Riding the winds of change
History of Central Flying Service intertwined with political, military and economic influence
When it comes to flight school and training civilian pilots, students and Arkansans alike have turned to Central Flying Service in Little Rock for direction. But the history of Central Flying Service is intertwined with rich political, military and economic influence.
During the onset of World War II, the United States had developed an isolationist policy — by refraining from a European war, the United States could continue to improve its own economy through unfettered trade.
But President Franklin D. Roosevelt could see war on the horizon, and America was very deficient in pilots. To combat the pilot shortage, Roosevelt created the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. Under this program, the U.S. government would pay for citizens to learn to fly. A federal task force began to determine which companies and higher education institutions would get the contracts to participate in the program. Little Rock Junior College, known now as the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, received one of the grants. Once the grant was received, flight training was then assigned to the company.
In 1939, aviation pioneer Claud Holbert, along with a close friend who was a fellow national guard officer, formed a company called Central Flying Service in order to bid on the CPT contract. And they got it.
Central Flying Service began as a flight school under the program, and when the United States got involved in World War II, all the CPT programs were converted into war-pilot training programs.
By the end of the war, Central Flying Service had established itself as a reputable one-stop avionics shop. Richard Holbert, chairman and CEO of Central, said by that time, the company was established.
“We were selling airplanes, chartering airplanes, as well as conducting flight training. We are the state’s oldest aviation firm that is an Arkansas-based company,” he said.
For a military family like the Holberts, service to the United States has always played a pivotal role in the company. Richard and his brother, Don, were both in the Army. Richard was discharged in 1972, and his brother was discharged in 1968.
Although his father, Claud, passed away in 1983, Richard had taken up his father’s mantle as president of the company in 1981. Claud’s daughter-in-law, Susan Holbert, is the company’s current president.
Prior to 2015, when Central Flying Service sold its leasehold at Adams Field in Little Rock to TAC Air, the company had been the largest fixed-base operation in the world, measured by square feet under roof. A fixed-base operation is one that is granted the right by an airport or aeronautical facility to operate on the property and provide aeronautical services. This concept was prevalent in the years following World War I, when there were a plethora of airplanes and civilian pilots, but no permanent locations where services could be performed.
During the 1950s, Central Flying Service was a force to be reckoned with in the avionics industry, and big-name people were starting to notice.
“When Winthrop Rockefeller came to Arkansas in the early ’50s, my father was his personal pilot. Now, he wasn’t employed by him directly, but Central Flying Service provided pilot service, which in that case was my father,” Holbert explained. “Rockefeller was a great customer of ours. We sold him his airplanes.”
This connection to Rockefeller — who in 1967 would become the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction — would turn out to be pivotal not just in Holbert’s life, but in the political life of Central Flying Service.
In 1965, Holbert’s father and the usual pilot were both busy on the days that Rockefeller was set to travel to Washington, D.C. The pilot needed someone to co-pilot, and that co-pilot was Richard Holbert.
“I fit the bill and ended up going to D.C. It was the first time I’d ever been to D.C., and it was the first time I’d ever been in a private jet,” Holbert recalled with a laugh. “And I got Potomac fever.”
Holbert described how he fell in love with Washington, D.C., but was sobered by the realization that he would be continuing law school in Fayetteville. Regardless, Holbert decided that he would take the next few days to catch up with friends.
“I had just graduated from Fayetteville and was about to start law school. I was enrolled at Fayetteville because that was automatic,” Holbert recalled. “But I had some friends who were working for [U.S.] Senator [William] Fulbright at the time, so I went by to see them. They asked why I wasn’t going to school up here, and I said that I couldn’t afford it. They said that they would get me a job.”
What happened next is what Holbert considers a stroke of great luck.
“We went down the hall and met with Lee Williams, who was Fulbright’s administrative assistant at the time. And then he told me to go to school up here, and that he’ll give me a job. I ended up going to law school at Georgetown, and then I went into the Army after that.”
Holbert spent the next several years working for Fulbright, and during the 1974 campaign, Fulbright held campaign conferences in the lobby of Central Flying Service. One of the notable politicians who attended these campaign press conferences was then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Soon enough, Holbert said, “All of the important people who came to Little Rock came through Central Flying Service.”
Many governors, congressmen and senators began to travel through the charter services offered by Central Flying Service. Former Arkansas Gov. Dale Bumpers was considered a regular. Central also hosted 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern just prior to election night.
“In the 1972 presidential election, it was Nixon versus George McGovern, and Nixon was going to wipe him out. It was apparent. So [on the Saturday before the election], George McGovern had a rally in this hangar,” Holbert said. “He might not have gotten many votes, but the hangar was full. We always thought that it was interesting that he spent [that] night here in Little Rock, Arkansas.”
Another notable politician who visited Central was former President Ronald Reagan, who made an impression on his last stop in 1988 campaigning for Republican candidates.
“Ronald Reagan was here several times, and [on] one of them, he brought Air Force One right up on the tarmac, and they built a scaffolding. He got right on the scaffold and gave his talk.”
In the years since, big-name corporate leaders have flown through Central for economic summits, while celebrities such as Robin Williams and Barbara Streisand used the company when they came to town for the Clinton Presidential Library’s opening celebration.
Even today, Holbert says Central has been weathering the upheaval caused by the pandemic through its partnerships with universities.
“We have a contract with Liberty University. They have about 25 operations around the country where they have their online students who are in their aviation degree program take the fight training,” Holbert explained. “So, we do the flight-training portion of the curriculum for students who are enrolled at Liberty. From 1982 to 1992, we did flight training for Henderson State University as well as Ozarka College and Pulaski Tech. But those aren’t the only people we teach — we teach anybody.”
The walls in the testing room at Central Flying Service are covered from floor to ceiling in T-shirts with names, slogans and designs. The shirts all belong to pilots that Central has trained.
A glance around the room reveals that Central Flying Service still embraces the vision and ideals Claud Holbert brought to the company he created in 1939.
That tradition has been carried on through his family. For decades, Central Flying Service has remained an integral part of the world’s air-transportation system and likely will be for decades more to come.