Pelfrey encourages airmen to 'show people the light'

February 9, 2019 9:56:33 PM

Slim Smith -


The program for Friday's Columbus Air Force Base 2018 Awards Ceremony featured a two-page bio of the event's guest speaker, retired Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Pelfrey. The bio included highlights of his 30-year career in the Air Force.


It also included a color-coded chart explaining the various run-way control signals, which seemed an odd thing to include in a bio.


Pelfrey used the chart to deliver a humorous, but ultimately poignant message about the unique relationships among airmen and their superiors and of the mission that guides both groups.



Show others the light by letting them know they're appreciated, Pelfrey encouraged his audience of 250 airmen, all sharply dressed in their dress blue uniforms.


For Pelfrey, "showing the light," began with a single word: expedite.


When Pelfrey enlisted in the Air Force in 1978, he arrived at Rickenbacker Air Force Base as an uneducated slow-talking 18-year-old from the hills of Tennessee.


For Pelfrey, Ohio was a strange place occupied by strange, sometimes frightening people.


"My supervisor there was Tech Sgt. Daniel Anderson, who I was convinced was the meanest, most hateful man I had ever met," Pelfrey said.


Anderson wasn't his only problem, though. His job at the base was to drive the sweeper on the run-ways, a simple task made infinitely more complicated by a serious communication problem with the tower.


"They talked too fast," Pelfrey said. "I couldn't understand them."


That, said Pelfrey, set up an event that would change his life and career.


"I'm out there sweeping one day and the voice from hell chimes in from the tower: 'Sweeper Five-Zero, expedite the runway,'" he said.


All Pelfrey heard was "dyke."


"I had no clue what that meant," he continued. "I'd never, ever heard that word. I'm thinking, there must be some kind of dyke out here on the runway, so I'm looking for it. Now, there's a plane circling around waiting for me to get off the runway, but I never see it because I'm looking around the runway for that dyke. The tower keeps saying, 'Sweeper Five-Zero, expedite the runway.' So I cut the radio off."


A few minutes later, Pelfrey say Anderson approaching in the distance, shaking his fist at the thoroughly confused young airmen.


"So I got out of there as fast as I could," Pelfrey said. "I floored the sweeper figuring if I could reach where the snow plows were parked, I could get away."


He realized, of course, that escape was futile. In tears, he thought his Air Force career was over as Anderson approached.


Pelfrey braced himself for what was to come. But he was not prepared for what Anderson did.


"He put his arm around me and said, 'Pelfrey, you're my best airman.'"


Still crying, Pelfrey said, "I never could find that dyke out there and those people talk extremely fast and I can't understand them."


"He said, 'What if I show you a way you can communicate with the tower and you don't have to talk with them?"


Anderson then took his young airman to base operations, explained the problem, then helped devise a system of lights -- green for proceed, red for stop and white for return -- that Pelfrey could use to understand his instructions while on the runway.


"He showed me the light," Pelfrey said. "He showed me a way I could communicate with the tower without talking to them, not in a degrading way but in a way that the mission could still happen."


Pelfrey urged his audience to "show the light" to their fellow airmen.


"There are two ways to show people the light," he said. "Every day, take a minute. Put down your phone or whatever you're doing and thank three people. Second, don't be a dump truck. A dump truck is someone who drives around and dumps all their emotional baggage on other people.


"If you'll do those two things, you'll show people the light by your actions," he said.





■ Airman of the Year: Sr. Airman Glen Simmons


■ Non-commissioned Officer of the Year: Staff Sgt. Bryce Cook


■ Company-grade Officer of the Year: Capt. Daniel Wilson


■ Field-grade Officer of the Year: Maj. Eric Scott


■ Honor Guardsman of the Year: Staff Sgt. Briana Scott


■ Category (NS) Civilian of the Year: David Ross


■ Category (Sup) Civilian of the Year: Will Gray


■ Category II (NS) Civilian of the Year: Latoria Reid


■ Category III Civilian of the Year: Kevin Billingsley


■ Volunteer of the Year: Jeff Johnwick


■ Team Innovation of the Year: Spark Call


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is