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How Pilots Navigated The Twin Cities Before Radar

Charles Lindbergh, famed aviator and native of Little Falls, Minnesota, became a name known to the world after completing the first solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. However, Charles' flying experience began with modesty.


Lindbergh cut his teeth as a pilot after enrolling in the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation's school of flight, followed by graduating from the Army Flying School in 1924. He soon after accepted his first pilot position for the St. Louis - Chicago air-mail route.


A few years prior in 1919, a man by the name of Raymond Orteig, proposed a $25,000 prize to the first individual to fly nonstop from New York City to Paris. After Lindbergh was made aware of Orteig's proposal, he began to practice for the long haul. On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh in his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, touched down in Paris, France, thirty-three hours after taking off from New York City.



But just how did Charles Lindbergh and other aviators navigate the skies in the days before radar and GPS? Well, pilots flying the air-mail route to the Twin Cities knew to look for the shining beacon and the 70-foot-long bright-yellow navigation directional arrow in Cottage Grove. Much like Lindbergh, aviators flying air-mail routes across the United States were guided by beacons and concrete painted arrows that dotted the landscape.


This method of beacons and arrows was the primary navigation tool for pilots from roughly 1925 to 1935, before radio communication became the prevailing tool for navigation. To this day, only around 100 of these concrete arrows remain, and only one of which is located in Minnesota.



The last remaining navigation arrow in Minnesota resides in Cottage Grove (courtesy of Google Maps). This specific navigation arrow is known as arrow number 37 (indicating that this arrow was 370 miles from the start of the route) on the Milwaukee - St. Paul/Minneapolis air-mail route.


Using maps from the Minnesota Historical Aerial Photographs database, we are able to discern two other navigation arrows that once guided pilots safely to what was then known as Wold-Chamberlain Field (now Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport).


Courtesy of Minneapolis Gas Light Co., giant directional arrows were printed atop at least two petroleum storage tanks to guide pilots to Wold-Chamberlain Field. The first of these tanks was located on what's now Riverview Tower on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota Campus.



The second tank was located at what's now a Centerpoint Energy campus at 800 Linden Avenue. The base of the petroleum tank has been repurposed and now serves as a parking structure for Centerpoint Energy employees.



Here is a close-up of the directional arrows, providing aviators with an arrow advising Wold-Chamberlain Field is six miles to the southeast.


Lastly, here you can see Wold-Chamberlain Field in 1937. Using Fort Snelling to the east as a point of reference provides a sense of scale as to just how little the airport used to be compared to the behemoth that is MSP International Airport today.



Today, it is easy to take for granted the feat and marvel that was navigating an aircraft nearly 100 years ago. However, flight certainly doesn't feel too marvelous anymore when you're scrunched next to a screaming toddler and their unbothered father in seat 21B on your Spirit Airline flight that was delayed three hours.

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