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
For six years, demonstration and race pilot Blanche Noyes had ridden herd on a government program that called for navigation markers to be placed on building rooftops to help pilots find their way from one town to another. By 1941, some 13,000 marks had been painted on barns, hangars, skyscrapers, oil tanks, and train stations. Now, in January 1942, on the heels of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Civil Aeronautics Administration, goaded by the War Department, directed that all air markers near both coasts be obliterated.
“The number of military ships which have been forced to land due to running out of gasoline…has been appalling,” Noyes later wrote to her bosses, blaming the loss of air markers. The CAA chief of airways countered: “The Army feels that the value of markers to the enemy overshadows the need by our pilots; therefore the air marking project will remain suspended for the duration of the emergency.”
Before radio navigation was widely available to pilots of small aircraft, they got around by flying by landmarks. In unfamiliar terrain, however, it was easy to get lost, so in 1926 the government set out to promote air marking, painting the name of a local airport on a nearby building’s roof with an arrow pointing in the airport’s direction, or simply the name of the town with an arrow indicating north. Though federal aviation agencies regulated every aspect from letter size (10 to 30 feet tall) to paint (Chrome Yellow Number 4 on a black background) to distance between markers (one every 15 miles was the goal), they never lifted a brush. Labor came from the Works Progress Administration, the Civil Air Patrol, the Civilian Conservation Corps, civic volunteers, scouting organizations, and the Ninety-Nines organization of women pilots. Along with the safety benefits of guided navigation, air marking was variously touted as a job program, a scout merit badge, a commercial welcome mat, and a boon to women in aviation.
Phoebe F. Omlie, an official of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, hand-picked prominent pilots Nancy Harkness, Helen MacCloskey, and Louise Thaden as field reps for the program. A year later, Noyes became the fourth pilot hired to charm public works officials into painting the town.
“Why do they choose girls to do this work?” asked Helen MacCloskey in A Million Dollars Worth of Safety In Five Gallons of Paint, an article that was included in a promotional kit sent to editors throughout the country. “I expect because there are still few enough women pilots in the country, [they think] we could do a better job of selling the interests of private flying.”
Louise Thaden wrote in Southwestern Aviation, “Air route markers are more important than the highway markers, because a pilot can’t stop at every crossroads and shout to ask ‘which way to where,’which oftentimes leads to very embarrassing predicaments. Cross-country travel by automobile wasn’t any great shakes until roads were improved and directional signs erected.”
Assistant Secretary of Commerce J.M. Johnson helped promote the program by pointing out that a blank roof was bad business. “The roof as airmarked constitutes one of the most effective as well as inexpensive advertisements, directed to an excellent class of people,” he wrote in the kit. “The town may appear as a good place for a vacation, a home or a business. The air marker puts the town on the map.” Commerce meant it literally: A town could not be listed on the department’s aeronautical charts until it accepted an air mark.
In 1937, Noyes considered the fire watch towers in national forest lands, and asked the Civilian Conservation Corps, national parks, and the U.S. Indian Forest Service to air-mark their galvanized roofs. Her colleague Henry Knight pitched in. “In my sales talk I emphasized the danger in forced landings as a major fire hazard for our national forests,” he wrote to A.B. McMullen, chief of the airport section at the Bureau of Air Commerce. “I doubtlessly exaggerated, but nevertheless, it is a possible hazard.” Marks were also plowed into fields, spread in brick, cinder, or gravel, and built with river stones. Pilots already followed railroad lines, so air marks were wedged within ties.
The CAA even called in the Boy Scouts. An issue of Scouting featured Road Signs of the Air:
Markers keep you safe from harm,
Tell of towns and ports nearby,
Tell the mileage you must fly,
Give your longitude and latitude,
Give you everything but altitude.
Late in 1938, a letter arrived at the CAA from the National Broadcast Company at Sunset and Vine, Hollywood, offering the service of a pair of popular entertainers. “Amos ’n’ Andy are veteran flyers and Andy (Charles Correll) not only owns his own plane but is a licensed radio operator,” wrote Harold Bock, the press manager for the comedy duo, who performed in a daily radio show. Bock suggested using the well-known voices of Correll and his fellow comedian, Freeman Gosden (Amos), in radio pleas to paint every prominent roof—as long as the government paid for an office, clerk-typists, stationery, and postage. That way, Bock wrote, “Communications would be accepted as official, rather than as a publicity stunt.” The campaign, “Let the Air Know You’re There,” would include broadcasts by Hollywood pilots and coverage by newsreels and radio commentator Ed Sullivan. Noyes’ interest was piqued, but shortly thereafter, in January 1939, Correll’s family had to attend to a medical emergency, and he was unable to meet her.
Readable from as high as 10,000 feet, air marks were invisible at indirect angles or if the lighting was not optimum. And markers of all sorts eventually faded, flooded, blew away, burned, or crumbled.
Then came December 7, 1941. On December 22, the chief of CAA airways engineering, C.M. Lample, wrote to Allan Perkinson, Virginia’s director of aeronautics and a friend of Noyes. “We requested the War Department to state whether they consider the obliteration of any existing markers as necessary in connection with the national emergency,” Lample reported. “We have requested the same comments from the Office of Civilian Defense. Neither organization has replied. In the absence of these replies, it is our opinion that the air marking program should be continued.”
On January 17, the War Department finally responded: Obliterate all air markers within 150 miles of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In the area between, no new markers were to be constructed. Secretary of War Henry Stimson nixed Buffalo, Detroit, Duluth, and Sault Ste. Marie air marks. But Stimson allowed markers to be reinstalled within 50 miles of air fields conducting flight training.
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.