It’s hard to imagine there was actually a time when people flew airplanes, back before the invention of things like GPS, radar or even rudimentary radio communication to help guide them to their destinations. Back then, pilots had to rely solely on what they could see and at night or in bad weather, that wasn’t a whole lot.
A few months back, I heard a story about large concrete arrows in the ground that you can still find scattered all across the country. From what I understand, they were constructed between 1923 and 1933 by the United State Post Office and the Department of Commerce and were a part of the first Transcontinental Airway Beacon System. Essentially, they were a network of visual beacons established to help early pilots navigate their way from New York to San Francisco and eventually, built all across the United States in an effort to connect all the major cities within it. Positioned approximately 10 miles apart (some closer and others further apart depending on terrain), most of these beacons were towers built on 50 foot concrete arrows that were painted bright yellow and had a 24″ diameter rotating light mounted on top. Additional red and green lights were also used to help provide useful information in Morse Code utilizing the following letters, W, U, V, H, R, K, D, B, G or M, to represent the numbers 1-10. To help remember the sequence, pilots made the following phrase out of it, “When Undertaking Very Hard Routes Keep Directions By Good Methods.”
By 1933, there were as many as 1,500 beacons spanning 18,000 miles but, thanks to a new Low Frequency Radio Range system that was implemented in 1929 to replace the original visual system, most of the towers were shut down and dismantled as scrap metal for World War II. And, with the exception of a few that are still operating in Western Montana under the Montana Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division, the very last official tower was shut down in 1973.
Since first hearing about these mysterious concrete arrows and the fact that the Transcontinental Airway System came right through Northern Nevada, I’ve been thinking of little else than to find them. After spending countless hours doing research online, pouring over old maps and trying to verify locations using Google Earth, we loaded up our Jeep and headed out. Here are a few photos from our recent expedition and what we found. I hope you enjoy.