Aviation and Desert Arrows
Aviation and Desert Arrows
By Bob Jaussaud
Surviving this last summer on the desert, Sue and I were stuck indoors for much of the time. When the outside temperature climbs above 115 degrees it’s just too bloody hot to do much. So, trapped indoors, we caught up on some of our reading. An article in the Summer 2021 Nevada Magazine titled “High-Flying Wayfinding” tweaked my interest. It was about concrete arrows that guided pilots across Nevada in the 1920’s. They were part of a very early Transcontinental Airway.
When the United States Post Office Department started airmail service in the Spring of 1918, it was Army pilots who flew the mail but, just few months later, the Department hired civilian pilots to relieved the Army. In those days flying was inherently a risky business,especially if there was a designated route and a set schedule. The new hires were required to fly in open cockpits, in unreliable planes and in unpredictable weather. Somehow they still managed to get the mail through and effectively opened the door for private contractors such as Ford Air Transport (Ford Motor Company), Varney Airlines (later part of United Airlines), Boeing and Braniff. By the Fall of 1927 all airmail was carried under contract and a few fledgling U.S. airlines were able to get a foothold and prosper.
Although the weather was what it was, during the 1920’s airplane reliability was rapidly improving. Even so, pilots still had to find their way visually. Flying at night or when visibility was limited was just not conducive to the pilots’ life expectancy. However, the odds of their continued survival were greatly increased when light beacons were installed along the airmail routes. Large directional concrete arrows were added to help define the route in day time. Also, functional intermediate air fields were constructed so pilots could land if necessary, an all too frequent occurrence. One of those fields was Kelly Field in the East Mojave. The Heritage Trail passes the site of Kelly Airfield and Dennis Casebier researched it for his book East Mojave Heritage Trail - Ivanpah to Rocky Ridge. It is an interesting read.
According to Dennis, Kelly Field was operational from 1930 to 1935 during the height of the Great Depression. Kelly Field serviced the Los Angeles to Salt Lake airmail route. The field had a light beacon perhaps 60 feet tall that was lit and rotated all night long. Also there were runway lights lit all night on an adjacent dry lakebed. There were several storage buildings and a nice little house for Ken and Mabel Wilhelm, the caretakers. Mabel was still living when Dennis was researching for his book and thankfully he was able to interview her. She provided him with firsthand information and several historic photos. Without Dennis recording the history of Kelly Field we might have lost that chapter of desert life. Although there isn’t much left to see, on our Inbound for the upcoming DE Rendezvous we plan to locate the beacon foundation and try to find the gravel circle that was around the windsock.
Back to the concrete arrows. Researching on the internet, I found a site that gave coordinates for the known arrows that have survived. I loved being able to locate the arrows on a map, as it brought the 1920’s Los Angeles to Salt Lake airmail route across the Mojave into focus. It seems apparent that the early pilots flying visually used the early wagon and auto routes for direction. Coincidentally, one of these was the Arrowhead Trail Cutoff which we intend to partially travel on the Inbound. For a future trip, after it cools off a bit, I propose to visit as many of the concrete arrows as we are able to access between Barstow, California and Mesquite, Nevada. This will surely involve some hiking and scrambling but it should be rewarding. Let me know if you are interested and I will keep you posted.