Beacon Light

Before GPS and modern avionics, pilots could only depend on their eyes and rudimentary road maps to find their way to the airport. In the early days of flight there were no accurate navigation aids to help pilots find their way, which made nighttime flights all the more dangerous. This was a serious problem for the newly minted United States Air Mail Service. The goal of the mail service, created in 1918, was to make mail delivery across the United States much more timely and efficient. In order to accomplish this, pilots would have to fly at night to get the mail to its destination. Seeing a need, U.S. Army Air Service Lieutenant Donald L. Bruner began using bonfires and the first artificial beacons to aid night navigation in 1919. The first test flight of this beacon system took place in February 1921, when pilot Jack Knight flew all night from North Platte, Nebraska to Chicago, utilizing bonfires lit by Post Office staff, farmers, and the general public.

By 1923, the idea of using beacons to help aid navigation caught on and most airports had created a beacon system. With the creation of a transcontinental airway later that year, a whole nation-wide network of beacons was put in place. These beacons were upgraded from bonfires to electric lights and were placed on towers spaced 15 to 25 miles apart, each with enough brightness to be seen for at least 40 miles away in clear weather. By 1933, 18,000 miles of airway and 1,500 beacons were in place.

Our beacon light, discovered by early museum supporter Al Kelch in Florida, is a good example of the design required by the Air Mail Service. Its stand was constructed by Craig Day and this beacon is considered a fixed beacon light, which would work in tandem with the rotating beacon lights. There was always one fixed tower light pointed to the next field and one to the previous tower, forming an aerial roadway. At night, the beacons flashed in a certain sequence so that pilots could match their location to the printed guide that they carried in their aircraft. The beacons required diligent maintenance and when all were working would appear to flash and blink, beckoning the weary air mail pilot to land.