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Local group works to protect a unique piece of aviation history

Protecting a piece of Idaho Aviation History

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.

When it was first introduced, airmail was a revelation for Americans. Mail could take weeks to get from one end of the country to another even with rail transit. Sending mail by air was expensive, but it cut delivery time down from weeks to a few days. 

The biggest initial challenge with airmail was making sure the pilots got to the right destination. Planes didn't have navigation in that day so many pilots got lost, stranded, or simply ran out of fuel and crashed as they looked for their destination. It was such a problem, that the life expectancy for airmail pilots was notorious for being short. That's the key reason why the US government built the giant concrete arrows.

The arrows were painted a bright color to stand out among the various terrain and flora. Combined with a beacon that acted similar to a lighthouse, they would inform the airmail pilot day or night the direction they were supposed to travel. "You flew by sight back in that day. So they (the arrows) were extremely important to keep the planes going in the right direction."

WWII brought many changes to the aviation industry, including the streamlining of navigation for airplanes. Suddenly the giant arrows weren't needed, and many of the beacon towers were taken down as the US government was desperate for metal.

Within just a few years, many of the airmail guidance sites were abandon and left to degrade. In most cases, only portions of the concrete arrows or supply sheds were left over. That's why the recently re-discovered/identified guidance site in Dubois is unique as it's entirely intact. 

"Oh it's super cool," said Cobia. "My friend Kaarin Engelmann and I flew up to Dubois a year ago and found the arrow. We did a lot of history, we looked at it, and we decided to see if we could preserve it."

Cobia and Engelmann restored the Dubois site by cleaning off the tower and shed, weeding around the arrow, and repainting it to it's original yellow color. Cobia says he's currently working with several government and historical entities to see if they can't officially make it a historical site to farther protect it. 

"I talked with the city council of Dubois about preserving it. They're super excited," said Cobia. The Dubois site is easy to reach, sitting just north of the airport on the SE side of town. 

Besides the Dubois site, Cobia said the only other guidance site that's still relatively intact is in the Monida Pass. He said they're working with the land owner to see if they can restore that site as well. 


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