For over eighty years, airplane pilots relied on a chain of lighted nighttime airway beacons to navigate their way across Montana’s big sky. At the system’s height in the early 1940s, eighty-four beacons marked several airway routes across the state. The beacons were the remnants of a transcontinental air route system that had guided commercial and private pilots across the United States since 1935. As navigational technology improved through the years, the beacons increasingly became unnecessary and obsolete. There was a steady decrease in the number of beacons beginning in the early 1950s. By the 1960s, the beacons, once the pride of the nation’s commercial aviation system, were no longer relevant. In 1972, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) abandoned the beacon system in Montana and turned the lanterns over to the old Montana Aeronautics Commission to operate and maintain. The beacons essentially became a nostalgic souvenir of the early history of aviation in Montana.
By 2017, the Aeronautics Division kept the lights going on seventeen airway beacons in western Montana. The obsolescence of the beacon system and shrinking state budgets contributed to the MDT’s decision to decommission the system. Director Mike Tooley formed a panel, the Airway Beacon Working Group (ABWG), to study the issue and make recommendations about the future of the beacons. The ABWG solicited public comments and held three public information meetings, at Billings, Missoula, and Helena, in the summer of 2017. Based on the results of the public meetings and comments, Director Tooley decided to shut down the system by December 31, 2021. The Aeronautics Division shut down fourteen beacons in the spring of 2018. The search began for agencies and private citizens willing to adopt them.
MDT’s Communications Bureau agreed to assume responsibility of the St. Regis and Lookout Pass beacons. They currently hold essential communications equipment that monitor weather and road conditions on I-90. The Aeronautics Division, with the assistance of MDT’s Environmental Bureau and Legal Services, devised a plan to find new owners to adopt the towers and beacons. Four beacons- Hardy, Bonita, University Mountain, and Spokane - were adopted by local and state governments to function as radio towers for emergency services equipment. The Spokane beacon still flashes east of Helena.
The Aeronautics Division did not own the land on which the beacon towers stood. Instead, it maintained long term leases with private landowners to allow their presence. Fortunately, six landowners eagerly adopted the beacons standing on their property. Two of the new owners have kept their beacons lit and they continue to mark the historic airway routes. The non-profit Idaho Aviation Heritage organization now owns and operates six of the beacons – all of which they plan to keep lit.
In recognition of their significance to the history of aviation in Montana, eight airway beacons are listed in or are in the process of being listed in the National Register of Historic Places. They are the beacons at Homestake Pass, Canyon Resort near Dell in Beaverhead County, MacDonald Pass, Silver Bow west of Butte, Spokane east of Helena, Lookout Pass, St. Regis, and Whitetail north of Whitehall. All have been adopted by new owners and will continue standing, sentinels of Montana’s early aviation history. The MacDonald Pass is the most prominent of the historic airway beacons and the only one that is easily accessible.
Only one beacon, at Strawberry Mountain in Gallatin County, could not be saved and was demolished late last summer. US Bureau of Air Commerce engineer A. S. Watson and twenty-four men installed the tower and beacon in August 1935. It was a critical part of the newly christened Northern Transcontinental Airway route. The beacon site included not only the beacon, but also the original generator shed and remnants of the old power line between the two structures. The Aeronautics Division recently donated the removed beacon to the Montana Historical Society. The MDT also completed detailed documentation of the beacon site for the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record. Although no longer standing, the beacon will not be forgotten. Many airway beacons still stand tall in Montana, a distinctive and unique part of the Montana landscape.
If you would like to get involved or donate to preserving the beacons, please contact Idaho Aviation Heritage at http://idaviationheritage.org/.
Spokane Beacon Photo Credit: Aeronautics Staff
Strawberry Mountain Beacon Photo Credit: Aeronautics Staff