This section expands on common questions and dives into a bit more detail on certain aspects of the history and development of the Low Frequency Range, as well as other related radio navigation systems.
By “system” we are referring to an organized, purpose-built network of multiple radio aids for aerial navigation. If we consider systems that were widely adopted and available to any aircraft that wanted to use them, the Low Frequency Radio Range would be the first such system in history. If we consider systems that guided aircraft along specific airways, e.g., “highways in the sky”, LFR is definitely the first system. However, in terms of the first workable radio navigation system there was another that preceded it by 16 years.
Germany’s Telefunken Kompass Sender (“Compass Transmitting Station” and the origin of the term “Radio Compass”) came into service around 1912 and used a large 120-meter diameter array of 32 dipole antennae arranged like a compass dial. After an initial omnidirectional timing signal, each antenna would energize in sequence and send a bi-directional beam that swept around the full circle in 30 seconds, heard as a series of beeps. It was, in principle, a very slow-motion version of a VOR, where the user (synching a specialized stopwatch) would listen to the relative volume of each pulse. Like loop antennae, dipole antennae are highly directional, and emitted almost no signal from their ends. When the user heard the beeps die off at the “null”, they knew a specific dipole was pointed at them and could determine their bearing within about 5°. Two stations were built at Kleve and Tønder (now in Denmark) to provide a more accurate fix. It was a technical achievement; however, given the size and fragility of the primitive radios of the time, military Zeppelins were the primary users: push button “radiotelegraphs” were just experimentally making it into the noisy, open cockpits of airplanes so it never saw widespread use there. Over 30 stations were planned, but the First World War intervened and service ended by 1918 with no other stations built.
Beyond that, the first radio navigation aids were indeed “Homing” beacons, now called Non-Directional Beacons (NDB’s); basically, any radio transmitter can be used for this purpose by a radio compass. As covered earlier, loop antennae were also highly directional, with minimum reception when face-on to a signal. Rotating the loop until the null was found would reveal the bearing or its 180° reciprocal to the station. Ships began to experiment with them in 1903, Zeppelins also used them and the US Navy conducted the first successful airborne test in 1920. However, throughout the 1920’s the stations tended to be ad-hoc experiments or ordinary commercial stations and not a specific system per se. Through the 1930’s, the technology would remain heavy, complex and cumbersome and, with aircraft especially, the effects of wind often made it often impossible to follow an exact course. Many early units required a dedicated radio operator and thus a larger plane.
Militaries, including the US Army Airforce were early adopters of homing beacons, as the expense/manpower issues were less consequential and wartime operations demanded unrestricted point-to-point operations. Predictably flying a published airway, as in peacetime, is a strategic liability. By the 1940’s 34 such beacons would be set up primarily as US Army Airfields for the benefit of its aircraft. By this time, the automatic radio compass was developed that had a “sense” ability to resolve the 180° ambiguity and a motorized antenna that would constantly rotate the antenna and dial to track the station. Though much easier to use, these units were still comparatively expensive. Thus, mainly larger warplanes and airliners used NDB’s until transistorization brought the cheap and affordable Automatic Direction Finder in the 1960’s.
It should be noted that some sources state that the first radio airways in the US were defined by NDB’s instead of LFR, but this is not correct. The majority of these NDB’s were established during World War II for the reasons described above a decade after LFR’s introduction, and in reviewing contemporary sectionals, they were clearly always secondary to the range stations that outnumbered them over ten-fold.
LFR and other systems that would follow were (a) specifically developed as large-scale programs with numerous sites, (b) were widely adopted by civilian and military aviation, (c) could be used simultaneously by multiple aircraft and (d), were utilized for decades. All were used internationally. Here are the dates they were developed and implemented:
Please note we are not focusing on military only systems, such as the British transponder bombing aid Oboe (1941) or later US systems: the military UHF VOR variant TACAN (1958), the early Transit satellite system (1964), the hyperbolic system Omega (1971), etc.
By this account, it appears that LFR had a six-year head start ahead of the Lorenz Beam which took off in the 30’s and over a decade on the other systems that would propagate in the 1940’s. Of these only Lorenz, VAR and VOR also provided immediate “real time” guidance along a specific airway or course with minimal work for the pilot. The rest only established a bearing or fix at one point in time, which the pilot would then need to analyze further to determine any necessary course correction.
LFR also already had at least 7 operational stations in the US by the time England's Orfordness Beacon went on-air July 1929. It used a similar concept to the Telefunken system described above, as well as an experimental 1920 maritime beacon developed by Marconi, where a rotating loop antenna was used instead of a fixed array to smoothly sweep the directional signal after the omnidirectional timing pulse. Only one sister station was built at Farnborough before it, too, was surpassed by other efforts.
The basic principles of VAR and VOR, the successors to LFR, are covered on the Its Fate Page. A quick overview of the other systems follows below:
Germany’s Lorenz Beam (named after its company) was, in essence, a narrow single aural “beam” that used two slightly overlapping 33.33Mhz signals, one of dots and the other of dashes, that merged to create an on-course "equisignal" tone. Lorenz engineer Ernst Kramer derived it from an earlier 1917 patent by Otto Scheller that also informed the design of LFR. The two signals were actually a single signal transmitted on a center dipole antenna. A cam switch activated two adjacent dipole reflectors on either side that would rapidly deflect the signal pattern back and forth across the centerline to form the dot and dash lobes. It was used successfully by the 1930’s as an early Instrument Landing System and for long range navigation. Australia preferred this system over LFR and rapidly implemented it after the 1938 crash of the DC-2 Kyeema in poor weather. Later on, an indicator with a vertical needle that rhythmically “kicked” left or right toward the beam was added. During the “Battle of the Beams” the Knickebein bombing aid intersected two powerful versions of such beams over targets in England, and X-Gerät added two additional beams to alert the bomber crew that the target was approaching and to arm an automatic bomb drop. The British learned to jam both by 1941. Lorenz was used in the postwar period but became obsolete in the presence of VOR, VAR and modern ILS, with the last system shut down in 1960.
The Elektra-Sonnen system (simply “Sonne,” German for “sun") was also developed by Kramer and implemented by Germany at the start of World War II in occupied Europe and neutral Spain. The British learned to surreptitiously used it and named it Consol (Latin for “by the sun”). It combined the Lorenz Beam and Orfordness concepts by radiating 18 rotating equisignals that, after the omnidirectional timing pulse and station ID was sent, would each then sweep across a fixed pie-shaped sector roughly 15° wide over a 30 second period. These sectors were plotted on charts and arranged in two equal opposed “fans” about 135° wide on each side of the station. They were formed by a continuous 250-350khz signal from a center antenna, flanked by two more spaced 3 wavelengths away (about 1.8 miles). The signal alternated between these outer antennae at 1-second intervals to create two heart-shaped “cardioid” dot and dash patterns. Additionally, their signal phase was adjusted to create deep “ripples” (e.g. lobes formed by wave interference) that counterrotated around the edges of both patterns. These interacted to form the many moving equisignals. Technically, these were condensed hyperbolic waveforms between the 3 antennae but from miles away these patterns appeared to radiate from a single point like the rays of the Sun, hence the name.
After using a radio compass, last known position or other means to determine the sector the aircraft was likely in, the number of dots heard after the timing pulse would be counted until the equisignal emerged which then faded into dashes. A chart or table would convert this count into a bearing accurate to within ½° to ¼°. It took a few minutes to assess the 2 to 3 counts needed to most accurately derive a bearing, but like LFR only a simple AM receiver was needed. Postwar, 11 stations would be deployed across Europe and three stations were built in the US under the ”Consolan” brand. Consol's simplicity (e.g. just count the dots) and 1,000-mile range kept it in service in for 50 years, the last station going off-air in 1991.
Hyperbolic Navigation also emerged during the war. It used the time between an initial signal pulse sent by a “master” station that was responded to by another pulse from two or more or “slave” stations located hundreds of miles apart along a defined “chain,” after a short time delay, to determine location. Mathematically, a line that has a constant amount of signal delay between two points forms a hyperbola, hence the origin of the term. Dozens of such “lines of position” or LOP’s were plotted on aerial and marine navigation charts for each chain, typically in 100 microsecond (ms) increments. A dial or “blips” on a cathode tube screen would show the time difference between the master and at least two slave stations (or a pair of stations on another chain) and the user could then determine which two lines of position they were on. The intersection marked their location. LOP’s could also be checked against depth soundings, bearings to other landmarks or beacons, etc. to establish location.
British scientist Robert J. Dippy developed Gee (or GEE) as the first hyperbolic system, named after the Grid formed by its LOP’s. It was originally conceived in 1937 as an instrument landing system, but when Britain determined that night bombing gave its aircrews far better cover with less casualties, it was rapidly repurposed into an effective radio navigation system by 1942. It operated at 20-90 Mhz and had a range of a few hundred miles and accuracy of a fraction of mile. The US was in the process of a developing a similar system when it became aware of Gee. It quickly abandoned its own efforts and adopted Gee for the European Theatre. With Dippy’s assistance, it quickly developed a Long Range Navigation version or LORAN by year's end to extend coverage for its Atlantic shipping and aircraft convoys by 1943, and for the Pacific region by 1944. It operated at a lower frequency of 1.75 to 1.95 Mhz that used skywave propagation to boost its daytime range to 700-miles which extended up to 1,400 miles at night. This came the expense of accuracy which dropped to several miles, but this was sufficient for long distance navigation.
Operators needed a few weeks of training to learn how to manipulate the controls on their greenish scopes to measure and interpret the blips (with LORAN especially, there could be multiple skywave returns to sort through) but both systems proved reliable and could provide a position within minutes. Dippy had the foresight to make both Gee and LORAN receiver units identical in size to allow easy interchangeability between aircraft traversing regions covered by different systems.
The Decca Navigator was another hyperbolic system conceived by American engineer William J. O’Brien in 1936, but further developed in 1941 by its namesake British record label. It became operational in 1944 just in time for D-Day. It used low frequency waves between 70kHz and 129kHz and had a 200-to-400-mile range. A Decca chain had 4 stations: a master plus red, green and purple slaves. Each slave had corresponding colored “lanes” or LOP’s at angles to each other on its charts. However, instead of relying on timing, the system read the phase difference between the master and slave signals. The lanes, equal to one wavelength in width or a few hundred yards, were demarcated along the LOP where this value was 0° or in phase. A navigator had three, easy-to-read clock dial “decometers,” that would express any partial lane position in hundredths, e.g. “Red 18.47.” Lane numbers were distinct by color to avoid ambiguity: Red was 0 to 23, Green 30 to 47 and Purple 50 to 79.
The user first input their starting lane coordinates along each of the three color lattices based upon last known location or other means. Lanes were grouped into larger alphabetic zones A through J, and later systems had an overlay signal to make it easier to determine the zone one was in. As the journey advanced, the decometers automatically counted and tracked the current lane coordinates the receiver was in. There was no need to analyze markings on a screen: one simply identified the corresponding lane coordinates on the chart to work out their position to an accuracy of a few dozen yards. However, it did suffer from precipitation static and sometimes the receiver’s counter “skipped” lanes. Decca built a profitable monopoly by leasing, not selling, its equipment; nevertheless, its ease of use gave it a loyal user base for decades. By 1949, it added the “Flight Log,” the first mechanical, scrolling moving map display. It worked well for defined areas: e.g. routine flight plans or defining approaches to small fields, and later helicopters found them useful for navigating cities and between offshore oil platforms.
After the war Hyperbolic Navigation became the dominant means of navigation across oceans and remote areas. Gee remained popular in Europe, while LORAN would ultimately expand to 72 stations that girdled the mid-northern latitudes of the globe. At its zenith Decca had over 50 chains worldwide, including a few in North America. In the late 1950’s Decca became a serious contender to VOR as the international navigation standard. However, its limitations described above, price point and the fact that a Decca chain needed at least four stations to cover the same area as a single VOR would cause the latter to prevail. In 1957, after “LORAN B” was abandoned during development, “LORAN C” emerged that used both timing and signal phase, like Decca, and rivaled its accuracy. It initially used very expensive 100lb receivers; however, the now cheaper, down-market original “LORAN A” receivers, including surplus military units, became common globally. Solid state electronics made LORAN C and Decca units smaller and more affordable, driving Gee to obsolescence by 1970. By the 1980’s microprocessors allowed both to directly display latitude and longitude.
As established in a 1976 lawsuit Decca ultimately won, it shared a “Decca Long Range Area Coverage” concept with the US in 1954 which was later appropriated to develop the military only Omega system, operational from 1971 to 1997. It transmitted from 8 sites synchronized by atomic clocks at the Very Low Frequency of 10.2KHZ, stretching Decca’s average lane size to 16nm so its signal pattern could reach across the Earth. This low frequency required that each site have an antenna hundreds of meters high and accuracy was only 3 – 6 miles. However, it was the first global navigation system, and a preview of what was to come.
Satellite Navigation (SatNav) would spell the end of hyperbolic navigation. After the successful 1960 deployment of the US Navy Transit satellite system that allowed military users to determine their location from the observed doppler shift of a radio signal from a satellite, the U.S. Department of Defense looked to build on this success with a new “Navstar Global Positioning System” starting in 1973. A number of engineers were behind it, namely Roger Easton, Ivan Getting and Bradford Parkinson along with Gladys West who was key in developing its computational techniques.
The core principle behind it and other Satellite Navigation systems are similar: a constellation of satellites with highly accurate atomic clocks, constantly synchronized with a ground master, broadcast a continuous signal that contains the satellites identification and “health” status, a periodic time stamp, along with ephemeris and almanac information (updated regularly from the ground) that allows each receiver to calculate each satellite’s position in orbit, factoring for atmospheric refraction effects. The receiver compares the relative difference of the received timestamps to both calculate its current time and the time of flight and thus distance to each satellites. To visualize the final calculation, imagine that each satellite, as a point in three-dimensional space, has a sphere drawn around it with a radius equal to its determined distance. Mathematically, the surfaces of all four spheres will closely intersect only at one point: the user's location. The number of total satellites must be sufficient to ensure that at least four (the minimum number needed to geometrically establish a 3D location) are above the horizon for a user at any time, and additional satellite readings can improve accuracy to a few meters. Comparing these coordinates against the geoid, a mathematical model of the slightly imperfect sphere of the earth, the receiver can determine longitude, latitude and height above sea level.
These steps may appear deceivingly straightforward, but require an enormous amount of computing power to calculate in real time. Massive amounts of data need to be continuously encoded into a weak signal received from 12,000 miles above in a manner resistant to jamming and where portions of the data can be encrypted, if needed. The arrival of the microprocessor in the 1970’s helped solved these challenges.
The US began to launch the first part of the Global Positioning System in 1978. The accidental 1983 downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace due to a navigation error, prompted the US to make GPS available to civilian users (initially with a less accurate “selective availability” constraint that was removed in 2000). Russia followed with its GLONASS system in 1982, China with Beidou in 2000, the EU with Galileo in 2011, with additional systems scheduled. As compact, cheap and highly accurate GPS receivers became common, the last Decca Station went off air in 2000 and LORAN was fully decommissioned by 2015. As of 2021, the two remaining hyperbolic systems are the Russian CHAYKA and Alpha networks, its parallel versions of LORAN-C and Omega respectively. By 2003, the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), and other similar ground station systems continuously broadcast the measured error between their GPS coordinates and their surveyed positions, allowing nearby receivers to achieve +/- 1 meter accuracy.
In the early 2000’s there was a general belief that all ground systems would eventually be phased out in favor of SatNav. However, as nations further considered the vulnerability of satellites to everything from solar flares to unfriendly neighbors, many have decided to keep some their old navaids for redundancy, and others are pushing to create a new “eLORAN” system as a potential terrestrial backup.
Yes, the Ford Motor Company is indeed the official inventor as is made abundantly clear by US Patent #1,937,876 filed in Ford’s name in 1928. The Ford Museum still retains an original 1927 transmitter building and other components in its collection. However, like many inventions in history, there was a long road of others who developed and refined its key concepts and prototypes, and in the end, Ford and the US National Bureau of Standards would have different accounts of its creation.
In 1907, just four years after the Wright Brother’s took flight, German engineer Otto Scheller (who would go on to develop 70+ patents for the German radio giant Lorenz AG) conceived a radio beacon that used 4 vertical antennae to create two overlapping figure-eight signal patterns. One signal was a dot (the Morse letter “E”) and the other a dash (the Morse “T”) that interlocked to form an on-course signal along 4 beam lines. This was the core principle of the Low Frequency Radio Range. A patent for the system was filed in 1907 with a diagram that resembled a later Adcock range. In 1916 he had the foresight to update the patent to include the recently invented radio goniometer to adjust the beams. A demonstration station was set up in 1917 using the “A” and “N” letters but as with the Kompass Sender above there simply wasn’t yet a fleet of radio equipped planes to take advantage of it. In the economic devastation and severe sanctions that followed Germany’s defeat in the First World War there was little interest in pursuing it further. The idea was simply ahead of its time.
Some sources credit the United States Bureau of Standards for the invention of the LFR, and they certainly had a hand in its development. In 1919 the US Army Air Service established its Engineering Division at McCook Field in Dayton, OH (the Army outgrew it by 1927 and replaced it with Wright Field, now Wright/Patterson Air Force Base). In 1920, the Army further established an “Instrument Section” to develop the fundamental instruments needed for all weather flight. Their research led to the turn and bank indicator and gyrocompass that gave a pilot a sense of “up” and direction in the clouds, but a solution was needed for navigation. That year, they asked the Bureau, the government’s main R&D arm at the time, to develop a suitable radio beacon.
In response, between 1920 and 1923 Bureau scientists Percival Lowell, Francis Dunmore and Francis Engel developed a “directive type” radio beacon that used two compact loop antennae to create a four-course system using the letters “A” and “T”. Sources vary as to the extent that they were aware of Scheller’s design – but vertical antennae were not used and the system lacked a goniometer. The antennae crossed at 45° to accentuate two of the beams along a main course that was assessed. A station was successfully tested in Washington DC by land and sea in May 1921, and in the air by the US Army Air Service and Signal Corps at Dayton in 1923. However, its rudimentary spark gap transmitter required that a plane drag a weighted 200’ antenna behind the aircraft to receive the signals. It was a promising experiment but it was not quite ready for practical commercial use. For reasons unknown, the Bureau’s funding for further development was cut off in 1923.
Although the Bureau was temporarily out of the picture, the US Army Air Service and Signal Corps continued their experiments and were apparently aware of Scheller’s patent. An improved beacon was set up in Dayton by 1924. By 1925 at Monmouth, IL, General Superintendent of the US Airmail Service Carl Egge and Edward Warner of M.I.T. gained permission to set up an “Equi-Signal Radio Beacon.” The Transcontinental Airway had been in service for a year, and it was probably becoming clear to its airmail pilots that the tower beacons were still no match for clouds. It was built under supervision of McCook’s Radio Lab which was involved in the 1923 test. It used the latest vacuum tube radios, interlocking “A” and “N” signals (chosen for their short, equal durations) and first employed a radio goniometer tested by the Signal Corps to adjust the beams – a key ability of future stations. A later addition was a three-light indicator to show if the pilot was on, right or left of course.
A September 12, 1925 Air Service News Letter describes these developments and stated “perfected, the Radio Beacon is bound to be of inestimable value.” Pilots stated it was a “very simple matter to remain on course.” It was another step closer, but still required the use of trailing wire antennae and its cost of $6,000 per plane, or $89,000 in 2020 dollars, was prohibitive. Surprisingly, Egge faced considerable internal headwinds. At the outset, Egge’s superiors told him to avoid “experiments that do not lead to anywhere,” and a later internal review found “little of importance was being done.” Egge was accused of misappropriation of funds and had to resign. The project was terminated but not before a paper was published - as such, many in the industry were aware.
The stage was set in 1926 when Congress passed the Air Commerce Act which established the US Government’s role in regulating but also furthering development of aviation by its creation of the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Air Commerce. Both public and private sector aviation R&D boomed. At this stage there were published accounts and papers on the Monmouth Station, the Army Air Corps tests, the Bureau’s initial “directive” beacon as well as Scheller’s original patent – it would be difficult for anyone to now claim that they had a fully original ideal for LFR. By this time, Ford’s aviation investment was well into producing Trimotors at its new state of the art Dearborn Airport and wanted to operate unthwarted by winter weather. In July 1926, the Bureau was given an expansive budget and a mission to find a suitable radio navigation system for America’s airways. Both well-funded groups quickly followed in the earlier footsteps toward LFR: Ford constructed its first station by that fall with the Bureau following suit by Christmas. Events would quickly transpire over these next few years:
Dated photographs and radio license in Ford Museum, and the excellent chronologies in Bonfires to Beacons and Beyond the Model T (see Resources) helped round out much of the timeline here and at top of the of the What it Was page.
The bottom line: To quote its advertising, “Ford Was First.” Through Mr. Donovan, it finished the Army Air Service and Monmouth efforts to make LFR practical, which appear to have been more directly rooted in Scheller’s patent. Donovan’s hire and the Army’s presence at subsequent Ford tests would seem to imply a close working relationship between the two. Their crucial developments came after the Bureau’s nascent 1923 station that wasn’t ready for real-world service, and before its mature 1928 stations which incorporated The Army’s and Ford’s subsequent enhancements that made LFR truly viable. Certainly, there was wide collaboration across the field and new and old ideas circulated between groups. Arguably, many of the more logical improvements (e.g. vacuum tube radios) could have been intuited separately by Ford and the Bureau. But for whatever commonalities these factors led to in their final designs, Ford was the first to build a practical physical station that ordinary aircraft could use, the first to use it for a commercial purpose and, perhaps most importantly, it was first to the Patent Office. Afterwards, Ford clearly believed the Bureau and the Department of Commerce was using its innovations, but declined to enforce its rights.
It is also apparent that the US Army Air Service was the key driver behind LFR’s creation. In 1920, they naturally turned to the Bureau to develop a radio navigation solution that became a precursor to LFR, and kept its development going when the Bureau lost funding in 1923. When Ford and its ample resources presented itself as another avenue to achieve this goal the Army jumped at the opportunity. By the time the Bureau regained its funding in mid-1926, Ford was just months away from its successful launch. The Bureau did its best to catch up on the prior three years, but ultimately its efforts still lagged 10 months behind.
It’s not clear why the Bureau and later Department of Commerce accounts couldn't concede this. Even many modern accounts omit this history, likely as they simply relied on the Bureau’s records as gospel. It appears that the Bureau even started a PR campaign in mid-1927 in various newspapers to promote their position that they were “first.” Ford rebutted with its own articles and advertisements, culminating with its 1934 announcement that its patent was confirmed. The Bureau’s papers were instead focused on its successes and improvements possibly done to work around the patent, e.g. the 12-course and visual indicators that never came to be. Was this just a private versus public sector rivalry which led to the FCC’s ultimate push to get Ford out of the beacon business? Did the Bureau’s academic scientists, stymied by three years of funding cuts, have difficulty giving Ford’s well-resourced “commercial” engineers (and others) any credit for apparently making “their” earlier concept practical? On the other hand, the story of large corporations using the patent process to “appropriate” the honest work of others isn’t entirely unheard of. This is notwithstanding the fact that both parties heavily relied on prior innovations. A century later, it may be impossible to exactly ascertain what transpired, but it’s clear that Ford and the Bureau didn’t see events eye-to-eye. If anyone has any additional info that can clarify this history, please reach out to me!
Regardless, in the end, it was the US Government that awarded the patent to Ford and the US LFR network came to be only after Ford’s successful 1926/27 stations. Making the Low Frequency Range a practical reality was likely Ford’s most important contribution to aviation, outliving its famed Trimotor and the entire aviation division which shut down by 1933 due to the Depression. But, as with many inventions, Ford’s patent was rooted on prior efforts: certainly Scheller’s original patent, the important addition of the Italian radio goniometers, the Bureau’s early work and the Army’s 1923-1925 improvements.
Ford’s achievement should also not diminish the Bureau’s many other accomplishments. Diamond, along with Dunmore, would invent the first Instrument Landing System (ILS) and would also make key improvements to the proximity fuse, one of the technologies vital for winning World War II. Dellinger had earlier helped popularize the word “radio” (vs. "wireless") in his efforts to standardize international conventions, would discover how solar flares impacted radio communications and eventually had a lunar crater named after him. The College Park station helped make voice communication a practical reality in aviation, tested Diamond’s ILS and standardized LFR station design. The Bureau would continue to make important refinements to LFR, including adding the British Adcock antenna. Renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 1988, the Bureau had gone on to develop the atomic clock fundamental to GPS, improved nearly everything from computers to missile systems and developed numerous innovations that are part of daily life from automobile standards to closed captioning systems on TV.
After nearly 30 years, the US Government finally acknowledged Ford’s role in the 1954 Civil Aeronautics Administration “Pilot’s Radio Handbook” that stated “a young Ford Radio Engineer named Eugene S. Donovan patented the first four course loop-type low frequency radio range” that was “quite successful in improving the bad weather reliability of cargo flights” with the US implementing it the “following year.” And the 1986 NIST publication “Achievement in Radio: Seventy years of Radio Science, Technology, Standards and Measurement at the National Bureau of Standards” conceded that prior its efforts in January 1927, “flight tests were made of a beacon system installed by the Ford Motor Co. at Dearborn, Mich.” and that “this system was a commercial venture” and it "was useful to the [Bureau’s] Radio Section as a means of gaining information on radio beacons.”
A final footnote: the Army’s prototype almost had its own moment of fame on June 28-29, 1927, when Albert Francis Hegenberger (who later piloted the first “blind” flight in real world instrument conditions) and Lester Maitland successfully made the first transpacific crossing from Oakland to Hawaii in 25 hours. Hegenberger, the former chief of McCook’s Army Air Corps instrument branch, had its radio range beacon set up at Oahu. Unfortunately, the aircraft’s receiver failed – celestial navigation finished the trip, but Hegenberger still remarked "I think the beacon has tremendous possibilities for the future." This was 4 months after Ford’s initial success and 6 months before the Bureau’s new prototype – had its use been successful, one wonders what impact it would have had on the final historic narrative of LFR.
Technically, the latter term is more correct as LFR did use both frequency ranges (demarcated at 300Khz) and more technical manuals tend to use this term. However, I think most would agree that “Low-Frequency Radio Range,” or just “LFR,” is much easier to write and pronounce and, in reviewing the source material for the website, these appear to be the most common terms likely for this very reason. We’ve elected to us it here for simplicity and consistency. “Four Course Radio Range” appears to be second, and “Adcock”, “LF/MF” and “A/N” Range while frequently used and also correct, would appear to all tie roughly for third place.
No, the 100-mile range of LFR meant that its use was restricted to land and the immediate coastal waters within that limit. Even modern VOR’s have a maximum range of 200 miles and the most powerful NDB’s were reliable up to only 500 miles or so. Before World War II, dead reckoning (estimating position based on time, direction, aircraft speed and the effects of wind) and celestial navigation were the only choices over oceans or other remote reaches of the globe. Pan Am Clipper pilots, and others that forged early international routes, became legendary by their necessary mastery of both.
Towards the end of the conflict starting in 1943, LORAN (see above) and its 1,000-mile plus range was able to provide coverage along the major transoceanic Atlantic & Pacific routes for both maritime convoys and aircraft. Coverage was expanded during the 50’s and 60’s and the user base grew when surplus first-generation "LORAN A" receivers flooded the market after second generation "LORAN C" became operational in the late 50’s. By the 70’s and 80’s older units with their bulky vacuum tubes and oscilloscopes gave way to compact versions with microchip driven digital displays that were cheap and widely available. Nevertheless, GPS’s superiority pushed LORAN to obsolescence with the last stations shut down in 2015. However, as nations recognize the vulnerability of GPS satellites, there is discussion of reviving a modern version called “eLORAN.”
Nazi Germany utilized Elektra-Sonnen or “Sonne” (see above), which had a nearly equal range, in the North Sea and Eastern Atlantic after 1940. The British also clandestinely learned how to fully utilize it for their operations, going so far as to supply one key Spanish station with much needed repair parts as Germany was forced into retreat at war’s end. After the war, the Allies appropriated and rebranded the system as "Consol," its British wartime code name. It became a popular postwar navigation option in Europe (the last station going off air in 1991) and was established at a few other locations across the globe.
Developed in the 1950’s for ballistic missiles, Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) incorporate a guidance computer that monitors sensitive gyroscopes and accelerometers to continuously calculate a vehicle’s location from a given starting point; in essence, highly accurate electronic dead reckoning. It requires no external references or radio signals which is highly advantageous for military applications from aircraft to submarines. Its precision was a function of the “drift” error that accumulated over time but it could provide about 5-mile accuracy after a twelve-hour transoceanic flight. Its expense originally restricted it to the armed forces and larger commercial aircraft which began to commonly deploy it in the 1970’s. However, since the 1990’s miniaturization has greatly reduced the size and cost and it can now be found paired with GPS in many modern cockpit avionic suites, where each system can serve as check on each other to improve accuracy and consistency. Similar, less accurate systems can now be found in everyday products ranging from smartphones to automobile GPS systems.
Mr. Donovan did not appear to leave a legacy of scientific papers, articles and Wikipedia entries like some of his contemporaries referenced on this site; however, given his key role in the history of LFR we thought we should attempt to develop a biography for him. Thanks to sources such as Ancestry.com we can distill some details of his life, family and career:
Perhaps low key, but it appears he was an earnest family and career man blessed with a long life. It would be great to find out more of this man’s story beyond these data points. If anyone can provide any more details on Mr. Donovan please reach out to me.
Fan markers stations (type “FM”) were fairly simple structures, each consisting of small shed (perhaps 10’x 10’) containing a 100-watt 75 Mhz transmitter with an adjacent row of four short horizontal half-wave length antennae elements, each about 6.5’ long, over a wire screen reflector the same distance above ground. The entire footprint could easily fit within a 20’ x 80’ area. In urban areas they could be part of other structures. Like a Z marker this antenna projected its signal upward, but with greater horizontal spread, to either form a lens shape, or a “dog bone” shape that was more pinched in the middle at the airway to provide a more precise marking of station passage. The nominal size marked on charts was 3 x 12 miles at 3,000 feet; however, the signal spread to over 6 x 20 miles at higher altitudes.
Their locations are very difficult to find for two reasons: (a) the locations on the charts were shown by the broad 3 by 12-mile shaded regions with unmarked center points and (b) the fan markers’ smaller size make them difficult to distinguish from other small structures. It was sometimes hard enough finding something as large as a range station on early aerials. Only the clearest aerials would likely show a fan marker station and their antennae, assuming that you somehow found the exact location and picked it out from other surrounding buildings and ground clutter. If researchers need to locate a fan marker, we’d recommend digitally overlaying the sectional chart over an historic aerial to identify potential candidates.
Oh yes! The development of LFR regularly received news and media coverage during the 20’s through the 40’s, often on the front page. Especially during the early years both aircraft and radio and were still considered novelties. The press covered the barnstormers, inventors and explorers that constantly pushed the envelope of both technologies, but the public was especially captivated by the news that aircraft could now “magically” fly through dark, cloudy nights guided only by a radio signal. It was a major technical achievement perhaps comparable to the way the emergence of home computers, Mars landers and iPhones were to later generations. Also, as covered above, both the Bureau of Standards and Ford weren’t shy about getting word of their achievements out via news articles and advertisements (we have 40+ articles from various major newspapers in our research files, and we did not attempt an exhaustive search). It’s hard to believe today, but in addition to appearing in popular media, there was even a “Flying the Beams” board game and the term “on the beam” became popular in the mid-20th century. As air travel turned into the mundane experience most of us now take for granted by the 50’s and 60’s, the coverage for even newer navigation systems generally faded into the rear pages and into more specialized publications.