Show Me the Way to Go Home
Long before the Global Positioning System, pilots got from town to town by reading rooftops.
- By Roger A. Mola
- Air & Space magazine, September 2006
(Page 2 of 2)
During the war, Noyes limited her role to inspection. She noted in the Christian Science Monitor in 1943, “Once in a while I get a little jittery wondering if some particularly zealous airplane spotter might mistake me for an enemy ship and shoot me down and ask questions later, for of course I’m constantly flying over restricted areas.”
In 1944, the CAA had decided to add longitude and latitude to the air marks. The Administrator cited the existence of six towns in Ohio named Summit to show that a name alone was insufficient. The following year, the air marking program was resumed, but only 66 markers were installed by year’s end. Thomas Bourne, assistant administrator for federal airways at the CAA, had a bright idea.
“We have had a great number of requests for illuminated city identification markers,” Bourne noted in a letter to a Washington, D.C. commissioner. “It is only fitting that the capital of the United States should be the first.” Bourne wanted to place amber bulbs turned skywards in 229 street lamps in Washington. “This method would be of great value to the pilot who is lost, as well as to the air traveller who is interested in identifying the various cities over which he passes and within sight of.” But the CAA soon tired of working the D.C. bureaucracy and the idea faded.
After the war, Noyes was put in charge of the air marking division of the renamed Civil Aeronautics Authority. An ardent supporter, she flew around the country seeking financial support from local chambers of commerce when federal funding ran dry.
Virginia’s Allan Perkinson forwarded a letter and news clip to Noyes from her friend Patricia Davis Arnold, a Ninety-Nine who had circled at length over Damascus, Virginia, until seeing an air mark. Noyes sent copies to every state aviation director, noting in the margin, “I wish all girls would follow her example and send me reports of air marking help.” Perkinson told the media that it was the pilot who was at fault; had she the courtesy to become lost in the right place, she would have seen his air mark sooner. “There are no doubt many towns which are airmarked and yet the Chambers of Commerce and municipal officials do not know it,” he added.
Noyes continued giving speeches entitled “Mark the Skyways Like the Highways,” but increasingly her presentations were for club chapter meetings or at coffee shops in the Washington suburbs. By this time, navigation charts and radio had worked their way into most cockpits.
Today, the Ninety-Nines paint compass roses on runways but no rooftop signs. They sell penny-a-pound passenger flights to pay for paint and supplies, and local airport businesses have pitched in funds.
Sophia Payton, a Ninety-Nine in Clearwater, Florida, painted air marks on roofs in 1946 in Indiana and Ohio. “That was a big project; all the girls up on rooftops,” she recalls. “We’d pull our whole chapter together, 10 or 12 of the girls, pull out our brushes, and follow the federal criteria. It was a lot of fun, a lot of work; it was...productive.”
Payton keeps a letter of thanks sent to the Postmaster of Shirley, Indiana, in 1956. Colonel C.E. Fulton of the U.S. Air Force was heading toward St. Louis when the weather deteriorated. He emerged from clouds to read the 10-foot SHIRLEY atop a canning company.