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Morris Municipal Airport retires original beacon

Light goes out after 87 years

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 9:21 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014 6:00 p.m. CDT
(Heidi Litchfield – hlitchfield@shawmedia.com)
Jeff Vogen has the beacon sitting in the Morris Municipal Airport workshop while he researches its history.
(Jessica Bourque – jbourque@shawmedia.com)
Morris airport manager Jeff Vogen is researching the original serial numbers on the Department of Commerce identification plate (right) on the Morris airway beacon. Vogen said the beacon was likely commissioned in 1923 or 1927.
(Jessica Bourque – jbourque@shawmedia.com)
The green color had to be added in 1991 to comply with federal regulations.

MORRIS – Charles Lindbergh crashed near it; U.S. mail carriers relied on it; and up until recently, the Morris airport used it every night.

The Morris airport beacon had a historic stint illuminating the night sky for close to 87 years before it finally broke last week.

Now, Morris Municipal Airport manager Jeff Vogen is researching the light’s history with plans of eventually putting it on display at the airport.

“The original airway beacons in general, because of their age, are getting rarer and rarer,” Vogen said.

Before radio navigation and global positioning systems, pilots relied on the airway beacons to guide them. They would fly across the country, from Los Angeles to New York, using the beacons as their only point of reference in navigating the night skies.

“This beacon was part of a nationwide, criss-crossing array of routes that were put into place and maintained by the United States Post Office,” Morris Mayor Richard Kopczick said. “Think about it – how gutsy were these guys, flying through the dark of night with no radio communication, and the only thing they had were these lights on the ground to show them the way.”

Once the technology advanced, many of the old beacons and their towers were retired from use and either destroyed or recycled, according to Vogen and information from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“They started decommissioning them in the [1940s]. Back then, a lot of them were used for scrap metal in the war effort. The towers were scrapped. Anything made of metal was reused,” Vogen said.

For the Morris beacon to survive, let alone be in working condition, is quite rare, Vogen said.

Originally, the beacon and tower were located near Wedron, in LaSalle County, and were used to guide air mail carriers on their route from Chicago to St. Louis.

In 1926, Charles Lindbergh searched for the Wedron beacon before running out of gas and crashing about 5 miles from where it was located.

More than 20 years ago, the beacon was moved to the Morris airport, according to Vogen, who is still unsure of the exact date of arrival. Records from neither the Grundy nor LaSalle County historical societies had the exact date it was transported.

Before decommissioning the 87-year-old beacon, Vogen said he and the city’s Airport Committee discussed having the light repaired, but discovered the parts needed are no longer being manufactured.

The committee decided to purchase a new light. The replacement project is estimated to cost roughly $8,500, Kopczick said.

In the meantime, Vogen said he is continuing his research into the beacon’s origins, so he can create a display at the airport.

“As our airport grows into the future, why would we want to lost something like that? It is a point of aeronautic history that we are blessed as a city to be able to have,” Kopczick said. “It’s an important thing for people to see and understand, it wasn’t always like it is today.”

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