Aviation Archaeology - Airway Beacons PIT Project

Cibola National Forest, New Mexico, 2010

By Linda Popelish, Cibola Archaeologist

Another successful aviation history Passport in Time (PIT) project took place in the Mt. Taylor District on the Cibola NF in June, 2010, thanks to dedicated volunteers! This second aviation PIT project focused on recording beacon sites on the old Los Angeles-to-Amarillo (LA-A) air route, which traversed the Continental Divide over the Zuni Mountains near Grants, NM. An essential part of the development of early cross-country airways was the 1930s network of lighted beacons for night navigation (an "illuminated sky road").

The US Postal Service evolved the concepts of a commercial airway system in the 1920s. Early airmail pilots navigated by visible features such as railroads, highways and landmarks. Emergency landing strips were built 40 to 50 miles apart, but poor weather and night flying demanded more reliable aerial pathways. Thus, the growing airway system soon was marked by lit beacon towers, spaced at 10 to 15 mile intervals.

In western New Mexico, the earliest beacon route was built 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 by 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 NF land.

PIT volunteers from Wisconsin, Colorado, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, California and New Mexico came together to record sites on the southern federal airway, and visited earlier TAT airline beacon sites along Route 66. Because of a great deal of pre-project legwork by Steve Owen, one of the volunteers, we had the opportunity to see key sites on private land near El Morro National Monument - and to enjoy a gourmet lunch at the landowner's cafe. Serious recording focused on two important sites on NF land: Beacons 61 and 62. Beacon 61, located at the Oso Ridge Fire Lookout, contains the tower base and the original generator hut (genhut), and provides a spectacular view in all directions. In 2011, PIT volunteers will work to stabilize this genhut and to develop an interpretive sign so that we can share the history of the "illuminated sky road" with the public.

Site 62, high on the steep rim of San Rafael Mesa, was recorded in detail, as was its generator site, located at the foot of the mesa. Hardy volunteers hiked the near-vertical route between the tower and generator to record remnants of the power line. The generator hut for this beacon was found to be intact in downtown Grants, its number 62 still readable! Plans are underway to move this genhut to the Grants Airport where an aviation history center for western New Mexico is being championed by the local historical society.

The 2010 aviation PIT project also sparked an interest in developing a history of beacon sites and intermediate airfields across Arizona and New Mexico. The detailed physical measurements and photographic documentation done by the PIT volunteers has become the nucleus for a comparative chart of regional airway sites. Since June, PIT volunteers have been working on their own to find and record additional beacon sites. Spin-offs from the 2009 and 2010 aviation PIT projects are sure to continue!

Of course, you can't have an aviation PIT project without seeing some plane wrecks! PIT volunteers managed to record or, at least, to finalize the 2009 recording of, three historic aviation crash sites: a Porterfield site, a B-24 site and a C-93 crash site. They also had the chance to visit a PBY Catalina (OA 10) crash site in the nearby malpais country.

As in 2009, a number of the volunteers presented talks at an evening event to share our endeavors in regional aviation history with the public and to present the need for ethical "wreck-chasing" behavior. The Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center displayed exhibits about the 2009 and 2010 PIT projects that notably included a scale model Steve Owen made of a typical beacon site. It was definitely a full week of work and fun! A saying developed by the end of the second year's project: "obsessed. . . but in a good way".
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The 2010 PIT crew at Beacon 61, Oso Ridge Lookout. In the background you can see the malpais country where a PBY Catalina (OA 10) crashed in 1945. Inset shows a 1948 view of the genhut and the fire lookout, which was in the beacon tower.


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Scale model of a typical beacon site produced from scratch by volunteer, Steve Owen.
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Mapping and recording the unusual (metal framework rather than poured concrete) beacon arrow near the El Morro Emergency Airfield. Remains of the identifying number and letter (59B) are in left foreground.
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Volunteers Craig Fuller and Rich Hehn attempting to reconstruct the frame of the Porterfield aircraft that crashed in 1948.