Painted Rocks Point The Way For Pilots

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The history of the Rim Country includes stories of local aviation. The Payson Pilots Association (PPA) members spend time each year in preserving this history.

About a 30-mile drive northwest of Payson, in a secluded meadow in the Coconino National Forest near Milk Ranch Point, there is an air marker of white painted rocks: PHX -> 75. For decades, these painted rocks have shown pilots the direction to Phoenix.

Each year, in August, the PPA group drives up and camps out for a weekend of painting and weeding, to restore the rocks and preserve their history. This year, the current president Ned Hines, and member, Jim Garner organized the project. Paul Pitkin and Charlotte Todd cooked the traditional steak dinner and breakfast for the members. Around the campfire, Rich Henry, the first president of the organization and the person instrumental in maintaining the site retells the story of how he found the "Painted Rocks."

"I heard about these airway markers and one day while flying around, John King (another local pilot) and I saw the white rocks in a meadow."

They wrote down the coordinates so they could find the rocks on the ground. At first, when they hiked into the Dickerson Flats area, they saw what they thought was a pile of rocks. "The first time I saw the area we could not find the rocks, but as we went around we walked on to them and I was elated to find them."

In 1984, Rich received permission from the USDA Forest Service to take care of the site. Since that time, the Payson Pilots Association has maintained the air marker.

Before radio navigation equipment and charts became widely used by private pilots there were air markers -- 10- to 30-foot high signs on rooftops, barns and in fields showing the name of towns, or the heading to an airport. It all began in the 1930s.

Phoebe Omlie, the first woman to earn a federal pilot's license, flew Franklin Delano Roosevelt around the country in his campaign for president. After Roosevelt was elected, Omlie was invited to develop pilot programs, including her concept of "air marking."

In 1933, Roosevelt appointed Omlie Special Assistant for Air Intelligence for the National Aeronautics Administration (now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA). From those early beginnings air markings were placed in and around many cities and towns throughout the country. Omlie chose five leading women pilots as field representatives of the Air Marking Program. One of these pilots, Blanche Noyes, continued the program of directing the painting of air markers until World War II.

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From the air, pilots can easily double check their course and position.

On Jan. 17, 1942, a War Department memo came out. It ordered "Obliterate all air markers within 150 miles of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts." The markers were blacked out and no new markers were to be constructed. The government determined these markings were obvious targets for enemy identification. Henry Stinson, secretary of war, allowed new markers within 50 miles of airports conducting flight training. This may be why some air markers around the Phoenix area, including the one near Payson, remained.

After the war and the death of her husband, Noyes devoted her energies to the program. She was in charge of the air marking division of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) to renew the markers that were blacked out and to add more.

Initially funded as a system of state grants from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the program provided jobs for the unemployed. When funding was discontinued, labor for the air markings came from the Civil Air Patrol, the Civilian Conservation Corps, civic and scouting organizations, and the Ninety-Nines (The International Organization of Women Pilots).

In 1944, the CAA decided to add longitude and latitude to the air markers because of the possible confusion among towns with the same name. Since the "PHX" air marker only has the name, it is possible that the original marker at Dickerson Flats was placed before 1944.

There are a few stories that surround the history of the local painted rocks. Ben Hitzhusen, who works the fuel service at Payson Airport, says, "I heard that the rocks were placed there so the pilots in training during (World War II) could find their way back to their airfields." With all the training airports around Phoenix in the 1940s this may be a possibility.

Another version of the history is that a woman's husband died in a crash, after getting lost around the Mogollon Rim. She had several markers placed around the Phoenix area in his memory. With further research we may find the true story.

Once radio navigation became the accepted method of navigation for pilots, the air marking program lost its purpose.

Today there are still markers left in towns and cities around the country. Thanks to the Payson Pilots Association, a piece of Arizona aviation history remains preserved.

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