Built in 1998, the Northwest Arkansas National Airport has seen more than 40,000 flights originate yearly from the twin-runway facility just outside Bentonville.
Now, officials in northeast Arkansas want to replicate that success and create their own regional airport. The area has three airports that each had served as a military-flight training school in the 1940s. There’s also been some discussion about building a new airport between Jonesboro and Paragould.
It’s been talked over for years in the past, but this time, the concept could fly, leaders say.
State Sen. Jack Ladyman (R-Jonesboro) asked in a letter that the Federal Aviation Administration conduct an independent regional study to determine both the need and a suitable site for an airport.
“We feel that the economic growth and the growth in population in Northeast Arkansas is adequate to support an airport in this area,” Ladyman wrote in his July 9 letter to Glenn Bates, the FAA’s district manager in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
In the letter, Ladyman cites the collaboration and expansion of airports in McAllen, Brownsville and Harlington, in the southern tip of Texas.
“These areas have developed their economy and increased their population, allowing them to support a large regional airport,” Ladyman wrote. “A regional airport would have provided service to a broader market and more flight options than the three municipal airports.”
The former Eaker Air Force Base in Blytheville and airports in Walnut Ridge and Newport all feature runways long enough to handle commercial flights and large corporate aircraft. The Northwest Arkansas National Airport has two 8,800-foot long runways.
The Jonesboro Municipal Airport has also been included in discussions. But train tracks to the north and south, an industrial area to the west and residential areas on the eastern side, however, have basically landlocked the airport for any future expansion.
Paragould’s airport was briefly in the mix but it, too, is unable to grow because of highways and commercial development.
Mayors from the area have formed a caucus and meet monthly to talk over ideas of boosting the region.
“Obviously, regional growth would help us all,” Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp said. “The caucus creates unity. Let’s all take advantage of what we have.”
Walnut Ridge’s airport seems to be the frontrunner in landing a regional facility. Built in 1942 as a U.S. Army flight training school, the airport sits on the northern edge of the city near Williams Baptist University.
It features three runways, including one that is 6,000 feet long. The other two runways are 5,000 feet long. It has been slated as the go-to airport for C-130s and other large aircraft to land supplies in the event of any major natural disasters such as a devastating earthquake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone which cuts through northeast Arkansas.
“We all can’t land a Peco or an Emerson Electric or a Monroe,” Snapp said, referring to a poultry processing factory in Pocahontas and two large factories in Paragould.
“Walnut Ridge is in a unique place, though,” he added. “Walnut Ridge is growing fast, based upon the new residential areas. But we don’t have a large industrial base to create jobs to support our growth.”
Snapp said a regional airport would probably be more used by corporations rather than by commercial flight passengers. He added that such a facility could bring more industry to the area.
“Let’s take advantage of what we have,” he said.
If anyone could bring a regional airport to Walnut Ridge, it would be Snapp. Locals had discussed annexing an unincorporated area north of Walnut Ridge that included Williams Baptist into the city of 5,100 for decades. Snapp, who has been the mayor for six years, was successful in leading a movement to claim that area. In 2016, voters approved the annexation, and Walnut Ridge added more than 300 people to its population.
The airport in the Lawrence County town opened in August 1942 as the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School and more than 4,000 soldiers graduated classes that taught them to fly the Vultee BT-13, a basic World War II-era trainer aircraft.
When the war ended, the school was decommissioned on March 15, 1945, and served as a site for scrapping and storing aircraft. When the scrapping process was completed, the airport and about 1,800 acres of land were turned over to Walnut Ridge to be used as a public airport.
Newport’s airport has a similar history. Commissioned in November 1942, the airfield served as a U.S. Army training site for three years. At one point, more than 4,800 people lived on the base, doubling Newport’s population of 4,301 in the early 1940s.
The airfield was briefly used as a German prisoner of war camp and about 300 captured German soldiers lived there from the fall of 1945 until January 1946. When the war ended, the facility was turned over to the city of Newport for use as a municipal airport and an industrial park.
Arkansas State University’s Newport campus uses part of the runways for its commercial truck-driving training classes.
“We definitely need a regional airport,” Newport Mayor David Stewart said. “Of course, I’m biased to our own airport, but I’m open to wherever it goes. It will help the entire area. Jonesboro gets everything, but I don’t think their airport can be converted into a regional one. Ours can land about anything out here. I’m proud of our airport.”
Like the other facilities, Blytheville’s airport was also activated in 1942 as a flight training school. The area was chosen because of its proximity to the Mississippi River where supplies could be shipped in.
It closed in 1946 and was converted to an air base in 1950 by the Strategic Air Command. In 1962, when officials discovered the Soviet Union was building nuclear missile silos in Cuba, the air command declared a DEFCON II defense readiness and two B52-G bombers were on alert at the Blytheville base to drop nuclear weaponry on Russia if retaliation was necessary.
The base, renamed the Eaker Air Force Base for Lt. General Ira C. Eaker, closed in 1992. Since then, Blytheville has promoted use of the airfield for various operations. The U.S. Postal Service used it as a hub for Christmas mail delivery, and the U.S. Coast Guard considered locating a training site there before it ended up selecting a South Carolina site.
Snapp said a regional airport would better serve industrial needs than commercial flights like at Highfill, located just outside Bentonville.
“I think the stars are lining up,” he said of the idea. “We are all on board with this idea. We’re getting all the links in the right place. If you don’t take advantage, you could lose a link in the chain, and then we’d all lose.
“Let’s take advantage of what we can all offer.”
The mayors meet monthly. Snapp said there’s no timeline yet on developing a regional airport, and officials are waiting for results of any Federal Aviation Administration’s feasibility studies.