Montana cuts all but three historic airway beacons due to funding

March 13, 2017

HELENA — Montana is unique in the world of aviation.

Since it’s the last state to operate a system of airway beacons through the rugged western mountains, pilots today may fly the same way as early U.S. Mail planes, soaring through the night skies from beacon to beacon on the way to their destination.

The 1920s saw a buildup of airway beacons across the country primarily as a means of postal transportation, according to a history written by Brenda Spivey for Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. By 1933, 1,550 beacons guided pilots along 18,000 miles from the Midwest to the West.

During the 1960s the FAA decided the beacons no longer served a great public purpose, and began efforts to decommission them. By 1972, Montana was the last state still operating a beacon system, down from a statewide high of 84 to 17 in the western mountains.

But as history meets the realities of budgeting priorities, late last year the state of Montana decided to decommission 14 of the 17 remaining beacons. Funding technology of long ago does not make sense, supporters of the decision say, given the time to maintain them and the limited usage of their intended navigational purposes.

The decision has irked some pilots, however, who see history as important but also the beacons as a failsafe particularly for pilots flying visually. It is a familiar debate for many that have seen the beacons on the chopping block in the past only to have them saved when they pushed back.

“We wish we could do everything for everyone,” said Debbie Alke, administrator of the Aeronautics Division at the Montana Department of Transportation. “Here at the division and in the state I just think that we have to prioritize to give our customers the best bang for their buck.”

To keep or not to keep?

In late 2015 the division decided to test the beacons’ usage by simply allowing them to go out, and waiting for the response. What came over the next few months was overall few calls and messages, save a passionate group of Helena pilots, Alke said.

In December, Aeronautics, after dialogue with pilots, announced that it would only continue to maintain easily accessible beacons on MacDonald Pass, Spokane Bench east of Helena and a site called Strawberry northwest of Bozeman. The beacons would light a path from the pass to Helena to Townsend to Bozeman.

“With keeping the last three, it is to try to compromise and hope to please all of our customers,” Alke said. “Montana will continue to be the only state to have any of them so pilots can still have that experience.”

Aeronautics is funded through a tax on aviation fuel and fees. The division has a variety of obligations, including search and rescue, administering grant programs, operating 15 state-owned airports, offering training programs and registering aircraft.

Maintaining all the beacons, some of which require snowmobiles to access, costs about $35,000 per year. Cutting the system to three will save about $30,000 needed for other programs given a tight budget, Alke said.

“That’s the fork in the road -- does anyone use them as they were intended and designed,” said Scott Newpower, former president of the Montana Pilots Association. “Invariably everybody loves the beacons when you ask them, but when you ask if they’re used as intended, the answer is ‘well, no.’ With all the other technology we have they’re simply irrelevant.”

Newpower believes the beacons have carried on in Montana largely due to nostalgia and says he enjoys them as well. For practical flying purposes, the beacons are not monitored by anyone such as the FAA. Often Aeronautics only learns of an issue from a pilot’s call.

“It could be days or weeks before someone calls,” he said. “You can’t count on that.

“They’re cool and they bring you back to the old days, but is that worth spending valuable taxpayer resources when they’re not used as intended?”

Pilot surveys showed stronger support for funding Aeronautics’ other obligations, Newpower said, and other aviation organizations have come to similar conclusions. He also pointed out that Montana’s safety record as far as crashes does not standout compared to other states.

“If they’re being used as intended -- flying low at night in the mountains in marginal weather -- we should get a hint through accident rates,” he said. “It’s not a scientific study but you take the clues you find to make as good a decision as you can.”

Last month the association passed a resolution acknowledging the division’s budget and staffing challenges, and supporting the maintenance of as many beacons as Aeronautics deemed possible.

Mike Rogan retired from Aeronautics in 2015 where he worked as an aviation support officer. Among his duties was maintaining the beacons -- a task divided up within the agency.

Mike Rogan, now retired, conducts beacon maintenance atop the MacDonald Pass Beacon, performing a routine check of the machinery and bulb.

Pilots earn various certifications with higher grades allowing more complex flying, such as by instruments only. The majority of Montana’s 3,000 pilots are certified for “visual flight rules” or VFR, meaning they must be able to use landmarks to fly.

“They’re a good failsafe for VFR pilots to fly and they just don’t cost that much to continue operating,” Rogan said. “Sure it is an old antiquated system, but it is still functional.”

Stories of pilots who have used the beacons are common throughout the aviation community, he said.

Rogan recalled one search and rescue flight looking for a wrecked airplane near Helena. As he flew listening for an ELT transmitting from the plane, snow squalls made visual flying difficult. The beacons showed a safe path and “helped us get back,” he said.

“They still have the same manpower so it’s just an internal decision to shut them off,” he said. “They’re near and dear to me so I do get a bit sentimental, but they’re more than just historical.”

Helena pilot Mike Korn was also critical of Aeronautics’ decision in an opinion piece submitted to the Independent Record and other newspapers. Korn echoed the historic and safety factors of the beacons, but also focused on the internal decision to shutter the majority of the system as against “good government” principles.

“Aeronautics did not land at this point by reaching out and engaging the public, leading an open, thoughtful discussion and dialogue about the issues, and then arriving at an informed choice,” he wrote. “Instead, they talked amongst themselves and a handful of other people and then rendered a verdict.

“In the course of that they overlooked a wide range of citizenry outside their limited, narrow circle, ignoring many people who have a legitimate stake in the beacons’ future.”

Alke defended the process and said an agency legal review determined the decision did not rise to a significant level of public interest which would have triggered a more public review process.

What now?

What will happen to the beacons Aeronautics will no longer maintain remains unclear.

Leases continue for the properties where the towers sit, and contracts call for reclamation of those sites if the state walks away. Restoration estimates are $500,000 or more.

Landowners may have an interest in keeping them on the property or they could be taken down and sold. Towers could also be repurposed for other uses, such as cellphones, Alke said, adding that some organizations have expressed interest in taking over care.

Newpower said he would love to see another agency, perhaps the Montana Historical Society, see to the towers as historic sites. The state could face a worst case scenario in paying for reclaiming the sites, but “nobody knows” until those questions are asked, he said.

From a historic standpoint, the beacons provide a window into Montana’s aviation past, said Kate Hampton, community preservation coordinator for the Montana Historical Society.

“This system is really important and it is a system and it’s important to save what we can,” she said.

The loss of beacons along the system brings a loss of understanding for their historic use, she said, adding that she believes no one beacon is more important than another in that story.

Efforts to do away with the beacons as a money saver seem to come up about every 20 years, with pilots the vocal group that has kept them lighting up the sky, Hampton said.

“There’s this wonderful history of activism that goes along with saving this pieces of history that remain functional and close to our hearts,” she said.

MacDonald Pass is the lone beacon registered on the National Register of Historic Places. Hampton and others are in the process of seeking designation for the entirety of the system as time and resources allow.

The MacDonald Pass airway beacon west of Helena is one of three in the state that the Aeronautics Division at the Montana Department of Transportation will keep maintaining.

As the beacons are historic state property, registration would not overtly change any process surrounding the state’s obligation to them as agencies must already consult with MHS, she said.

“They’re so important to understanding how people traveled in the 20th century, how lighthouse people and others put up these technological marvels in these remote locations and the connection to the air mail is really significant,” Hampton said. “The whole line of them is really a physical vestige of aviation in Montana through the 20th century.

“We don’t always realize what we’re driving past and flying over is national and Montana aviation history.”