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By Stars, Beacons, and Satellites

The lost art-and intimidating science-of aerial navigation.

 

We were barely off the runway at Helena, Montana, when I caught sight of the first beacon winking from the ridge ahead. The sun had set an hour ago, and the mountains stood in inky silhouette against the pale western sky.

We crept westward against a smooth, steady headwind that cut our groundspeed to 100 mph. The skyshine paled and vanished. The darkness was complete now: Black tree-cloaked mountains below us, black star-flecked sky above. From our cruising altitude, 8,500 feet, just above the highest mountaintops, we could see two or three beacons at a time, stretching out ahead of us and curving gradually to the right. The first was MacDonald Pass, then Avon; there was a gap at the sparsely lighted town of Drummond, then the chain picked up again. Five more beacons would wink into life ahead of us, spell out their identifiers in Morse code with a fainter red light, and slowly pass beneath before we emerged from the mountains at Mullan Pass, just east of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

The Montana airway beacons are the last survivors of a great system of more than 1,500 that once dotted the country. Initiated by the Postal Service, which realized that airmail could offer no speed advantage if airplanes were idle during the night, the beacon system grew from a 1919 experiment with strings of bonfires to guide airmail pilots across the Great Plains into an 18,000-mile network of federal airways managed, after 1926, by the Department of Commerce. It survived into the 1970s, though by then few pilots were aware of it. When the Federal Aviation Administration decommissioned the beacons, Montana, which had 39 of them marking routes through the mountains, took over those within its borders. Ultimately, it kept 17 operating in its mountainous western half, linking Coeur d’Alene, Missoula, Helena, Great Falls, and Butte.

The French novelist Marcel Proust, writing about a midnight stroll through the streets of Paris when it was being bombarded by the Germans in World War I, describes the reassuring feeling of being watched over by a benevolent power that the defensive searchlights crisscrossing the sky gave him. I felt the same way about the beacons. The guidance of radio signals is cold and abstract, but a light on a distant mountain, winking rhythmically, emits a personal, human warmth. “This way!” it seems to say. “I am here.”

—Peter Garrison

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