Fly the distance with NextGen: In the beginning there was fire

(This is the second in a series of articles looking at the impact of NextGen on GA pilots.)

The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is rapidly approaching and, as astute pilots, we need to start preparing for what influence this new system may have on our day-to-day flying.

Using the word “next” generally indicates the inclusion of new advancements or improvements over the previous system. For many, to learn and understand NextGen will require a certain amount of historical knowledge to comprehend a system of this magnitude. What better place to start than at the very beginning

Throughout time our airspace system has undergone multiple changes and improvements pertaining to increased traffic, safety, routing and, of course, airspace management. But how did this massive development even start? What created the need to even concern ourselves with air routing? The answers to these questions and more are found by flipping through the pages of aeronautical history and capturing those moments in time.

It was airmail, which was begun in the fall of 1911 by the U.S. Army Air Service, that demonstrated the need for organized air system management. In 1918 the U.S. postal service took over airmail and ultimately developed the first air routing system.

Operating off land primarily devoted to polo grounds in Washington, D.C., and later moving to a larger airfield in College Park, Maryland, airmail flights first flew from the nation’s capital to Philadelphia.

The postal service began using surplus World War I de Havilland DH-4s that were not really designed for long cross-country flying. It also flew the Standard Aircraft JR-1B that offered a bigger payload capacity. But it was Bill Boeing and his Model C that achieved the first coast-to-coast airmail delivery.

Boeing Model C

For those early pilots, the only real form of navigation was pilotage using visual landmarks, defeating any chance of flying in the darkness of night. Each postal airplane would fly during the day and transfer all its mail over to rail at night. Then, as the sun rose in the East, so did the airplanes that moved the mail to the next drop point. This procedure was repeated over and over, establishing coast-to-coast mail delivery.

Although this procedure increased mail delivery speed considerably, not being able to fly at night raised criticism about the entire airmail system. It was this political pressure that pushed the envelope for a 24-hour airmail flight schedule.

This influenced Army Air Lieutenant Donald Bruner to develop the first night navigation system by using bonfires as beacons strategically placed in the vast abyss of undeveloped territory. These series of bonfires provided pilots an illuminated landscape of waypoints that safely guided them to their next destination.

It was in the of winter of 1921 that airmail pilot Jack Knight put the idea to the test, flying a portion of a cross-country postal relay from San Francisco to New York. His night trip started in North Platte, Neb., taking him non-stop to Chicago using the light of bonfires maintained by farmers and postal workers across the plains.

Knight’s successful night flight allowed the relay team to make a record flight time of 33 hours and 20 minutes. This was a major achievement for mail delivery, especially considering the same trip usually took almost five days to complete. These lighted routes eventually paved the way to our Victor Airways still used today.

Next month: The series continues by looking at how the technological advancement of electricity brought huge changes and improvements to the National Airspace System.

Jeffrey Boccaccio is a private pilot and chief engineer at MatchBox Aeronautical Systems ( You can reach him at or

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *