The Liberty Gazette
June 30, 2009
June 30, 2009
The View From Up Here
By Mike Ely and Linda Street Ely
Guest Columnist, Patrick Griffitts: Well as the column is due for the printing deadline, time has found Linda involved with her teammate Jodie Perry in the Air Race Classic and Mike following somewhere behind, possibly by mule. You can look forward to reading about her adventure here in the next week or two. I am Patrick Griffitts, former Dayton resident from a time closer to when rocks were soft and dirt was new, and Linda and Mike have asked me to write a few words in their absence.
Recently I was heading back to Seattle after a few days of flying around the Yellowstone area for my employer. Leaving Missoula after fuel and lunch, Pete the other pilot flying with me was looking at the visual flight chart and asked me what a symbol he was seeing on it was as he had never seen one like it before. I had a look and the symbol was a star with a line to the left of it, a line to the right and a line with two shorter ones to the upper right. What my younger co-pilot had stumbled upon is not found too much anymore and many pilots alive today have never seen in operation what it signifies.
In the early days of flight there were no navigation instruments for a pilot to rely on and they navigated by what they could see from looking outside the cockpit. Of course this either made night flight nearly impossible or extremely dangerous if attempted.
Then in 1919 an Army Air Service pilot by the name of Donald Bruner came upon the idea of organizing bonfires to be lit as a way to guide him from his departure point to his destination. This idea was put to the real test in 1921 as Jack Knight flew from North Platte Nebraska to Chicago with the Postal Service organizing the bonfires that guided him through the night. Thus was born the Airway Beacon System.
Soon after the Postal Service began a program of building towers across the U.S. that would be spaced from about 15 to 25 miles apart with beacons on top that could be seen for 40 miles. Each beacon had a certain light sequence that it flashed so that a pilot would know their location from the chart that showed which beacons flashed how and in what direction. Beacons along the airway where white, an airfield for safe landing flashed green and airfields that could be used but were dangerous flashed red. For day flight each tower was coded with a navigation number. 18,000 miles of airways had been marked and 1,500 beacons were in place by 1933.
My friend in the cockpit that day with me had found one of the few airway beacons still in operation and guiding pilots. So next time you are driving by an airport, like the one in Liberty, at night and see the beacon rotating with a flash of white and a flash of green, you'll know are not only looking at the operation of an airport today, you connecting to the past and our aviation history. And if you try, for a moment you are that pilot in the cold open cockpit in1924 who knows they have reached their destination and some warmth.