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Giant arrows point to earliest days of aviation

Published: Monday, Oct. 14 2013 4:29 p.m. MDT

The Skull Valley arrow is one of many arrows in Utah and across the country used during the early days of aviation to help pilots fly across the country. Each arrow had a beacon that would help the pilot identify what arrow they were flying over and help them figure out where they were. (Marc Weaver, Deseret News) The Skull Valley arrow is one of many arrows in Utah and across the country used during the early days of aviation to help pilots fly across the country. Each arrow had a beacon that would help the pilot identify what arrow they were flying over and help them figure out where they were. (Marc Weaver, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A series of giant arrows can be found across northern Utah and several other states.

What are they for? For the answer, you have to go back in time.

One giant arrow is in Bountiful near the marshes of the Great Salt Lake. Another was found on a bluff above I-80 on Kennecott Utah Copper property near Saltair. The best preserved arrow is just off I-80 near Skull Valley. Another is decaying and overgrown south of Tooele near Stockton.

Aviation and space buff Patrick Wiggins first heard about the arrows a few weeks ago.

"You can see the point of the arrow, of course, if you take the time to look," Wiggins said.

Civil Air Patrol cadets adopted the Skull Valley arrow and cleaned it to make it presentable. (Marc Weaver, Deseret News) Civil Air Patrol cadets adopted the Skull Valley arrow and cleaned it to make it presentable. (Marc Weaver, Deseret News)

People have been taking wild guesses on the Internet about the true purpose or meaning of the arrows. Some speculations include aliens or hidden treasures.

To find the answer of what the arrows are pointing at, you have to go a long way back to the earliest days of aviation, when the lives of airmail pilots depended on these arrows to get them to their destinations. Airmail pilots often flew in terrible weather, in the dark and sometimes lost their way.

"Back then there was no radio navigation, so they had to use visual markers, usually mountains, buildings that they could easily find from the air," said Capt. Kyle Coffman of the Civil Air Patrol. "So these arrows were great markers."

That's why in the 1920s a dotted line on the map connecting the East Coast to the West Coast became a sequence of concrete arrows on the ground with lighted beacons on each one — guideposts for a Pony Express Trail in the sky.

The concrete arrows are 70 feet long and were built at intervals of approximately 10 miles, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The standard beacon tower was 51 feet high, topped with a powerful rotating light. Below that light were two course lights, pointed forward and backward along the airway. The course lights flashed a code to identify the beacon’s number.

It still took plenty of guts. Airmail pilots had to fly low to see the arrows, particularly in bad weather.

“As somebody who has now flown over them several times, I know they don’t do much good from high up. They’re hard to see,” Wiggins said. “Knowing that, as low as you are, if you miss one you're going to run into a mountain, and so I wouldn't have had the nerve to do that."

Wiggins persuaded a squadron of Civil Air Patrol cadets to adopt the Skull Valley arrow, cleaning it up to make it presentable.

"To me, what's so exciting is here we have this relic of the very early days of aviation, sitting out here in the desert, very well-preserved," said history buff Joe Bauman. "And it's like going back in time 80 years."

Email: hollenhorst@deseretnews.com

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