Building the Airways
Pictured (left to right) are: Pres. Coolidge; Dir. of Aeronautics Clarence Young; Sen. Hiram Bingham; an unidentified person; and Assist. Sec. of Commerce William P. MacCracken, Jr.
Responsibility for establishing a system of lighted airways passed from the Post Office to the new Aeronautics Branch after its creation in 1926. On January 14, 1929, the Branch received the Robert J. Collier Trophy in recognition of its work in developing the Nation's air navigation system. Fifteen days after the award ceremony pictured here, the Branch completed the lighting of the transcontinental airway.
Enthusiasm for the new aerial highways was reflected in the 5 cent air mail stamp of 1928. One of the light beacons used to mark the airways is shown on the stamp and in the photo to the left.
Built at intervals of approximately 10 miles, the standard beacon tower was 51 feet high, topped with a powerful rotating light. Below the rotating light, two course lights pointed forward and back along the airway. The course lights flashed a code to identify the beacon's number.
The tower usually stood in the center of a concrete arrow 70 feet long. A generator shed, where required, stood at the "feather" end of the arrow.
Another feature of the early airways were intermediate landing fields. Federal authorities established these facilities where needed to ensure that pilots could land safely at intervals of approximately 50 miles along their route. The fields were usually colocated with light beacons, as shown in this scene from the late 1920s or early 1930s. The conical object at left is a boundary marker light. (National Archives photo)
Those who constructed the airways often faced adverse weather and terrain. In remote areas of the Southwest, burros played an important role in transporting equipment and materials. When slopes proved too rugged for even these sure-footed animals, the Airways Division built "trolley lines" to haul material along cables mounted on poles.
To limit expenses, Secretary of Commerce Hoover assigned many of the new aviation responsibilities to existing organizations within his Department. The Airways Division, for example, was structurally part of the Bureau of Lighthouses. This arrangement continued until July 1933, when the Aeronautics Branch assumed sole responsibility for the airways.
In this 1931 photo, the "Lighthouse" designation appears above the door of the airway station at Elko, Nevada.
Keeping the airways in operating condition was always a demanding task, but not without its lighter moments. Technician "Dusty" Rhodes is shown relaxing beside his truck in this photo from the late 1930s. He is wearing the uniform of airway station keepers during that era.
In the late 1920s, the Aeronautics Branch began establishing a new type of navigational aid, the low frequency radio range (LFR), also know as the four-course radio range. This type of facility could provide guidance even when poor visibility made light beacons useless.
By comparing two coded signals generated by an LFR, pilots could tell whether they were drifting to the left or right of an airway. For those flying on course, the two signals merged into a single tone. The range shown above, at Northway, Alaska, was the last LFR to continue in operation. (National Archives photo)
By the time the Northway range fell silent in 1974, a new type of navigation facility had long dominated the airways: the Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Radio Range (VOR). Based on technology developed during World War II, the VOR enabled the pilots of instrument-equipped planes to determine their position more efficiently. The Civil Aeronautics Administration commissioned the first VOR in 1947, and three years later opened the first "Victor" airways based on chains of the facilities. Modernized versions of these navigation aids still guide pilots to their destinations.