by Kate Hampton
Community Preservation Coordinator, Montana State Historic Preservation Office
The Montana Historical Society Research Center houses a fascinating study that illuminates the history of one of Montana’s most unique treasures. Brenda Spivey’s “Airway Beacons: An Integral Part of Montana’s Night VFR Navigational System, Past History, Present Service, and Present Value” may appear to be a dry government report, but it tells an important story. I first learned of it while giving a talk at the Montana Pilots Association. Several people came up to me and asked, “Do you know about the beacons?” They offered all kinds of great information, got me in contact with Mike Rogan who maintains the historic beacon system for the Montana Aeronautics Division, and led me to a lot of resources, including Spivey’s report. Here’s what I learned:
By 1911, though still in its infancy, aviation promised to revolutionize transportation and commerce around the world. One idea for its use stood out to the U.S. government – its promise to enable more rapid and reliable mail service. To that end, the U.S. Postal Service introduced the concept of “airmail.”
The first regularly scheduled airmail service began in May 1918, when a fresh-faced young pilot named George Boyle attempted a route from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, with President Woodrow Wilson looking on. He flew north, then “inexplicably” turned south, and by then hopelessly lost, landed in Waldorf, Maryland, just 25 miles from his starting point. Despite this inauspicious beginning, the experiment continued, and by 1921 more reliable compasses, altimeters, and turn and bank indicators helped pilots navigate better.
Still, pilots depended on visual aids like landforms, waterways, and railroads to fly accurately and safely – and therefore they limited flights to the daylight hours. Airplanes that carried mail had to land and transfer their cargo to trains by nightfall. This process proved inconvenient, laborious, and expensive, so administrators looked for a more efficient alternative.
Determined that airmail succeed, the U.S. Postal Service Office director found private funding to continue the experiment. By 1923, electric or acetylene beacons lit routes between Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Chicago. Just three years later, the Federal Airways Division installed its first beacon in Moline, Illinois. By 1933, the national lighted airways system covered 18,000 miles and included 1,500 beacons, including at least 39 in Montana.
McDonald Pass Beacon, photo by Jason Savage, used with permission. http://www.jasonsavagephotography.com/pbs-in-montana/
The beacons guided pilots successfully for more than three decades, but by 1965 advances in navigational equipment and the ongoing maintenance expenses spurred the Federal Airways Division to consider which beacons to extinguish. Of the 39 Montana beacons, they determined that 19 could be decommissioned or moved. The remaining 20, however, were important to navigating the mountainous terrain of western Montana–so important, that the state’s Aeronautics Division advocated they stay in place. The FAA and Montana Aeronautics Division shared responsibility for them until 1971, when the FAA began to bow out. Over the next several years, the State took charge of them. Montana is now the only state that maintains these historic nighttime lighted airways.
Since the 1970s, the idea of turning off the beacons has come up several times, and a couple have been decommissioned – at Boulder Hill and Bozeman Pass. The Montana Aeronautics Division maintains 17 beacons. Three mark high terrain: Stoney Point north of Helena, Monida at the Idaho border, and Silverbow near Butte. The other fourteen mark the airways between Lookout Pass, Missoula, Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman, and Butte– and I’ll bet you’ve seen them without realizing what they were. Look for the towers with their distinguishing orange and white paint and two-foot dome lights. Each rotating beacon emits 2 million candlepower flashing in regular sequences and red course lights to guide planes through the steep terrain. Try it! It’s a fun road-trip game.
Airway beacons currently maintained by the Montana Aeronautics Division
Idaho Border to Missoula then to Helena
Idaho Border to Helena then to Great Falls
Helena to Bozeman then to Minneapolis
Spivey, Brenda. “Airway Beacons, an Integral Part of Montana's Night VFR Navigational System: Past History, Present Service and Present Value.” Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, 1995.
Wolff, Stephen J. “The Federal Airway System, The Early Years,” http://www.airwaypioneers.com/Sentinels_of_the_Airways.pdf. Accessed March 8, 2013.
Associated Press. “Aviation Beacons Unique to Montana.” Billings Gazette. March 25, 2006.
Rogan, Mike. E-mail, telephone conversation, and presentation notes. March 12, 2013.