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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blue-light plaque celebrates pilots’, drivers’ greatest hits

The Royal Order of the Blue Light at the Skyway Cafe at Felts Field honors pilots and sometimes truck drivers who have broken the blinking blue runway markers. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
The Royal Order of the Blue Light at the Skyway Cafe at Felts Field honors pilots and sometimes truck drivers who have broken the blinking blue runway markers. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

At the Skyway Cafe, where the waitress flutters around the room calling everybody “Hon” and the diners squeegee sausage gravy from their plates with tiny triangles of whole wheat bread, a blue light pulsates above a table reserved for pilots.

The light hides among stories of greatness that decorate the walls from the cash register to the fire exit. The stories are of spy planes, experimental aircraft and a homegrown astronaut, of B-17 bombers that once taxied to war right outside the Skyway’s art deco trappings, right down the runway of Felts Field.

And the blue light? It is a non sequitur, a celebration of the wrongs instead of the Wrights. An ode to the spirit of Icarus and the bumblebee, the blue light recognizes those who never should have left the ground, the pilots who drove their planes into the runway lights.

Posted beneath the giant blue tube are the names of a couple of dozen airport regulars who clipped a blue bulb, some with landing gear, some with propellers, none with pride, because hitting a blue light is the pilot’s equivalent of running out the door for work in your nylons and no skirt. The chagrined pilots seldom meet and are far from being lodge brothers but are collectively known as the Royal Order of the Blue Light.

“It keeps us humble,” said Jeff Renfrow, who made the list several years ago after smashing a light on the taxiway with his propeller. There was no hiding the damage, he said. The blue shards of plastic embedded deep into his propeller, which was twirling full circle about 2,300 times a minute when the light was atomized. The blow to the propeller can transfer straight to the engine crankshaft, which can cost $6,000 or more to repair.

Renfrow was in a hurry and traveling too fast along the taxiway when the light went out. Pilot Paul Dickerson was in an unfamiliar airplane when his back end veered off the edge of the pavement and smashed a light with his tail wheel.

The airport “knew about it as soon as I did it,” Dickerson said. “They asked me to come up to the tower.”

A couple days later, Dickerson approached the plaque above the pilots’ table with an engraved brass tag bearing his name and an excuse, “It wasn’t my fault.”

The Royal Order, according to Renfrow, was launched in the late 1970s by the airport authority and a Felts Field pilot named Jim Kieran.

Kieran was a Felts Field lifer, who as a child skipped school to watch planes land at the tiny field at the north end of Fancher Way near the Spokane River and the Union Pacific Railroad. He was a jokester who grew up to be a flight examiner. On one occasion, he signed off on a pilot’s biannual test by jotting in the man’s logbook, “scared the hell out of me, but he’s all right.”

Kieran also had a reputation for hitting lights. He had an aviation business, and one of his services was driving a gas truck down the taxiway to fuel planes. In the snow, the lights became hard for Kieran to spot, but somehow his truck tires intuitively found them.

The local authority on everything with wings became the charter member of the Royal Order, a good-natured poke in the ribs. Kieran died of cancer, at 60, in 1994.

The Royal Order spawned another wall of humility: a plaque to the north of the pilots’ table exposes “Tow bar Troubadours” who attempted to, or actually did, fly off with tow bars still attached to their planes. Tow bars on small planes aren’t of the scale of larger aircraft that need to be pulled around like ships in harbor. The bars do make good propeller food, and sometimes also get left behind on the runway.

“It’s just a mistake that everyone can see and everyone likes to discuss,” said Dick Atwood, “At one time, there were people more active in it who, as soon as you did it, something would be put up” on the wall.

Atwood, who is the current president of the Spokane Airport Board, made the list after chopping his tow bar with his propeller several years ago. His wife ratted him out. But he wasn’t new to flying when he made the wall – few of the pilots are.

As Renfrow explained, “after a while of doing spins and loops and flying under bridges, you get cocky.” The Royal Order brings him down to earth.

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