Where’d They Go?

By Staff

Columbus, New Mexico 88020-0368

The article on Kohler light plants in the June GEM brought back
fond memories to yours truly. For those who care, the following
history excerpt may be of interest.

Many of the older iron collectors will recall that during the
middle ‘ 30’s the U.S. Government established a network of
airways throughout the U.S. These airways, in full operation by
1940 under the Department of Commerce, consisted of lighted
auxiliary fields about every 50 miles on each airway, with radio
ranges at these fields transmitting 4-course A and N signals with
two courses oriented along the airway. In addition, there were
airways rotating beacons located about every 25 miles along these
airways. Almost every field had lighthouse service buildings for
station and quarters, manned 24 hours by a crew of about 5
Communicators. These operators usually ex-Navy or Army, were
required to pass exams of 35 WPM Code, 50 WPM teletype, 25 WPM
perforated teletype tape, and the written equivalent of an Air
Transport Rating every six months. They had Weather Certificates
and took hourly, or more often if required, weather reports. These
were entered on an hourly teletype sequence. Thus, each hour every
station in the U.S. had accurate weather information from every 50
miles on all airways. This was far more accurate local weather than
is available from the computerized system today. The Communicators
would also take position reports from airline flights and broadcast
weather for that portion of the airway at least once each hour.

Getting to the pertinent part, it becomes obvious that such a
system required electrical power and, in addition, a source of
auxiliary power should there be a power interruption. Stations at
lighted fields had to have a standby generator of at least 5 KW or
more. If power failed, the standby generator took over the load.
For the airways beacons, the system was one of two types, mostly
supplied with the super reliable Kohler 2 KW 4-cylinder light
plants. At sites with power, one plant was installed to start
automatically if line power failed. At sites without power, there
were two Kohler (or possibly other make) plants set up in the
following manner.. At dusk, one plant would crank until it started
and run all night. The next night the other plant would work. If
one cranked for a few minutes and did not start, the other would
then start instead. The plants would shut down if oil pressure
failed or cooling temperature got too high, and the other plant
would then go to work.

Any failure of these beacons was reported to the nearest station
by the airline flights.

Most sites had buried gasoline tanks holding sufficient fuel for
a month or more. Sites in warmer climates had extra water capacity
for cooling. One site, at Buffalo Valley, Nevada manned by a
caretaker only, had to have water added every few hours, so there
were times when the caretaker could not get into town 50 miles away
to get groceries.

Moral of this story is that this reliable system, especially
with the Kohler plants, was in full operation at the start of WWII,
and performed yeoman duty throughout the war. Later, as the 50 mile
auxiliary field spacing and 25 mile beacon spacing became obsolete,
due to the increased speed and altitude of airline flights, the
system was slowly dismantled. Many of the beacon towers are still
in use at airports all over the U.S. and one is still standing at
the abandoned auxiliary field here in Columbus, New Mexico, site of
the Pancho Villa Raid. One thus wonders what happened to the
thousands of light plants as they were removed and the sites shut
down.

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