Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, it was realized that airmarks could be used by enemy planes, so the order was given to remove 2,500 airmarks that stood within 150 miles of the nation’s coasts. Six weeks later, those marks were obliterated, undoing six years of labor—but shortly after, the blanket order was modified. Why? The absence of airmarks was causing military pilot trainees to become lost. The new order allowed airmarks within 50 miles of flight training airfields.
The national program resumed after the war, with improved methods (including government-supplied plywood templates for lettering) and greater participation, but it’s truly remarkable that despite historic advances in communications and airplanes, the airmark system remained in use into the 1970s.
If you’re old enough to have flown locally back then, you might recall some North Country rooftop markings, some of which are listed below with their year of origin. Most were maintained until the system became outdated.
1946: St. Lawrence County—the Union block/Grange Hall and the Hamilton block at Winthrop; the Parishville-Hopkinton Central School at Parishville, the Newton Falls Paper Company at Newton Falls, the Arlington Hotel at Potsdam, the McCarthy Hotel in South Colton, the airport hangar and the Ruderman Machinery Exchange Building in Gouverneur.
1948: Clinton County—the W. W. Gettys Store in Rouses Point, the lumber shed of R. Prescott & Company in Keeseville. Essex County—the Burleigh Hotel in Ticonderoga, Baroudi’s Grocery Store in North Creek, the Westport Inn annex in Westport, the Oval Wood Dish Company in Tupper Lake, the Schroon Lake Department Store in Schroon Lake. Franklin County—the Sheffield Farm Company at Chateaugay. Fulton County—Northville Central School at Northville, Gloversville Knitting Company in Gloversville. Hamilton County—the Inlet Garage at Inlet, the town hall at Long Lake. Jefferson County—the Cleveland Block in Adams, the IBC Farm Machinery Building at Carthage. Lewis County—J. P. Lewis & Company at Beaver Falls, the St. Regis Paper Mill at Harrisville. Saratoga County—the National Cash Register Company’s plant at Mechanicville, Corinth High School at Corinth. Warren County—Warren County Garage at Warrensburg. Washington County—Champlain Spinners, Inc. in Whitehall, and Ginsburg’s Department Store in Granville.
1949: Essex County—Corners’ Garage at Crown Point, the Sherman block in Moriah, Johnson’s Garage in Lewis. St. Lawrence County—the bowling alley at Edwards; Shields Slipper Corporation at Bombay, Peter’s General Store and the GLF Store in De Kalb Junction.
1950: Essex County—Ausable Forks, Keene, Keene Valley, Upper Jay. St. Lawrence County—the Madrid school building in Madrid, the Morristown Central School at Morristown, the town garage in Norfolk, the Richville Hotel at Richville, the Department of Public Works building in Ogdensburg.
1951: Clinton County—Champlain, Mooers, Redford, West Chazy. Essex County—the state Department of Public Works sheds at Elizabethtown, Minerva Central School at Olmstedville. Franklin County—Constable, Fort Covington, Lake Clear, Paul Smiths, St. Regis Falls. St. Lawrence County—LaVair’s Garage at Helena, the General Ice Cream Corporation at North Lawrence, the Morley Grange Hall at Morley, the post office at DeGrasse, the coal storage sheds at Rensselaer Falls.
1955: St. Lawrence County—Helena, Madrid, Rossie.
1960: Essex County—Ausable, Crown Point, Keeseville, Schroon Lake, Westport, Upper Jay, and Wilmington. Franklin County—Bangor, Burke, and Malone. St. Lawrence County—Galilee, Heuvelton, Lisbon, Madrid, Newton Falls, and Parishville.
Among the persnickety issues persisting through decades of airmarking were mountainous regions like the Adirondacks and Catskills, where long stretches were unpopulated. Pilots frequently crossed those areas getting from one place to another, and were forced to memorize certain mountain shapes or skylines to navigate. In poor visibility, it was necessary to stay grounded or follow airmarks on a circuitous path.
Among the local stories dealing with that particular problem was one told and retold, bringing welcome attention to the airmarking program. In 1948, an unnamed army major was flying from New York City to Pine Camp (later Fort Drum) near Watertown. Leaving at noon, he encountered snow in the Adirondacks and became lost, a scenario that once caused so many fatalities, it helped lead to the birth of airmarking back in the 1920s. Running low on fuel and experiencing wing icing, he was in desperation mode when the word GOUVERNEUR appeared below, with an arrow directing him to a safe landing place.
In 1950, New York’s state police force worked with the Department of Commerce, seeking locations in the Adirondacks where markers could be installed. Solving that problem was believed the final step in New York becoming the most thoroughly marked and safest state in the country for pilots. But with restrictions ensuring the Adirondacks remained wild, the placement of markers in dozens of communities in and around the mountains had to suffice.
In 1955, interchanges along stretches of the New York State Thruway were added to the airmark system. Each year, the state issued an updated aviation map with data on a dozen topics like airports, canals, highways, railroads, and state parks. Underlined in red were 600 airmarks, many of which had been maintained and repainted for years by Boy Scouts, aviation clubs, and other volunteers.
Through the mid-1960s, airmarks were still mapped by the state, but in the earlier part of the decade, omniranges were listed as well, which reduced New York’s airmark count from a high of more than 700 during the 1950s. Omnirange—VHF Omni Direction Radio Range (VOR)—is a navigation system used to determine a plane’s position and keep a pilot on the correct course. Their listing represented a new technology that would replace the airmark system after more than 40 years of service.
And yet today, more than 80 years after the program originated, airmarks live on—wouldn’t you know it—courtesy of a women’s group. The Ninety-Nines are self-described as an “international organization of women pilots that promotes advancement of women in aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual support while honoring our unique history and sharing our passion for flight.” Annually, on a limited basis, their efforts include an airmark program.
Modern planes of all sizes are equipped with radios and navigation equipment, but for more than three decades, when airmarks were needed to advance aviation through an uncertain future, folks in the Adirondacks and foothills answered the call.
Photos: airmark, Cicero, N.Y., north of Syracuse (1951); airmark at Edwards, N.Y. (1949, Tribune Press, Gouverneur); airmark painted by the 99s in 2004 (from the 99s newsletter)
This article was first published on the Adirondack Alamanack.