1948-49 was the worst winter of the century in Utah. Blizzard after blizzard roared through the state; average temperatures hit record lows; winds piled snowdrifts as high as 10 feet on roads.
During this snarling winter, reporter William Smart of the Deseret News wondered how the airplane beacons on the mountain peaks stayed lit.
He called the Civil Aeronautical Authority to find out. “One of our boys is going out to Antelope Island tomorrow,” the supervisor said. “Why don’t you come along and find out for yourself?
Harold Hardy was the “boy” who took Smart along—a “typical” airways maintenance technician on a “typical” maintenance assignment.
“More than 20 frigid hours, eighty jolting miles, and a pair of frozen feet later,” Smart realized that this “typical” technician was a “superman,” and that the “typical” assignment was nothing less than heroic.
At the time, Utah had eight of these technicians, each responsible for 250 miles of airway and 10 to 20 beacons. They had to service the beacons every month and take care of a multitude of other chores. “It is a big job with 24-hour-a-day responsibility,” Smart wrote. “The man who fills it must be a plumber, electrician, carpenter, mountaineer [and] truck driver.”
And, sometimes, pilot. When the snow was too deep for land travel, Hardy flew a ski-plane to tend his beacons.
Staff photographer Vern Dale joined Smart and Hardy, and they jolted over the snowy mudflats south of Antelope Island in an old Army four-wheel-drive ambulance. Once on the island, they bounced over snowy terrain to what is now the Fielding-Garr Ranch. Then it was the Island Improvement Company Ranch, not a tourist destination but a working ranch.
In the old house built by the LDS church when it grazed cattle on the island (the house is still there), the group ate breakfast with ranch foreman J.B. Harwood and the ranch hands. Smart remembers it as the best one he ever had in his life: lamb steaks, eggs, and potatoes. As it would turn out, they would need the fuel for one of the most harrowing experiences of his life.
After breakfast, Smart, Hardy, and Dale tied skis and snowshoes onto three horses and headed toward the beacon on the north end of the island.
Beyond the friendly warm ranch house, horses and men confronted a vast landscape of windswept snow. The snow lay flat, hiding the ravines and draws that had drifted full of snow. Over and over, the horses plunged into these holes up to their shoulders.
“They were wonderful, those horses,” Smart wrote. “Instead of thrashing around as some horses will do, they would quietly back out” and find another way.
After five hours of plowing through snow, night was falling as they reached the base of a high ridge. On top was the beacon. As they gazed at it, the light turned on and began to swing its beam through the winter dusk.
At this point, the men put on their skis (alpine skis, mind you!) and snowshoes and hiked to the ridge—another two hours. The wind tore at them and they gratefully stumbled into a small shack while Harold refueled the generators.
Back outside again, they then climbed 65 feet to the top of the tower. While Hardy put a new 1000-watt lamp in the huge six-foot light, Smart could see six other beacons winking on surrounding mountains. He marveled that Harold Hardy serviced 20 of these mountain-top beacons in all.
“Going home was a nightmare.” For one thing, “skiing down that steep ridge in half-light, half-blackness as the great light swung around” was tricky and treacherous. Reaching the foot of the mountain, they numbly tied their skis to the horses and mounted. The light receded as the horses stumbled forward into total darkness. The frozen men, hunched up against the biting wind, just let the horses pick their way home.
After four hours of riding, they heard a dog barking a long way off—“the most beautiful music I ever heard.” A light came on in the distant ranch house. Someone brought out a lantern and waited.
When they reached the house, the men pretty much fell off their horses into the arms of the ranch hands, who took hurried them indoors.
The ranch hands had a stove heated up red-hot and hot drinks and food ready. They put snow and kerosene in a tub and rubbed frostbitten feet with the mixture. The exhausted men sat while feeling painfully returned to their feet.
In all, the service trip to the beacon took 20 hours.
This happened 60 years ago, but Bill Smart still remembers the awe he felt at this “typical,” unassuming airways maintenance technician and his heroic efforts to keep the beacons lit—so that airplanes could fly safely above the mountains.
Sources: Deseret News, February 5, 1949; William B. Smart, personal recollections.