Thursday, December 7, 2017

Zeroing in on the Beacon


Hope this sheds some light on mystery of the Monument Hill tower

By Rob Carrigan,

Aviation has, and continues to make contrails across the local sky ways. The first known records show Fred Lewis, hat in hand, as a passenger, and the fellow above in the white sweater (unidentified) as his pilot first dropping into Monument in 1922.

"That was a thrilling experience for everyone," wrote Monument historian Lucille Lavelett, back in the 1970s about that first flight.

About 10 years ago, I wrote a piece about the beacon light that stood on top of Monument Hill, that later guided substantial air traffic in afterwards. 

Over the years, I continued to receive considerable email and other feedback regarding columns I wrote about the light.

Cole Harris who resided in the Gleneagle area, had this to add nearly a decade ago.

“I am 99% sure that was one of the system of nationwide beacons installed by the predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration.”

Harris said then as he had been a pilot since 1948, has 21 years as an Air Force pilot, and was still flying part-time as a flight instructor when he contacted me.

“In the 1930s when commercial aviation was just getting started, the U.S airways system did not have the electronic navigation aids that we have today (VOR beacons, GPS, nationwide radar flight following, etc).

Airways navigation was very simplistic and very difficult at night if you were not flying on instruments. To aid pilots flying at night in visual conditions, a series of rotating light beacons was installed on airways throughout the country with a rotating white light and with a green light on the backside of the white rotating light. This green light would flash a letter of the alphabet in Morse code to uniquely identify that particular beacon. The rotating beacon towers were spaced approximately 10 mile apart and each beacon green light would flash its own identifying letter. The sequence of letters was as follows: W-U-V-H-R-K-D-B-G-M. Pilots would remember this sequence by the following sentence:

When Undertaking Very Hard Routes Keep Directions By Good Methods.

“At the end of this series of letters, the sequence would repeat itself for the next ten beacon lights this system would allow a pilot flying at night to know his position with a reasonable degree of accuracy. I am quite sure the beacon tower on top of Monument Hill was one of these lights on the airway between Denver, Albuquerque, and El Paso. I hope this sheds some light (no pun intended) on the mystery of the Monument Hill Tower.”

It is becoming a battle in other states. A January 2017 story in “General Aviation News,” by Linde Hoff, calls attention to Montana’s recent efforts to keep the beacon bulbs burning.

“By 1945 Montana had 39 beacons illuminated across the state, and the system flourished nationwide until the 1960s. By 1965, eight federally-operated beacons in Montana remained, all of which were located in mountain passes. Another 13 were transferred to state control and operated and maintained by the Montana Aeronautics Division of the State Department of Transportation,” Hoff wrote.

“Today, the beacon atop MacDonald Pass is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is easily visible from U.S. Highway 12. More importantly it still guides pilots safely through and over the peaks during the darkened hours while the light shines and sends its important signal of warning.But today the beacons are becoming dark as the state is not fixing them as they break down,”

The Montana Pilots Association (MPA) has stymied attacks on the beacons in the past, noting they are a safety net pilots have enjoyed for many years. MPA officials say the cost to maintain the system is roughly $1,000 per beacon per year.

“So what is a pilot’s life worth in the state of Montana, not to mention those passengers who might be in the plane with him or her?” MPA officials ask.

“Technology is wonderful but not perfect, and it will oftentimes break down, so I just hope when I step onto my next flight — whether it be commercial or private — all systems are “go,” because there might not be a beacon to bring us home safely over the mountains.”

Photo Information:

Photo 1.
First Plane in Monument, 1922. (photo courtesy of Palmer Lake Historical Society).

Photo 2.
1930 Field and Light Beacon. (photo courtesy of the Federal Aviation Administration.)

Photo 3.
Solitary visual beacon and arrow system was used to guide planes across the nation.  (FAA photo)

Graphic 4.
Air Mail schedule along the beacon route in 1924. (FAA)

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