wrote newspaper and magazine articles about the benefits of day/night airmail service to generate public interest for expanding the lighted airway concept to other areas in the United States. It was June 1924 that a commissioned 23-foot map of the lighted airway was displayed in New York City's Times Square. The map featured model planes that moved along the airway route on belts, passing through colored zones showing segments flown during day in contrast to those indicating night portions of the transcontinental route.
They identified the most available straight line route between major cities. Aircrafts surveyed 25 mile wide strips of land with access to roads, railways, and power lines. Aerial surveys also supplemented the more comprehensive ground surveys.
In Oklahoma, Lieutenant Auby C. Strickland was given responsibility for investigating a route extending from Kansas City to San Antonio. Strickland's authority included negotiating the lease or purchase of suitable lands with property owners.
The Post Office Department specified for airway facilities that beacon towers to be fifty-one feet in height. It depended on local circumstances, though. Then twenty-five foot, sixty-two foot, seventy-five foot or eighty-seven foot towers were also used.
Towers were paint in alternating bands of yellow and black, topping each tower was a six foot square platform supporting a two million candlepower rotating light built by Sperry Gyroscope Company and Westinghouse Electric.
Also, to mark the route, course lights flashed a morse code number identifying the beacon's position number along its airway segment. The last digit of the code included a letter that represented the beacon on its segment.
To determine their location on lighted segment pilots memorized the phrase "When Undertaking Very Hard Routes, Keep Direction By Good Methods." The letter of the first word signified the first beacon, the letter of the second word denoted the second beacon and so on.
The colors of the course beacons were also significant. Amber was used to indicate the availability of an intermediate or emergency landing field. Green signified the presence of an airport. Red denoted a location without a landing area.
On most airways high intensity beacons were located every ten miles apart. More closely spaced acetylene gas lights mounted on poles close to ground level were used in hilly areas. A pilot that did not deviate by more than five degrees would always pass within the visible range of the next beacon in most visual flight conditions. Tall objects on airway routes were topped with red obstruction lights.
Each beacon tower was constructed directly over a fifty-four foot concrete arrow pointing down the airway towards the next higher numbered beacon.
Intermediate landing fields were located at intervals of fifty miles. They had to provide access to medical or mechanical assistance. Land selected for an intermediate field had to be a well drained, level. The standard field configuration was two landing strips measuring twenty-six hundred to three thousand feet in length and crossing in a pattern resembling a T, L or plus sign.
Oklahoma airway keepers such as W. A. Rambo, who maintained the beacon and intermediate field in Dill, served as airport operators, weather observers, mechanics, and sometimes host to stranded pilots. The typical monthly pay received by keepers was $25 to $35. In addition to their salary a house was sometimes provided to the keeper and his family at remote locations.
Oklahoma's first lighted airway segment was constructed on a north-south route between Wichita, Kansas and Fort Worth, Texas. After passing through Ponca City, the airway extended south following a series of small flashing lights to Beacon 26 located west of Red Rock on US highway 77.
From there the airway turned south to the intermediate field at Perry. Perry's original airfield was located one and one-half miles north of town, about three and one-half miles south of its present location. The grass filed was designed without specific runways so that a plane could land into the wind from any direction. From Perry the route extended to Beacon 22 just south of Mulhall before reaching an intermediate field near Guthrie.
Located about two miles south of town, Guthrie's sod runways came together to form an L shape, the longest extending 1,930 feet in length. Sitting on its original concrete arrow, Beacon 21 continues to be used as a navigation marker at the present day Guthrie-Edmond Regional Airport. South of Guthrie, the airway extended past Beacon 20, located on the western side of Edmond, to Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma's best known beacon on the Wichita to Fort Worth airway was located on top of Oklahoma City's 33-story First National Bank building. In September, 1931, bank officials celebrated completion of this beacon on the top of the newly completed, Art-Deco style skyscraper with a lighting ceremony witnessed by William O. Harris, international president of Kiwanis. This same building later hosted the exclusive Beacon Club, the first private membership club.
As they continued south of Oklahoma City the Wichita-Fort Worth airway passed several auxiliary fields before reaching Ardmore, Oklahoma. In early July, 1931, a giant beacon was established on a timbered hill eighteen miles north of Ardmore. Located near Turner Falls and sitting atop a 75 foot tower. The four million candle-powered beacon was said to be visible as far south as Fort Worth and as far north as Oklahoma City. The airway's last Oklahoma section passed over Lake Murray before crossing into Texas north of Marietta, Texas.
Most airplanes operated from sod strips or muddy fields. Hangers, storage buildings at Oklahoma airfields were often adapted from existing structures such as roadside gas stations or even packing crates.
Back then there was little abatable in the Post Office Department budget for airfield construction. To advance airway expansion plans, postal officials encouraged cities to finance airfield improvements, sometimes with a promise of future reimbursement for development costs. Oklahoma civic leaders promoted airfield construction in the name of local economic development.
By 1928, Oklahoma's collection of airports ranged in size from less than 20 acres to the 405 acre field in Tulsa. That same year the state ranked fourth nationwide in the number of airfields, exceeded only by California, New york and Pennsylvania.
Railroad owners complained about declining profits as the airmail system expanded. A provision of the 1925 Kelly Act airmail operations shifted from the Post Office Department to private mail carriers.
There was a section of the lighted airway connecting Chicago and Los Angeles that crossed northwestern Oklahoma between Wichita and Amarillo. On the route westbound aircraft departing Wichita Municipal Airport (now McConnell Air Force Base) traveled southwest, passing Beacon 28 near Baynesville, Kansas, and then Anthony Municipal Airport before crossing into Oklahoma northwest of Amorita. From there the route extended southwest on an emergency field located north of Alva, west of the Salt Fork River.
Continuing southwest the airway passed Beacon 18 and a Department of Commerce intermediate field north of Waynoka. Waynoka was already an important location for transcontinental air travel. Since 1929 the airfield had been a stop for a passenger service operated by Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) that linked New York and Los Angeles.
TAT was a precursor to Trans World Airlines. It was also known as the "Lindbergh Line" or simply the "Lindy Line" because Charles Lindbergh was a part owner as well as the principal architect of the airline's routes.
Transcontinental passengers began their 48 hour journey by boarding a night train on the Pennsylvania Railroad from New York City to Port Columbus, Ohio, where they transferred to an 8:15 a.m. flight by Ford Tri-motor airplane to Waynoka, Oklahoma.
Waynoka's airfield had been outfitted with repair shops, passenger facilities, weather station and the third larges aircraft hangar in the USA. Following dinner at Waynoka's Harvey House, travelers would board a night train to Clovis, New Mexico, where they continued on a day flight westward to Los Angeles.
In 1928, responsibility for operating, expanding the lighted airway was transferred from the Post Office Department to the new Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce.
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