|Airway Beacon 28A|
We Visited: 2/13/2016
Directions: Follow US-95 N and I-80 E to Pershing County. Take exit 112 from I-80 E/US-95 N (62.3 mi), continue on NV-396 for 19.0 miles
From Fallon: 81.3 miles
Back in the day, if you were flying an airplane, you looked down at the ground to see where you were. Not much in the way of fancy equipment back then. At night, as you can imagine, it was much more difficult, if not impossible. Night flying simply wasn't done, unless you absolutely had to, and even then it was very dangerous.
However, the mail needed to go through. "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," as the saying goes.
The answer at the time was a system of lit beacons at various spots around the country. The U.S. had limited air mail service by 1918, and by 1924 had established a system of airway beacons to help guide airmail pilots from coast to coast.
The early iterations of the system used approximately 1,500 airmail beacons, each constructed roughly between 3 and 5 miles apart. The beacons featured a 50-foot tower with rotating lights placed on top of concrete foundations in the shape of giant arrows measuring between 50 and 70 feet long. To increase visibility of the concrete arrows, they were painted bright yellow. The first towers contained acetylene-gas powered lights which were fed by fuel stored in a shed at the base. At the top of the towers, a rotating beacon with 5,000 candlepower and would flash every ten seconds. In clear weather the beacon lights could be seen for 10 miles (16 km). Below the main white beacon, a secondary set of red and green lights would flash a Morse Code letter to identify the beacon to pilots. To accommodate for emergencies, intermediate landing fields were established every 25 miles along the route. The fields were constructed with rotating incandescent electric lights mounted on 50-foot towers set to sweep six times per minute. These less-common emergency field beacons were visible up to 75 miles away. The program was an immediate success and continued to expand throughout its operational life. By the end of the first year the airmail service had 18 terminal airfields, 89 emergency airfields, and more than 500 beacon lights in operation.
By the 1930's, radio technology had improved but many aspects of the old visual system remained in use. In fact, the last one wasn't officially shut down until 1973, and the State of Montana still operates 17 of them in the western mountain region of the state.
On December 21, 1926, Sharpnack was flying a mail airplane out of Elko, Nevada, with the west-bound mail at 10:51 a.m. In his forced landing report, Sharpnack noted that the "weather was very stormy with high head winds. Necessary to follow rail road and dodge around to miss storms. Took me till 2:20 p.m. to reach a point opposite Hazen, Nevada, where I landed account of insufficient Gasoline left to reach Reno Field. Landed at this point at 2:20 p.m. and caught a ride by auto to Hazen, where I secured gasoline and a Ford Truck to take myself and gas back to ship. Refueled ship and left point of forced landing at 4:05 p.m., arriving Reno Field at 4:40 p.m. Mail was trained from Reno west to destination account of weather over mountains."
One of several airmail pilots who followed their years in the Air Mail Service with careers as pilots for the fledgling aviation companies was Harry W. Huking. Hired to fly airmail on May 3, 1920, he flew over 2,000 hours for the postal service before leaving in 1927. Huking became a pilot for United Air Lines, and in 1952 he was named the nation's ranking commercial pilot. On May 19, 1922, Huking was flying west from Reno, Nevada in the late afternoon. His de Havilland began having trouble climbing and holding altitude, and its engine was running at 1500 rpm, not 1600, as usual and necessary. Instead of turning back, Huking continued on his route, right over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. His engine held together for about an hour, then dropped below 1400 rpm. As Huking later reported to his boss, "This brought me down into the storm. As I passed 14,000' the engine quit. I cut the switches and glided down through the clouds." Huking had to clear the mountains and he hoped that the ceiling was high enough that he could squeak through. As he passed over, trees flew by his airplane far too close for comfort, and Huking crash landed at Blue Camp Rock. His de Havilland aircraft was destroyed in the crash, and Huking was knocked unconscious. He was found that way by a farmer, who got him to shelter and assistance. Huking did not regain consciousness for five days. The week after regaining consciousness, Huking was back in an airmail airplane, flying the mail on his route.
SAN FRANCISCO GETS FIRST MAIL BY AIR
Some pilots couldn't cut it, though.
William Jones was born in Pendleton, Oregon on August 19, 1894. He graduated from Hill Military Academy in Portland, Oregon before studying law at the University of Oregon. From 1919-1920 he was a salesman for Curtiss Air and Motor Corporation in San Francisco. When Jones applied for a position with the Air Mail Service, the 27-year-old pilot had 350 hours of flying experience. Unlike most applicants who sought pilot jobs, Jones hoped for a management position. On July 20, 1920 he wrote to Col. John A. Jordan, Superintendent of the Western Division of the Air Mail Service, boasting that he could make the Western Division a record breaker. "Nearly everyone interested in aeronautics on the Pacific Coast is well acquainted with me and I can organize a department here that will keep the ball rolling." Jones accepted a pilot's position, undoubtedly hoping to move up into management as a few other pilots had done before him. But, on September 18, 1920, Jones crashed his de Havilland airplane during a landing at Elko, Nevada. He stated that the motor had cut out, forcing him to attempt a landing cross-field with a tail wind, resulting in the crash. He was removed from pilot rotation and assigned as a mechanic. This demotion did not sit well with Jones, who lobbied Nevada Senator Charles Henderson for help. Senator Henderson wrote to Jordon, nothing, "I am interested in his case and would appreciate reinstatement." Jones had also contacted various airmail officials, asking for assistance. Unfortunately, Jordon was unwilling to bend. In his response to Senator Henderson, Jordon said, "I beg to say that Jones was let out because of his inexperience and inability to properly fly the de Havilland ship. I have it in mind to give him some schooling when we are in a position to do so, and check him up further, and if we can make a pilot out of him I will reinstate him as soon as I consider him properly qualified." As airmail officials were often at the mercy of Congressional demands in return for funding assistance, Jordon's reply may have seem unduly brusque. However, as he made clear later in the same letter, Jordon had little reason to fear retribution from Senator Henderson, who had recently lost an election and was soon to be out of office. "In common with most of the people of Nevada, as well as your friends everywhere, I was surprised at the result of the election. If I may be permitted to say so, however, I think you are to be congratulated on being relieved of the heavy responsibilities which you assumed as United States Senator." Jones was relieved of his airmail duties on October 31, 1920.
Maybe Jones actually got lucky-- flying was pretty dangerous back then.
AIRMAIL CREATES AN INDUSTRY: Coast to Coast
NEVADA: Pershing County
Route established September 8, 1920
Pilots Log February 21, 1921, Between SLC + 363. Humboldt Lake, NEV. and SLC + 388. Hazen, Nev. segment
Flights started on July 1, 1924
Contract Air Mail
CAM #18 San Francisco CA-Chicago IL
Air Comerce Bulletin Vol 2 No.10 Page 265
On a lonely knoll in the middle of seemingly nowhere sits the crumbling remains of a concrete pad. The road is OK until it starts up the knoll, at which point it gets a little rutty and rocky. You won't see the pad until you're right on top of it. Previous visitors have gathered bits of historical debris and set them on a nearby rock- mostly broken bulbs and filaments. Hard to imagine flying over this area at night, watching that blinking light, going over the Morse code in your head and looking at your little map with the engine roaring a couple of feet in front of you. Everything else is gone- no doubt removed for its scrap value. In the distance is the Humboldt Intermediary Field, an emergency landing field of relatively clear and relatively flat ground just in case you needed it.