KTVH.com

Big Sky Chronicles: Airplane Beacon

HELENA – Standing tall at the top of MacDonald Pass is a beacon that helped lay the groundwork for the beginnings of nighttime flight across Montana.

“This one was built in 1935 and it was turned on in November of 1935.  It completed the Northern Transcontinental Airway Route through the United States,” said Montana Department of Transportation Historian Jon Axline.  “This was the last one built, it was the last one to be turned on and it was also the subject of a big celebration in Helena at the regional airport while they all stood out there in the cold waiting for them to light this particular beacon.”

Axline said as aviation became more of a factor in mail service in the early part of the 20th century, it became clear there needed to be a system of guidance.

“So at one time there was 80 beacons that guided nighttime pilots or nighttime flight across Montana, currently there are 17,” explained Axline.  “This particular beacon, in my opinion, I know there’s at least one person who might disagree with me, I think is the most significant of the entire system.  It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it’s still operational, and Montana in fact is the only state in the union to still use nighttime airway beacons.”

For Axline, the beacon is another of our local reminders of a time that may be in our past — but that speaks loudly to our present and should be preserved.

“Everybody knows it’s there, but nobody really knows the history of it and that it really did play a significant role in Montana history at one time, especially in the development of aviation in the state.”