Way to go

The standard Map Key (this one from Map No.35, Reno, NV to San Francisco, CA).
The standard Map Key (this one from Map No.35, Reno, NV to San Francisco, CA).

I have a thing for maps. (I might have mentioned this once or twice before…) So finding a collection of old air navigation maps on the internet is a serious delight – one I’m not about to keep for myself.

The collection covers about 70 maps from the Connecticut State Library at Hartford, and is an incomplete set of ‘United States Air Navigation Maps (Experimental)’ from 1923–24 with revisions up until about 1935. There’s a full list below.

Note: To preserve some of the detail, the map images I’ve included with this article are LARGE – at least 1MB each – so click with intent.

Air Mail Depart
General Superintendent of the Airmail Service, L.B. Lent, helps load one of three JL-6 aircraft on July 29, 1920 at New York, before its pathfinding mail flight to San Francisco. (Smithsonian Inst., A.2009-26)

A huge boost

A general view of a Junkers-Larsen JL-6. A good looking airplane, even by today's standards, it was far ahead of its competitors when it debuted in 1919. (SDASM 00067791)
A general view of a Junkers-Larsen JL-6. A good looking airplane, even by today’s standards, it was far ahead of its competitors when it debuted in 1919. (SDASM 00067791)

These maps date from the formative days of regular air services across the United States, following the first survey of a transcontinental mail route in early August of 1920 – when 100 letters were flown from Hazelhurst Field on Long Island to Durant Field in Oakland, CA by Harold “Slim” Lewis.

The initial route options were surveyed by a small fleet of three Junkers-Larsen JL-6s, American versions of the fantastically modern Junkers F.13 – an all metal, cantilever monoplane which had first flown in Germany in June 1919. The second and third aircraft were piloted by Mons Emil and renowned aviator Bert Acosta.

Durant Field, on August 9th, 1920. L to R: John L. Davie (Mayor of Oakland), Eddie Rickenbacker, John M. Larsen, Bert Acosta, J. J. Rosborough (Postmaster). (Oakland Public Library)
Durant Field, on August 9th, 1920. L to R: John L. Davie (Mayor of Oakland), Eddie Rickenbacker, John M. Larsen, Bert Acosta, J. J. Rosborough (Postmaster). (Oakland Public Library)

Five years later, when the maps were first being produced, the 1925 Kelly Act gave the US aviation industry a huge boost by legislating that the air mail be carried by private contractors.

This was possibly the most pivotal act (and Act) in the history of American commercial aviation.

At a stroke, it made flying a viable business opportunity. The first Contract Air Mail (CAM) carrier was Ford Air Services, operating Ford-built Stout 2-ATs (a single Liberty-engined predecessor of the Ford Trimotor, and the original “Tin Goose”) on routes between Detroit and Chicago, and between Detroit and Cleveland.

The pinnacles of public enthusiasm

This set an early precedent for the nepotistic aviation holding companies that would grow into giant airplane, engine, airline and air mail monopolies before they were forcibly broken up by the Air Mail Act of 1934. Among the most memorable of these were Bill Boeing’s United Air Services, which gave us United Air Lines and Boeing; along with General Motors’ General Aviation Division which would give the world North American Aviation.

The network of Contract Air Mail routes that grew across the United States from 1924, with the original transcontinental route as a dotted line. (Rlandmann | wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
The network of Contract Air Mail routes that grew across the United States from 1924, with the original transcontinental route as a dotted line. (Rlandmann | wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

One notable pilot who also benefited from the commercialisation of air mail was a young flying instructor from St. Louis, MO, named Charles Lindbergh. In October 1925, he was hired by the Robertson Aircraft Corporation to pioneer and fly the 278-mile CAM-2 between St.Louis and Chicago.

Eighteen months later his solo Atlantic flight would lift aviation to the pinnacles of public enthusiasm.

Lindbergh's training ground – the mail route between St.Louis, MO and a rather diminutive (to modern eyes, anyway) Chicago, IL.
The map of Lindbergh’s training ground – the mail route between St.Louis, MO and a rather diminutive (to modern eyes, anyway) Chicago, IL.

“…nor gloom of night…”

Diagram of a standard en route beacon with the concrete arrow foundation, beacon tower, and clearly marked generator shed. (wikipedia)
Diagram of a standard en route beacon with the concrete arrow foundation, beacon tower, and clearly marked generator shed. (wikipedia)

Meanwhile, our maps were being developed by the Army Corps of Engineers, under direction from the Army Air Corps, to provide aviators – and the mail pilots in particular – with the added safety of clearly defined routes to follow.

But flying on a clear, sunny day is one thing. The Post Office Department’s unofficial creed that “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” should prevent the “swift completion of their appointed rounds” meant that night-flying also needed to be made more reliable.

The remains of Air Mail Beacon 37A, on a bluff above St. George, Utah. THE concrete arrow (pointing to the next beacon, about 10 miles on) would also support a light tower and generator shed. (Dppowell | wikpiedia CC BY-SA 4.0)
The remains of Air Mail Beacon 37A, on a bluff above St. George, Utah. THE concrete arrow (pointing to the next beacon, about 10 miles on) would also support a light tower and generator shed. (Dppowell | wikpiedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

And so, in 1923, Congress funded a transcontinental series of navigation aids – including large concrete arrows for “contact” (i.e. visual) flying during the day, coupled with a chain of light towers that pilots could follow at night. This airway was built up quickly, starting with a stretch between Chicago, IL and Cheyenne, WO on the basis that pilots could leave either coast in the morning and reach their lighted track by nightfall.

Night mail flights started on July 1st, 1924 and cut the coast to coast delivery time by two full days. The complete airway, stretching from New York to San Francisco was operational by mid-1925, and by 1927 a 4,000 mile network of lighted routes was in place. Eventually, the network would mark 18,000 miles of air routes with 1,500 beacons.

Somewhat changed... Dallas and Fort Worth in 1928, from the map for Route 26, Dallas and Ft. Worth to San Antonio.
Time flies. . . Dallas and Fort Worth in 1928, from the map for Route 26, Dallas and Ft. Worth to San Antonio, TX.

Windows in time

Flights east from Los Angeles passed via Las Vegas, NV and Milford, UT before joining the transcontinental route at Salt Lake City, UT. Here the track picks its way through the mountains out of Vegas, with the St.George beacon (above) at far right.
Flights east from Los Angeles passed via Las Vegas, NV and Milford, UT before joining the trans-continental route at Salt Lake City, UT. Here the track picks its way through the mountains out of Vegas, with the St.George beacon at far right.

With a civil air route on one side and the corresponding Air Corps Map on the other, these beautiful charts cover that entire, formative period of air navigation, air mail and airlines. The rapidly expanding network of lighted beacons are a major feature along keys routes – as are the magnetic tracks to fly and the conveniently spaced emergency landing grounds that were also part of the system.

It’s interesting to follow the routes and compare them with modern IFR maps. In some cases, the direct route has always been the best. In others, 1920s pilots would have threaded their way through mountain passes that commercial pilots could hardly pick out from the Flight Levels today.

Route No.32 (Phoenix to San Diego), showing the Yuma to San Diego section by day...
Route No.32 (Phoenix to San Diego), showing the Yuma to San Diego section by day. . .

Some maps, like No.32 Phoenix to San Diego, include a black and white relief for easier night navigation.

Case-bound in linen board, the originals must be a joy to behold. Each chart was designed to be held and used in an open cockpit, probably while wearing bulky fur-lined leather gloves and being bucked around by the weather – and possibly while holding a flashlight with your teeth.

...and by night – including, for the truly lost, the rest of SoCal as far as Los Angeles with a white box around the limits of the day flying chart.
. . .and by night – including, for the truly lost, the rest of SoCal as far as Los Angeles with a white box around the limits of the day flying chart.

And while they were simply tools of the trade in their day, these maps are now more precious as works of art – or as windows in time.

Remember, they come from the days when “IFR” really did stand for “I Follow Railways/Roads” so each one also carefully lays out all the roads, rail lines and city boundaries of the time. It makes them a fascinating snapshot of the US when the railway was king – before intercity flights, internet, or even interstate highways. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to start adding little people…

The air mail facilities at Iowa City, IO, with the airways beacon and control tower in the centre. (Smithsonian Inst. A.2009-27)
The air mail facilities at Iowa City, IO, with the airways beacon and control tower in the centre. (Smithsonian Inst. A.2009-27)

I should probably say that these maps are NOT to be used for actual navigational purposes. (D’uh!) But there’s nothing to stop you exploring their nostalgic charm in your preferred flight simulator. Perhaps you’ll even set the weather to “filthy” and make your own trans-continental mail run in a Boeing Model 40. That’s what I’ll be doing… Enjoy!

The beacons:

You can read more about the US Air Mail beacon system here. (I highly recommend it.)

For my West Coast friends, Route 40 from San Francisco to a much-changed Los Angeles. (Click for the 5,000px, 3.1 MB enlargement.)
For my West Coast friends, Route 40 from San Francisco to a much-changed Los Angeles. (Click for the 5,000px, 3.1 MB enlargement.)

 

The complete maps:

You can use these links to download the full maps for your neck of the woods – or any other necks you’d like to “fly”:

No.1 Dayton, OH to Uniontown, PA

No.2 Washington, DC to Uniontown, PA

No.3 Washington, DC to New York City, NY

No.4 Washington, DC to Hampton, VA

No.5 Dayton, OH to Rantoul, IL

No.6 New York City, NY to Boston, MA

No.7 New Orleans, LA to Beaumont, TX

No.8 New Orleans, LA to Montgomery, AL

No.9 Chicago, IL to Iowa City, IA

No.10 Iowa City, IA to Omaha, NE

No.11 Omaha, NE to North Platte, NE

No.12 North Platte, NE to Cheyenne, WO

No.13 Cheyenne, WO to Rock Springs, WO

No.14 Rock Springs, WO to Salt Lake City, UT

No.15 Montgomery, AL to Augusta, GA

No.16 Augusta, GA to Fayetteville, NC

No.17 Los Angeles, CA to Yuma, AZ

No.18 Fayetteville, NC to Norfolk, VA

No.19 New York City, NY to Bellefonte, PA

No.20 Bellefonte, PA to Cleveland, OH

No.21 Cleveland, OH to Chicago, IL

No.22 Chicago, IL to St.Louis, MO

No.23 St.Louis, MO to Kansas City, MO

No.24 Kansas City, MO to Muskogee, OK

No.25 Muskogee, OK to Dallas & Fort Worth, TX

No.26 Dallas & Fort Worth, TX to San Antonio, TX

No.27 Beaumont, TX to San Antonio, TX

No.28 San Antonio, TX to Dryden, TX

No.29 Dryden, TX to El Paso, TX

No.30 El Paso, TX to Tucson, AZ

No.31 Nogales & Tucson, AZ to Phoenix, AZ

No.32 Phoenix, AZ to San Diego, CA

No.33 Salt Lake City, UT to Elko, NV

No.34 Elko, NV to Reno, NV

No.35 Reno, NV to San Francisco, CA

No.36 Louisville, KY to Dayton, OH

No.37 Cincinnati, OH to Louisville, KY and St.Louis, MO

No.38 San Diego, CA to Tucson, AZ

No.39 San Diego, CA to Los Angeles, CA

No.40 San Francisco, CA to Los Angeles, CA

No.41 San Francisco, CA to Medford, OR

No.42 Medford, OR to Vancouver, WA

No.43 Vancouver, WA to Seattle, WA

No.44 Rantoul, IL to Mount Clemens, MI

No.45 Uniontown, PA to Cleveland OH & Mount Clemens, MI

No.46 Washington, DC to Middleton, PA

No.47 Dayton, OH to Mount Clemens, MI

No.48 Louisville, KY to Nashville, TN

No.49 Nashville, TN to Birmingham, AL

No.50 Birmingham, AL to Pensacola, FL

No.51 Muskogee, OK to Belleville, IL

No.52 Dayton, OH to Belleville, IL

No.102 Dallas, TX to Oklahoma City, OK

No.103 Oklahoma City, OK to Wichita, KS

No.104 Wichita, KS to Kansas City, MO

No.105 Kansas City, MO to Moline, IL

No.110 St.Louis, MO to Chicago, IL

No.111 Chicago, IL to Milwaukee, WI

No.112 Milwaukee, MN to St.Paul-Minneapolis, MN

No.115 Louisville, KY to Cleveland, OH

No.119 Buffalo, NY to Albany, NY

No.126 Jacksonville, FL to Atlanta, GA

No.127 Birmingham, AL to Atlanta, GA

No.128 Atlanta, GA to Greensboro, NC

No.129 Greensboro, NC to Richmond, VA

No.130 Richmond, VA to Washington, DC

No.131 Pueblo, CO to Cheyenne, WO

No.132 Los Angeles, CA to Las Vegas, NV

No.133 Las Vegas, NV to Milford, UT

No.134 Milford, UT to Salt Lake City, UT

No.136 Boise, ID to Pasco, WA

No.137 Portland, OR to Spokane, WA

No.138 Salt Lake City, UT to Pocatello, ID

No.139 Pocatello, ID to Butte, MT

No.144 Nashville, TN to Evansville, IN

No.150 Kansas City, MO to Omaha, NE

If you hit any dead links, please let me know and I’ll fix them right up.

5 thoughts on “Way to go

    1. Couldn’t agree more – whether the map was published 90 years ago or yesterday. Same goes for aerial photos and satellite views. I’ll pore over any of them.

  1. What a fantastic archive! I’ve got some VFR sectionals from the 1930s and 40s in electronic format. Nothing to speak of compared to this treasure trove, but still really fun to look at and contrast with the incredibly crowded land and airspace (ironically with about 1/5th the number of actual airports) which constitutes today’s Southern California.

    1. So true… And these maps were mostly drawn before the real hey-day of flying – between Lindbergh’s crossing and the 1929 stock market crash – when lots more airports (including Van Nuys) were opened by enthusiastic speculators.

      I notice, in a weird coincidence, that Tracie Curtis-Taylor (http://www.birdinabiplane.com) was flying these mail routes until she bent her Stearman in Arizona the other day.

      Apparently we’re not the only people to be captivated by old charts!

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