Landmark being repaired

Monday, July 3, 2017
Greg Smith working on the beacon light at the top of the tower at the Manila Airport.
(Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)

The 50+ foot tower holding the rotating beacon light at the Manila Airport has served pilots for almost six decades.

The rotating white and green light has alerted pilots of the location of the airport since it was relocated from Tennessee to Manila in 1959.

Most people who have grown up across Buffalo Island have watched the light as it rotated across the sky.

The need for repairs came about several months ago. Through a grant from the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics, Greg Smith, owner of MX Aviation, is in the process of making the repairs and soon again the light will be sweeping across the sky.

Paint, tightening the bolts and building the wooden platform are routine. Not routine is the repair of the motor.

Smith first tried to find used, working parts to match but his search was to no avail. It became evident the only solution was to engineer a new motor to fit, and match the speed and power requirements.

The tower and light has been located at the Manila Airport since 1959 but it was manufactured much earlier, probably in the 1920s. The lighted towers were used to light the way for airmail to be transported from coast to coast at night.

In the process of looking for the replacement equipment, Smith found some very interesting facts about the tower and beacon.

Smith was told by a friend the tower was brought to Manila by the late Johnny Fairchild, a local flight instructor.

“I was told he found the tower and beacon in Tennessee and acquired it for the Manila Airport,” Smith said. “On the concrete base of the tower the date 1959 is etched."

The tower and light at Manila was more than likely used in the 1920s by the postal service to guide pilots. Smith said across the country there are concrete arrows, some up to 70 feet, painted yellow, which directed the first pilots in the transcontinental air mail route. Pilots would follow the arrows. The flights were limited to daylight since aircraft in the day lacked advanced electronics.

It was in the early 1920s the postal service developed a ground based navigation beacon system extending from New York to San Francisco to help pilots fly at night.

Approximately 1,500 airmail beacons were constructed between three and five miles apart. The lights featured a 50-foot tower with rotating lights placed on top of the giant, concrete arrows that had been used as landmarks during the day flights.

“There were no charts or GPS systems in those days,” Smith said. “Pilots flew by looking at landmarks. Even today with all of the technology available pilots are still taught the basics of pilotage, the use of actually following maps and landmarks.”

Using the beacons was successful in delivering the mail and continued to expand. By the end of the first year the airmail service had 18 terminal airfields, 89 emergency airfields, and more than 500 beacon lights in operation.

The early lights were located between three and five miles apart. The first towers contained acetylene-gas powered lights which were fed by fuel stored in a shed at the base. The rotating beacon would flash every 10 seconds.

Smith found the history of the towers and beacons interesting. In his research he found the beacon at the Manila Airport is more than likely part of that history.

As technology progressed, the need for the towers and beacon diminished. Many of the towers were torn down and the steel used in the war efforts in World War II.

Smith expects the beacon to be back up and working in a few weeks. The beacon at the Mania Airport can be seen for 40 miles in all directions.

Smith is a member of the pilots association. He said the association is always intrested in supporting the airport and the city.

Smith, who has been around the airport since he was a teenager, said he is proud to see the continuing improvements at the Manila Airport.

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