In the quiet, unsuspecting Southern mountain town of Mena, you’ll find a small airport that has provided aviation services since World War II. Though it was once part of an international controversy, the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport has brought much more good than notoriety to the surrounding region since the Barry Seal scandal of the 1980s.
Mena Intermountain’s inception was militaristic in nature, but it has morphed to include charter-based and private, aeronautical travel and repair. The airfield was originally built in 1942, when the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) determined a need for an emergency land strip between Fort Smith and Texarkana. As one of the only flat spots in a mountainous portion of the state, Mena was designated as the site for the airport.
Fred Ogden, manager of Mena Intermountain, has collected a host of stories over the years from the town’s older folks that helps illustrate the airport’s colorful past.
Ogden shares that Jimmie Angel, the famed aviator who was the first to fly over Angel Falls in Venezuela in 1933, would often stop at Mena Intermountain to visit his good friend, a man known as Hendrix. Hendrix, as Ogden recalled, had gone through pilot training during World War I, but the war had ended just as his training did.
Another well-known aviation tale from Mena is that of the Geyer Brothers, Walter and Hartzell. A doctor and an undertaker, respectively, the two brothers were fighter pilots during World War II. Upon their post-war return to Mena in the late 1940s, the brothers started an unofficial flying school, where they gave flying lessons to the locals. When the field that would later be home to the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport was designated an emergency field by the CAA, the Geyer Brothers moved their school to the more official, then grassy-field, area.
In the 1960s, Hamp Edwards, one of the most renowned pilots in Mena, began to establish an aeronautical franchise in the small town, Ogden said. Edwards started a fixed-base operation (FBO) in the area outside of the airport. This FBO allowed individuals to charter a flight, buy gasoline for an aircraft or rent a hangar in which to store an aircraft. Edwards’ influence was pivotal in establishing the groundwork for what would soon become Mena’s thriving industry.
“Everybody knew Hamp,” Ogden said. “One time, he was on the field and a mail courier ran near and handed him an envelope. All it said was, ‘Hamp: Mena.’ That was it. There was no street address, no ZIP code, no state. I don’t know that a post office would even try that nowadays, but since literally everyone knew Hamp at that time, there was no wondering who the letter belonged to.”
Ogden shared more stories about aeronautical legends in Mena, the presence of whom were pivotal in Mena’s airbound development. One such legend is Leo Overturf who, in the mid-1960s, owned a large aircraft-repair business in the Oklahoma City area. The growth of Mena’s aircraft industry attracted Overturf to the town, and he began to export a large amount of his cosmetic repairs and general aircraft-refurbishment jobs to Mena. Ogden notes that this was another piece of Mena’s economic development puzzle.
“That’s how the airport as it is now came into existence to a large degree — there are a lot of repair and maintenance shops in the field for a town our size,” Ogden said. “You can bring in airplanes on the back of a flatbed trailer, and they leave looking like a new one. There’s four or five paint shops on the field, a couple of places that work on airframes, there’s an engine shop, there’s a couple of avionics shops. I think they’re actually about 18 businesses that are all based here. So now, when people that are in the aviation business hear about Mena, most of them think repair and maintenance.”
But it was in the early 1980s when the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport’s reputation took a more infamous turn.
Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal was a commercial airline pilot from Baton Rouge, La. But Seal was also a major drug smuggler for the Medellín drug cartel, trafficking tons of marijuana and cocaine into the United States. President Ronald Reagan would later use Seal in a quest for evidence that leaders in Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, which Reagan opposed, were shipping cocaine into the United States, but only after several deals with federal authorities to keep Seal out of the public eye. There would also be allegations that the CIA used Mena as a base to help train pilots and troops for intervention in the Nicaraguan uprising by the Contras during the ‘80s. Seal wouldn’t be busted until 1983, when he would then act as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Association. Eventually, of course, he would become the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character in the movie, American Made.
It makes sense, then, that in 1982, Seal was already identified by federal agents as a “major international narcotics trafficker” when he moved his aircraft to Mena from his base in Baton Rouge. That same year, Reagan appointed now Gov. Asa Hutchinson to be the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. Hutchinson in turn ordered William Duncan, an investigator for the IRS, and Russell Welch of the Arkansas State Police to keep an eye on the sleepy rural town for signs of drug trafficking and money laundering.
Many investigators and police officers who staked out the area surrounding the airport witnessed extra — and illegal — fuel tanks being installed on Seal’s aircraft before he took off quickly into the night, with no lights on to avoid announcement of his arrival or departure.
Federal agencies had failed to make law enforcement in Arkansas and Louisiana aware of Seal’s extensive brushes with the law. Local law enforcement presumed that he was simply a drug runner — they couldn’t imagine that he was involved in something much greater.
Eventually, on Feb. 19, 1986, a small group of Colombian gunmen would murder Seal in a Baton Rouge parking lot, at the halfway house where a federal judge had ordered him to stay while on probation. Reagan would go on to use evidence gathered from Seal’s travels and drug smuggling as evidence against the Sandinistas, while failing to mention Seal at all.
And at the center of the political whirlwind of federal agencies and criminal activities and foreign organizations was the humble Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, the subject of speculation for decades to come.
“Mr. Seal’s line of work probably did require the skills of an airplane mechanic, and he temporarily moved his operation here, allegedly. That said, well, I think he did own a house here. He was only here on one or two occasions, unlike the movie with Tom Cruise portrayed,” Ogden said. “And he kept his footprint small as far as getting his airplanes worked on. That was about the extent of his operations, from what I understand. He didn’t bring drugs into the airport. But I would venture to guess that most airports with the kind of facilities that we have here… they probably knowingly or unknowingly helped people get their airplanes fixed and engage in that kind of business. That doesn’t make it right.”
Ogden discussed the misportrayal of Mena in American Made.
“They didn’t accurately portray our town. There’s this theme in the movie that everybody was in cahoots and knew what was going on, but that in fact is not the way it was,” he said. “And there were a lot of law enforcement people that were there, and they knew what was going on to some degree, I guess, just because of the unusual deposits going into the banks and whatnot. They were thoroughly investigating this and trying to put a stop to whatever various things might’ve been going on out here.
“In fact, I’ve heard that the sheriff at the time was on his way out here to end everything and shut down the operation when a fax came through at the last minute from the DEA, and they more or less said to leave this guy alone. I think that’s appeared in some of the Freedom of Information Act documents that came to light in recent history. This is, of course, is all third-hand and gleaned from reading about it and talking to some of the people around here over the years.”
Both Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport and the city of Mena have been able to shift perception to a more positive light in recent years.
In the 2036 Arkansas Statewide Airport System Plan Update, it was revealed that the first round of economic output dispersed throughout Arkansas because of the services offered at Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport was estimated to be $29.9 million. In the second round of economic output, an additional $18 million spent in the Natural State was traced back to the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport. The airport alone provides 739 jobs with a payroll of $14.7 million and a total output of $47.9 million. The airport recently has seen $8.2 million worth of new construction projects on the property through various “shovel ready” projects and as the result of grant funding.
“It’s an economic engine here for us, and the neat thing about it is, it’s money coming in from out of town and mostly out of state, which isn’t bad for a county of 20,000,” Ogden noted. “So, we bring the work here, and it impacts the state. And I’m proud of that. We don’t have a lot of industry in this part of the state. We don’t have a lot of big agriculture, but we do have this little jewel, and it’s been a good thing for Mena.”
Aeronautics has ensured that the city will continue to grow.
“It’s kept a lot of young people here. I think there are probably 250 jobs out here, maybe 300, and that’s not a lot, but the town of Mena is 5,700 people, only half of which are working age. So, that’s a pretty good chunk of the labor force,” Ogden said of the number of local young adults working at the airport. “For instance, when I got out of college, the unemployment rate here was around 17 to 18 percent in 1983. And of course, things have economically improved here and in the nation in general over time. It does my heart good to see young people coming out here and finding a decent paying job in their hometown, so that they don’t have to go off somewhere else to work.”
Today, a host of airplanes still makes the journey to Mena to get painted, get their frames straightened and to have their engines worked on. Doctors, celebrities, lawyers, business executives and politicians from around the world come through Mena Intermountain. Airplanes used in museums and in movies, such as Tora! Tora! Tora!, have all made a stop in Mena for touch-ups and repairs.
Ogden said the airport still plays a role in politics today, albeit a much brighter one. He shared that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has made stops at the airport in the past, and other politicians, including the transportation secretary under Donald Trump, have made a point to stop in Mena as well.
“Elaine Chao had a soft spot in her heart for small airports. Usually the bigger airports conducting the big passenger operations usually get the funding, but she always made sure there was a piece of pie cut out for airports of our size,” Ogden said. “ And that has made a real difference.”
While some of Mena Intermountain’s past is cloaked in secrecy, it’s clear the airport has made a commitment to have a positive impact on the well being of its community and The Natural State as a whole. And it’s apparent the airport is determined to use its runway to deliver the charm of Arkansas to the rest of the world.
A wise man once said, “With a mile of pavement, you can go exactly one mile down the road. But with a mile of runway, you can go anywhere in the world.”