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Montana airway beacons a relic of aviation history

MacDonald Pass airway beacon
Posted at 4:27 PM, Dec 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-14 18:27:40-05

HELENA — From Pictograph Cave State Park in Billings, to Virginia City, to Reeder’s Alley in Helena, Montana is steeped in history. There is also a lesser-known piece of history still lighting the night sky across Montana - historic airway beacons.

According to Montana Department of Transportation historian Jon Axline, there are about 16 such beacons still standing across Montana. These beacons played a role not just in the state, but across the country.

“My guess is anybody who has lived in Helena for any period of time has seen the lights flashing in the hills around Helena,” Axline said. “What they don’t know usually is that these are really an important part of aviation history.”

Axline said there are three beacons in the hills around Helena—one on Spokane Hill, another in the north hills and a third on MacDonald Pass. These beacons were all part of a network of thousands of beacons across the United States that helped planes navigate at night.

According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, in the mid-1940s there were 2,112 of these beacons operating along 124 airways crisscrossing the United States. Axline said the beacon in the north hills lit the National Parks Airway Route from Great Falls to Salt Lake City. The beacons on Spokane Hill and MacDonald Pass helped planes navigate the North Transcontinental Airway Route between New York and Seattle.

“This was the last one lit in November of 1935 to complete that particular rote,” Axline said of the MacDonald Pass beacon.

Some beacons were connected to power, but Axline said others, like the MacDonald Pass beacon, were powered by generators.

Airway beacons were first developed in the 1920s, and the early ones were pretty rudimentary.

“The first ones were essentially bonfires set along the airmail routes,” Axline said.

From the 1920s though the early 1940s, Axline said beacons were essential to nighttime air travel.

“During the 1930s and 1940s, you see a whole lot of stuff in the newspapers about the establishment of beacons on these different airway routes,” Axline said.

The design for the beacons around Helena was patented in 1931, and according to Axline the top of the beacons have red and green lights to show pilots where the route is, and the light flashes Morse code to signal location.

“They’re very ingenious,” Axline said. “They’re simple but ingenious.”

By the end of World War II, new technology made nighttime airway beacons unnecessary, and since then many across the country have been dismantled. In Montana and the Helena area they are not actively used but they still flash - a relic of aviation history still visible today.