Before GPS-guided jets across the United States, pilots used a lo-fi navigation tool: massive concrete arrows dotting the countryside, pointing prop plane pilots between New York and San Francisco.
Begun in the 1920s and known as the Transcontinental Airmail Route, the infrastructure project was funded via the United States Post Office to kick-start its airmail program. At the time, letters were still the main avenue for communication, and it could often take weeks or even months for a letter to reach its destination. Airmail would change that.
The beacons’ primary purpose was to provide a “nighttime navigation system for early aviators, particularly the U.S. Airmail Service,” states thesurveystation.com, a niche website dedicated to chronicling the whereabouts of markers and airway beacons across the country.
The original arrows were spaced twenty-five miles apart. Searchlight beacons were mounted on fifty-foot towers, and seventy-foot-long cement arrows were splayed across the ground. Painted a bright yellow so as not to be missed by pilots in the sky, the arrows pointed in certain directions, creating the nation’s first-ever flight paths.
“Planes often had only a handful of instruments, and pilots navigated from the cockpit by looking for familiar landmarks below,” wrote Angela Minor, an airway beacon and arrow enthusiast who researches and writes on the topic. “There were no air navigation charts yet, and flights were limited to daylight hours.”
Because Kansas City is right in the middle of the country, several of the huge arrows swept right through the city. One such arrow stood where the Worlds of Fun parking lots are now. There was also one in Independence where an apartment complex known as Hawthorne Place now is. And not so surprising, there was a beacon and arrow in an area known as Ferrelview off of Northwest Cookingham Drive near Kansas City International Airport. Perhaps a little more interesting was an old arrow locale at Black Swan Estates in Shawnee.
Only a handful of the original fifteen hundred coast-to-coast beacons and arrows exist today, and one is in rural Kansas at the Municipal Airport in Anthony. The airport was built in the 1930s by local aviator J. Howard Wilcox. A beacon was added in 1938, and a few years after the beacon was built, Wilcox was asked to head the Kansas wing of the newly organized Civil Air Patrol. The airport was used as the headquarters of the Kansas Wing Civil Air Patrol until the late 1950s.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that radar, radio communication and improved instrument panels made the arrows obsolete.