In an age before sophisticated navigation systems, it was dangerous to fly in the night. The pilots who transported the email navigated by following roads, railroad tracks, rivers, and other landmarks as they made their way everywhere in the country. When these landmarks weren’t observable, they did not fly.
When it was going to be dark, airborne planes descended at designated airfields near railroad lines. The mail they had been carrying was loaded onto trains, which was hauled through the night. Then the mail was flown again until dark and was loaded on a new plane. It took a day less than sending it entirely by rail to get mail from New York City to San Francisco, and at much higher risk and cost. If airmail service had to survive and reach faster, it meant flying at night. But how?
The first try in the night
In year 1921 on February 21, the post office launched a night-flying experiment when it sent two planes east from New York, and west from San Francisco. The planes were flying the stretch that was a cross-country relay that the Pony Express had operated 60 years earlier. The mail sacks were transferred from one airplane to another, and the new pilot flew the mail to the next stop. The way was lit by keeping bonfires till the time planes made their way across the country.
But in reality, something else happened. Above mentioned is the pre-decided course of the mail. When the snowstorm hit, the westbound flights were grounded in Chicago. And the eastbound flights stopped when the pilot crashed his plane and got killed. But the other eastbound plane made it to Hazelhurst Field in New York, delivering the email just in 33 hours and 20 minutes after it left San Francisco. That’s about 65 hours quicker than sending the email. The very next day, Congress voted to provide the Air Mail Service $1.25 million to develop the system further.
Funds for Transcontinental Airway
Congress appropriated additional funds to create an airway across the United States. From San Francisco through the passing cities till New York planners devised a method of beacons and making emergency runways spaced from 10 to 30 miles apart, depending upon the terrain. At each location, a steel tower was built using a spotlight installed at the top.
The beacons were close enough so as to spot the other one in a little distance away. The pilot might need help searching the next beacon, although that worked in the bad weather. Because of this, the beacon towers were installed in the form of 70-foot arrows, which pointed the path to another beacon. The arrows were painted bright yellow to make them visible from the sky.
Up until the 1920s they had, 284 beacons built from New York to San Francisco in a line along the 2,665-mile route. The Transcontinental Airway System was a superhit technological marvel. It worked so well that other nations followed it. There was even talk of using anchored or ship buoys to create routes across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Despite its effectiveness, it was soon surpassed by other improvements in aviation technology. Newer planes flew higher; they were more reliable, faster, and went farther, eliminating the need for so many emergency runways. That made the light beacons antiquated, and the system was demolished in the 1940s. The used towers ended up as scrap metal, which was used to build ships and tanks. In coastal areas, loads of large arrows were damaged to deter enemies from using them as navigation aids.