Aviation Arch 2011 - Passport in Time

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Airway Beacons III PIT Project

Cibola National Forest, New Mexico, 2011
By the 2011 Project Team
A third, successful, aviation history Passport in Time (PIT) project took place in the Mt. Taylor District of the Cibola NF in June, 2011, thanks to another crew of dedicated people! Volunteers from Wisconsin, Arizona, California and New Mexico teamed up to preserve and interpret Beacon Site 61, which sits atop a ridge on the Continental Divide at the Oso Ridge Fire Lookout (elevation ~8700 ft). The site includes the base of the long-gone beacon tower, which also held a fire lookout cab, and the original generator hut that housed the power to light the airway beacon (1). A 1930s cabin that once served as the residence for the lookout is also squeezed onto the small volcanic knob near the currently used lookout tower.

The key goal of "Aviation Archaeology III" was to preserve the exterior of the in-situ generator hut (genhut) and to begin to develop interpretation so that we can share the history of the "illuminated sky road". The project had several other goals: to replace the roof of the 1930s fire lookout cabin so this building would not be lost to the elements, to record oral histories about Oso Ridge and early aviation in the region, and to document the remains of the abandoned Acomita Intermediate Landing Field - Site 63 on the LA-A airway - just south of Mt. Taylor on Acoma Pueblo lands.

As in the past, PIT volunteers presented their airway research to the public at an evening event in Grants, and solicited local site information. The New Mexico State University, Grants Branch, displayed exhibits about the 2009 and 2010 PIT projects, including a scale model of a typical beacon site and a variety of artifacts from plane crash sites.

This was a full week of work amid heat, haze from wildfires, and persistent "face flies." Good-natured volunteers, both returning and new, persevered through it all, aided by a home-cooked luncheon served by a local volunteer's wife. FS budgets were low this year, but a volunteer came through with much-appreciated souvenirs of the PIT week: "U.S. Lighthouse Service, Airways Division" ball caps and "Airways Keeper" certificates!

The Oso genhut 61 preservation is just the beginning of efforts to bring aviation history to the public. Cibola County Historical Society (hereafter, Society) is working to preserve GenHut 62, once sited on the Forest eight miles east of Oso Ridge Lookout. This genhut was recently moved to the Grants Airport, where the Society is developing a regional aviation history center; Oso Beacon 61 will be a satellite site for visitors to the center.

(1) The key to the success of early U.S. air commerce was the 1930s system of lighted beacons for night navigation, based on Postal Service airmail efforts begun in the '20s. Emergency landing strips, 40 to 50 miles apart, were linked by lighted beacon towers at 10 to 15 mile intervals. In western New Mexico, the earliest air route was laid out by Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) along historic Route 66, north of the Zuni Mountains. However, after a tragic 1929 Ford TriMotor crash on Mt. Taylor (recorded during the 2009 PIT project), federal aviation agencies mandated that the airway route be straightened to avoid the peak and to pass south of the Zunis, across what is now land under the care of the National Forest. This route became the Los Angeles-Amarillo (LA-A) airway, crossing the Continental Divide just south of Grants, N.M. Several sites along this route were surveyed by the 2010 PIT volunteer team. The genhut for Site 61 (610 miles from the western start of the airway in California), was preserved during this year's PIT project.
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