AIRWAY BEACONS ACROSS THE DESERT
At the end of World War I, the U. S. Postal Service took interest in providing airmail service between major urban centers and conducted a test flight from New York to Washington D.C. The test proved a success even though the pilot got lost and landed in Baltimore before finding his way on to Washington.
The government started issuing contracts for mail delivery between major cities in 1925. Henry Ford was awarded one for service between Detroit and Cleveland and another for service between Detroit and Chicago. Ford got into the air business and produced the tri-motor aircraft with an engine on each wing and one in the nose. It was the first plane made of metal and the first to fly passengers.
Anyone with a stable of fabric covered planes and a few experienced pilots could compete for a contract. Fire proof mail sacks weighing up to 500 pounds were slung into the narrow space behind the pilot. Charles Lindberg flew mail during this time.
The first test flight from New York to San Francisco succeeded in cutting two days off delivery by train. In order to beat the rails however, mail had to be continuously on the move. This called for well defined routes or “airways” connecting major cities and light beacons to guide pilots at night.
After the successful test flight, airway maps became available showing railroads and other ground features to guide pilots during the day. The placement of light beacons with lamps similar to those in coastal lighthouses began to appear along the New York to San Francisco route spaced up to 20 miles apart. Intermediate and emergency airfields were graded, marked and improved with landing lights and service facilities in addition to a beacon. They were placed at 50 mile intervals. Rex Hicks and other Airway Inspectors played an important part in the system.
The steel 50 foot towers were attached to a cement base and flanked by a metal shed which housed the gasoline generator. The roof of the shed had a number painted on it that could be seen by pilots in day flight. The 1,000-watt incandescent lamp projected a clear beam of over one and a half million candlepower.
Intermediate airfields featured two runways in various configurations with a circle, 50 feet in diameter, near the center of the field. Boundary lights directed night flights to the runways.
Weather information and other flight conditions depended on airfield staff. Most fields had shortwave radios and an operator who could gather information from weather stations and pass it along to arriving pilots.
Radio beacons began to appear along airways in the early 30s providing direct ground to air communication with pilots.
Ground to air and air to air communication continued to improve and by 1940 air traffic movement and control had reached beyond the need for light beacons. By mid 1970s all of the towers and utility sheds had been removed. Today only access roads and concrete foundations remain.
The transcontinental airway system initially connected the east coast with San Francisco following generally the Union Pacific Railroad. Airmail to Los Angeles was forwarded to Los Angeles on the San Francisco to Los Angeles Airway. Routes were later added connecting Los Angeles to Las Vegas and directly to the main transcontinental route via Salt Lake City. By the mid-1930s additional routes were added including Los Angeles to Phoenix and Amarillo, Los Angeles to Tucson and San Diego to Tucson. All of these routes were equipped to move airmail both day and night and ensure deliveries on schedule.
The California Desert had its share of beacons and airfields linking Los Angeles and southern California to the above destinations. The first sack of airmail arrived in Los Angeles from Salt Lake City in 1934.
The Los Angeles To Las Vegas and Salt Lake Airway crossed the Antelope Valley then generally followed along Interstate 15 to Las Vegas. From west to east tower locations are as follows:
Antelope Valley (34 46 32.67661; 118 20 36.49202) located on Highway 138 northwest of Lancaster on flat agricultural land
Lovejoy buttes (34 35 46.14720; 117 51 36.16555) located one mile west of Lake Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley
Shadow Mountain (34 41 01.14463; 117 31 49.17210) locatedat the northeast corner of El Mirage Dry Lake
Helendale (34 44 07.96921; 117 18 37.81866) located on the ridgeline east of Helendale
Barstow (34 49 26.52733; 117 00 59.63567) located south of Barstow on east side of Highway 247
Afton #1 (35 04 39.19664; 116 23 30.73359) Afton #2 (35 04 24.76575 116 23 20.81474) both located on ridge line east of Afton Canyon Road and south of Interstate Highway 15
Baker (35 16 18.52115; 116 03 55.79516) Located one mile north of Baker… Later moved to Silver Lake… The airfield provided complete air service including landing lights and beacon
Soloman’s Knob (35 23 58.7; 115 49 52) located north of Interstate Highway 15 near Halloran Summit
Kelly Field (33 34 43.5; 115 42 55.1) Established in the 30s provided some airfield services, located on Excelsior Mine Road about six miles north of Interstate Highway 15
Miscal (35 29 02.38936; 115 33 11.92998) located on Clark Mountain just north of Interstate Highway 15 at Mountain Pass
The Los Angeles to Amarillo airway followed the same route as above to Barstow where it branched to the east and followed generally along the Interstate Highway 40 to Needles Airport. From Barstow west to east
Lavic Lake (34 44 11.35344; 116 18 12.48005) located beneath the freeway near Lavic an AT&SF railroad siding
Ludlow (34 41 00.50560; 116 09 04.95262)located 2.75 miles south of Ludlow less than a mile east of Ludlow-Ragtown Road on a low hill at an elevation of 2500 feet
Bagdad Emergency Airfield (34 34 52.22383; 115 52 44.87981) Located at the Bagdad Station on south side of Old Highway 66… No service was available.
Cadiz Summit (34 44 13.53865; 114 48 28.87752) Located on the hill at the summit north side of Old Highway 66 The cement base can be found a short walk from the highway.
Goffs Intermediated Landing Field (34 56; 115 02) one and a half miles NE of Goffs Station. Complete service available.
Old Woman Mt (34 37 03.07; 115 11 10.95) Located at north end of the Old Woman Mountain Range 13 miles due south of Fenner (This beacon may have been replaced by the Goffs landing field.)
Step Ladder (34 44.407; 114 48.806) Located at north end of Step Ladder Range 10 mile west of Needles
Los Angeles to Phoenix Airway generally tracks Interstate Highway10. Towers listed from west to east from San Gorgonio Pass to Blythe
Desert Hot Springs (33 55 16.20701; 116 37 14.69114) Located east of White Water in the San Gorgonio Pass area
Mecca Hills (33 39 30.3; 115 59 10.3) Located south of Interstate Highway 10 in the Mecca Hills
Hayfield (33 39 52.8; 115 43 18.5) Located at Chiriaco Summit
Ford Dry Lake (33 39 23.63743; 115 03 51.72527) Located at the northwest edge of Ford Dry Lake on the north side of Interstate Highway 10
The Desert Center airport many have served as an intermediate airfield in the late 1930s. It has the only remaining beacon tower in the California Desert. (See photograph above).