Today, what did we do before GPS? The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Cross country flying was a real challenge in the 1920s.
Pilots flew with maps in their laps, trying to relate the limited features on
paper with the ambiguous reality unfolding below them. Pilots often landed
in pastures to ask farmers for directions. Two-lane highways and small towns
all looked alike from up in the sky. What to do? Well, Air and Space
writer Roger Mola tells us.
The Government began promoting a remarkably straightforward solution in 1926.
Simply paint names of towns on roofs of barns, buildings, water towers, gas
storage tanks, and hangers. Paint the letters ten to thirty feet high -- black
on a chrome yellow background. Include an arrow pointing to the nearest landing
The hope was to place these markers every fifteen miles. By the time I was a boy,
taking long automobile treks with my parents, we saw these signs all the time.
Well, we saw them at an angle, when they'd been painted on sloping roofs.
But where to get the labor for this huge task? It had to begin as a volunteer program.
Later, during the Depression, the CCC and the PWA were called in.
But it started out as civic volunteerism. The Boy Scouts gave a merit badge for taking
part in it. Mola quotes this bit of doggerel from Scouting magazine:
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.
No matter the iffy iambs and dactyls (or whatever they're called.) It trumpets the
ambition of the program to go beyond mere town identification. Program supporters
created a media blitz. Radio personalities Amos and Andy, both flyers, took up the
cause as part of a campaign called, "Let the air know you're there."
One organization, The Ninety-Nines, gave powerful support. That group, formed in
1929 by the first 99 licensed women pilots, strongly promoted the program. Local
chapters of The Ninety-Nines went out with paint and brushes to do the actual labor.
Then: Pearl Harbor. In the early days of WW-II we seriously feared bombing, even
invasion, from both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and we'd created a clear aerial
road map for the enemy. The government waffled for a month and ten days, then came
down with a directive that all markers were to be eradicated within 150 miles of both
coasts, and no new markers were to be painted. That was soon amended to leave
markers in a fifty mile radius around flight training fields. We didn't want trainees
getting lost and killed.
The war was still going on in 1944, but now the allies had clear air superiority.
So the marking program was reinstated, this time with longitude and latitude numbers
Well, we've now come far beyond such direct navigational aids. But I thought you might
like to know that there really was life in America before GPS systems were there to
light our many paths.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. A. Mola, Show Me the Way to Go Home. Air & Space, Sept. 2006, pp. 54-57.
Or Mola's online article.
For more on the role of The Ninety-Nines in the air marking program, see this
Ninety-Nines web site
See also how they carry on the tradition today: http://epa99.free.fr/airmarking.htm
The Tillamook Air Museum also carries on the tradition today. (There is a small adjacent airfield.)
One gains some idea of the size of these letters when one learns that the hanger is a
quarter of a mile long.
Details at: http://www.tillamookair.com/html/bldg.html
(photo by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.