We take navigation for granted today, what with Siri, GPS, radio communications, radar, and services like Google Maps. But imagine you were a pilot in upstate New York back in the 1920s, when aviation was first coming into its own. If you took to the air, as many citizens did, how would you avoid getting lost?
The answer quite often was — you probably wouldn’t, and with potentially fatal consequences. Many pilots died in crashes after running out of fuel while trying to find a destination.
Other pilots — of postal service airmail planes, and of military aircraft—faced the same problem. Once routes became familiar, they were adhered to, but the learning process involved following rivers, major roads, and watching for outstanding landmarks. There were no direct paths between stops.
The solution to safe and efficient navigation was rooted in a practice which evolved into an organized system of “airmarks” that eventually spread nationwide. Coast-to-coast airmail service was accomplished in the early 1920s by building beacon towers as guides. The bases of many beacons consisted of large cement arrows painted yellow, indicating the direction to the next beacon.
One of the earliest private examples of airmarks was Standard Oil of California’s warehouse at Coalinga, where pilots frequently stopped to refuel. At their suggestion, large letters spelling the city’s name were painted on the roof in October 1924, creating an airmark that was easily visible even from several thousand feet above.
Among the exciting new facets of life in the 1920s was the ever-changing face of aviation. In 1919, passenger service was begun across the English Channel. Pilots were delivering mail, performing amazing stunts, participating in races, and setting distance, speed, and endurance records at a frenetic pace. All those factors suggested strongly that air travel would continue expanding to become a major component of everyday life.
In November 1927, the aeronautics director of the U. S. Commerce Department seemed downright visionary, predicting a future that would soon see luxury airplanes on regular schedules, taxi planes for businessmen, and private planes for pleasure flying. For all that to happen, pilots needed navigational aids that were the equivalent of road signs used by the average automobile driver.
Across the country, cities that couldn’t yet afford to build airports asked how they could participate in the dream. The short answer was to create airmarks that would help prevent accidents, drastically increase the efficiency of flying, and brighten the prospects of every city becoming host to an airfield.
Leading the effort nationally were the Exchange Clubs, establishing airmarks and airports in every state. Their slogan was, “Make the ground safe for the aviator,” for as their national secretary, Harry Harter, explained, “We know that about 95 percent of airplane accidents occur in landing upon poor fields or because of inadequate roof markings and lighting signals.” He was quick to add that, “This program is receiving the support of the aeronautics branch of the department of commerce, the post office department, the army, the navy, the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, government officials, industrial leaders, and noted fliers.” Businesses were discouraged from using rooftop advertisements, which had become common, but distracted from the airmarks’ goal of pilot safety.
By early 1929, more than 2,000 communities scattered across the country had airmarks in place. In late February of that year, the president of the New York State Aviation Conference contacted Plattsburgh officials, citing the city’s important location on the Albany – Montreal corridor, and urging them to airmark every community in the area. Department of Commerce guidelines were provided, indicating the suggested letter height, suitable types of locations, and other issues of importance.
An earnest effort ensued across the entire North Country, and by May, Malone’s effort was completed under the guidance of the Malone Aero Club. On the grandstand roof at the fairgrounds, in a space 100 by 30 feet, were letters fourteen feet high, painted in chrome yellow on a black background. Beneath the word “Malone” there appeared an arrow pointing north, marked “N,” while another arrow pointed towards the local airport.
Boosting the effort further was the New York Central Railroad, marking all of its stations in New York, and planning to continue in other states as well. By the end of July, more than 3,000 communities nationwide had been marked, including Plattsburgh’s Mobodo Airport roof. Atop the nearby Lobdell block was an arrow aimed towards the airport. A large circle of white crushed stone, the official airfield insignia in the U. S., marked the ground near Mobodo’s runways.
The airmarking process was strongly supported by the local chamber of commerce, and for good reason. Once the job was finished, Plattsburgh appeared in the 1930 aviation maps published by Rand McNally, denoting the city as a temporary port of entry and home to a commercial airport. And the value of airmarking didn’t end there. Priceless advertising and promotion followed through registration with multiple high-profile groups: the U.S. Department of Commerce, Canadian customs, U.S. customs, the N.Y.S. Commission on Aviation, the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, the N.Y.S. Aviation Conference, and the Curtiss Flying Service.
In October 1929, pledging their assistance in aiding the Department of Commerce airmarking effort, the Albany Times-Union contacted the mayors of thirty communities in the Capital District, urged them to participate, and provided all the information needed regarding location, letter size, paint type, maintenance, and how to create separate signs that could be placed on roofs if a surface wasn’t suitable for painting. There were also instructions for sites in colder climates, where roofs and ground locations might be covered with snow for six months of the year. In those locales, suggested placements included the sides of buildings, water towers, and other prominent structures.
In April 1934, Clinton County, participating in the Department of Commerce’s national airmarking campaign, sought to become the first New York county to be 100 percent airmarked. Incentives were offered, but much of the work was done by civic-minded volunteers.
In modern times, common fodder for stand-up comics is the notion that men, when slightly displaced (okay, lost), will search doggedly for a destination, while women will simply stop and ask for directions. It is with no small irony, then, that the National Air Marking and Mapping Program, providing directions to all pilots, was the very first government program conceived, designed, and executed by a woman with an all-female staff.
While their story is far too long to relate here, the program was headed by Phoebe Omlie, who in 1935 chose pilots Helen McCloskey, Blanche Noyes, Helen Richey, and Louise Thaden to lead the nationwide airmarking effort. A grant from the Works Progress Administration provided financing, the first government funding in America used to assist private aviators. Noyes eventually ran the program, which by late 1941 had overseen the creation of 30,000 markers nationwide.
Photos: Airmark promotional poster; one of many airmail airmarks (yellow cement arrow) remaining today, this one at Shelbyville, Indiana; a typical tower airmark.