It is a beautiful map of airports, including the Contract Air Mail Routes, in 1934. You can use it to see where the beacons used to be and you will find that some of them are still in place (and a few moved to new locations). You will also find some arrows remaining. We are working hard to restore this aviation heritage and teach people about the importance of Idaho in the history of commercial aviation.
The Experimental Aircraft Association’s 1927 Swallow open-cockpit biplane is believed to be the oldest aircraft still available to the public for passenger rides. It is among the most advanced of the Swallow series of aircraft that led aviation’s golden age. Swallows had bold design improvements over existing World War I aircraft and fostered a new market for post-war aviation.
Walter Varney bought six Swallows for the route from Elko to Pasco via Burley and Boise and quickly discovered that more powerful engines were needed to cross the rugged terrain. Forced landings and crashes were common.
A Swallow aircraft restored to look like the one that made the first airmail flight through Idaho in 1926.In 1925, the Post Office began to make contracts with private operators to carry air mail. One route, from Pasco, Washington, to Elko, Nevada, called CAM 5 (Contract Air Mail route number 5), was awarded to Walter T. Varney. Varney acquired six new Swallows for the dangerous route over the mountains and desert. On April 6, 1926, 2,500 residents of Pasco came to see pilot Leon Cuddeback and the first mail-laden Swallow take off for Elko via Boise, Idaho. This plane was restored to look like the Swallow aircraft that made that flight. It is at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Don’t miss the Idaho Experience episode Pioneers of the Air: Idaho and the Birth of Commercial Aviation, which debuts on December 2 at 8:30 pm on your local Idaho Public Television station. Idaho Aviation Heritage gets some airtime!
Did you see the segment that ran on Channel 8 back in 2016 about the restoration efforts?
“It’s almost like something out of a sci-fi movie. Giant concrete arrows scattered across the country, each of them pointing to another arrow. But these giant arrows weren’t built by aliens, rather they were built by the US government. Their sole purpose was to help guide the very first airmail pilots in the 1920’s.
“‘So they put these arrows in between 10 to 20 miles apart with beacons to guide the airplanes to their right direction, because they kept getting lost,’ said Greg Cobia, a pilot and aviation history enthusiast from Blackfoot.”
Outdoor Idaho offers an excellent short history of flying in Idaho. The state’s storied connection with aviation begins early in the twentieth century. It was here, in the Intermountain West, that commercial airmail first took hold, on the Pasco-Boise-Elko route, courtesy of Varney Air Lines, which later became United Airlines.