Pointing the Way: The Mysterious Giant Arrows Scattered Across America

So what if there were no high-tech GPS devices in the 1920s? Back then the US Postal Service invented its own navigation system – giant concrete arrows that pointed the way to Air Mail pilots.

When America’s first Transcontinental Air Mail route opened in 1920, pilots faced difficulties in navigating the coast-to-coast route over the American Midwest. This was a time when radar and other modern flight planning implements were yet to be invented.

The very first pilots had to traverse the route relying on landmarks, which weren’t always visible during bad weather. So in 1923, Congress approved the construction of a network of beacons to make the route navigable in the rain or the dark.

These beacons consisted of massive concrete arrows, painted bright yellow, set into the land about 10 miles apart. The arrows were illuminated by 50-foot-towers with powerful rotating gas lights. Visible from a height of 10,000 meters, the arrows helped pilots find their way during the worst weather and at night. They were also located close to emergency airfields just in case airplanes needed to make an emergency landing.


The first of these beacons were built in 1924, covering a part of the flight from Ohio to Wyoming. They were a huge success and by 1929, the network of beacons stretched from New York to San Francisco. The pilots, who were generally former military men, flew open cockpit biplanes in all kinds of crazy weather, making the arrows a necessity.


Ben Scott, a retired pilot, said: “These guys were flying in all kinds of weather. Going through the canyons, they were practically running their toes down the river. So the arrows were there to help them navigate the route.”


Unfortunately, the system was a short-lived one. Just three years after the project was commissioned, the US Postal Service surrendered it to the Department of Commerce. It was later decommissioned with advances in technology like radar and radio. The giant guiding arrows were outdated by the 1940s and the steel towers were donated to Word War II efforts.


Today, 80 years after the arrows were laid down, they still exist, pointing out a 4,230 kilometer route (with 13 stops) from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Efforts are being made to preserve these concrete giants. They might be bleached or covered in weeds, but they’re very much there – historic landmarks and a reminder of simpler times.



Sources: Messy Nessy Chic, The Verge

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