Valley Voice, June 26, 1997: CORRECTION Addison Pemberton’s name was spelled incorrectly in the photo caption on the cover of Saturday’s Valley Voice.
Felts Field is that other airport, the one where the big jets don’t land.
In the minds of the commercial flying public, Felts is a footnote, a scribble in the margins. But this older, more colorful brother of Spokane International Airport is not an abandoned strip of concrete. It is a small city of wings.
Adjacent to the Upriver Dam along the south bank of the Spokane River, Felts is home to an American aviation milestone. For a brief period, it was one of the busiest airports in the nation.
Today, hundreds of tons of cargo move through Felts each year. Northwest MedStar helicopters are stationed here, waiting for their sick and injured passengers.
Corporate jets, restored antique airplanes, hand-built experimental craft and modern Cessnas, Pipers and Beeches sleep on the pavement and in scores of non-descript hangars at the airport.
On the edges of Felts are flight-related businesses employing hundreds, a crash-investigation unit of the FAA, and an aviation mechanics school that is one of Spokane Community College’s oldest programs.
In July, Felts Field’s new instrument landing system, assisting pilots landing in less than ideal conditions, will be turned on.
“By far, Felts is the premier general aviation airport in this area,” said Addison Pemberton, who moved his three antique planes to Felts from California two years ago.
Listening to Pemberton talk about Felts is like listening to someone talk about a new-found love.
The weather is good, fuel is available at all hours, the snow removal is great, there is a sense of history, community and a darn good cafe, said Pemberton, who was first attracted to the airport in the 1970s.
“It’s a pilots’ airport; for airplane-loving people,” he said. “Lots of airports are very sterile and dead. This is very warm.”
But before Felts was a runway, a home to hangars and planes, and an economic engine, the citizens of Spokane and the Valley used these 410 acres to swing golf clubs.
It was the Upriver Municipal Golf Course, “a pretty bad course” with fairways of weeds and greens made from clay, according to one newspaper account.
The golf course was made over into a municipal airport in 1919. The first hangar was built the next year.
By 1924, city fathers, having already abandoned swings for wings, offered to spend $12,000 of their own money for improvements to the field. They hoped to get a National Guard squadron stationed at the field.
Impressed, Gov. Roland Hartley stationed the 116th Aviation Squadron at what would later be named Felts Field.
The arrival of the National Guard marked the beginning of Felts’ busiest years. In 1925, the Guard staged an air circus, featuring races and flying demonsrations. The event was protested by the Spokane Ministerial Association because it was held on Sunday. According to news accounts, a crowd of 30,000 not only saw air races, but a crash that took the lives of two Army fliers.
In 1930, well-known local pilot Nick Mamer made aviation history in the Spokane Sun God, flying non-stop from Spokane to San Francisco to New York and back to Spokane. The Sun God was refueled in mid-air and set the stage for the military’s use of the practice.
The bustling days of wings and rudders and roaring engines at Felts ended around 1947 when the big commercial airlines moved to Geiger Field, later to become Spokane International Airport.
The 4,500-foot concrete runway at Felts wasn’t long enough for the big planes. At the time Geiger offered an 8,500-foot runway, said Denny Locke, director of aviation operations for Spokane Airports.
Though Felts lost the big commercial planes, and later lost a major cargo carrier when United Parcel Service moved its operations to Spokane International, it has remained a busy airport for small private and corporate aircraft.
With flights from pilots based at Felts and pilots just passing through, the airfield saw 62,600 take offs and landings last year.
All of those flights are monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has a three-pronged presence at the airport.
From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the FAA staffs the control tower at the field. Felts doesn’t have radar, so traffic control is done by sight.
The FAA also does pilot licensing and general aviation aircraft inspection from Felts. A 19-member crash investigation team also works from the field. Any crash between the Montana-Idaho border and the Cascade Mountains falls under the jurisdiction of the Felts crew, said Art Jones, district director.
West of the FAA tower about half a mile is the blue hangar of the Spokane Community College Aviation Department.
Inside the big, high-ceilinged buildings, students crawl in, under and over a handful of planes used for training. In one section, dull-gray jet and prop engines sit on stands awaiting study.
On average, there are about 60 students going through the six-quarter program, said Karl Bawden, one of the department’s faculty.
Students range from high school graduates, to 65-year-old aviation enthusiasts, Bawden said.
Those who complete the course have a good chance of getting work. “Right now the job outlook is really good,” Bawden said.
Though they are not all aviation mechanics, there are several hundred people whose jobs are connected to Felts Field.
Rocket Engineering, which modifies plane engines to go faster and higher is one of the field’s business anchors. There are companies selling fuel and services to pilots. Charter companies, aviation electronic distributors and flight instructors are also here.
One of the newest corporate arrivals at the field is Edmo Distributors Inc., which sells everything from toy airplanes to radios to devices that send out an electronic beacon in the event a plane crashes.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
MEMO: See related story under the headline: Glory days of Felts