Arkansas’ Rich History in Advanced Aerospace Manufacturing & Defense

 April 19, 2019

By the 1970s, aviation in Arkansas had become essential both for business use and for personal travel, but the state’s long aviation history began much earlier.

As early as 1872, Arkansan Charles McDermott received a patent for a “flying machine.”

His machine consisted of some 10 or more flaps and the operator, lying prone in the middle, operated the machine with his feet. Later, he modified the design for a two- and three-winged apparatus and it actually managed to glide for short distances. There is considerable similarity between the Wright brothers’ first machine and that of McDermott, the difference being that the Wrights’ had a gasoline motor.

In February 1908, the Hot Springs Airship Company opened shop and began building and flying dirigibles. Owner Joel T. Rice's first airship, "The Arkansas Traveler," was over 50 feet long. The airship was powered by a single motor, and directional control was achieved through manipulation of three swiveling propellers. On its first test flight, the hydrogen-filled giant rose only 25 feet before the weight of the carriage proved too heavy.

Arkansas’ first well-documented flight took place in Fort Smith on May 21, 1910. James C. “Bud” Mars was the pilot of the Curtiss biplane that reached an estimated speed of 60 mph.

The entry of the United States into World War I propelled aviation forward rapidly. In 1917,  Eberts Training Field was established near the town of Lonoke to meet the growing need for qualified pilots. During the war, Eberts Field ranked second among aviation training fields maintained by the U.S. government, and it was one of the leading training centers for aviators during the war. It had about 1,000 cadets being trained in aviation, and nearly 1,500 enlisted men and officers were stationed at the field.

In 1925, the 154th Observation Squadron was established in the Arkansas National Guard. The squadron originally flew out of the Little Rock Municipal Airport and helped locate stranded citizens after the flood of 1927. The unit served in combat during World War II and is still active today as the 189th Airlift Wing, flying C-130s out of Little Rock Air Force Base.

c-130 arkansas Photo credit_ Lockheed Martin

As air traffic grew and commercial uses developed, it became necessary to create formal airfields. Amendment 13 to the Arkansas Constitution authorized funding such projects. Little Rock built the first one in 1926, which is now the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. Pine Bluff followed, opening Toney Field in 1927. Fort Smith’s Alexander Field opened in 1927. Pilot Floyd H. Muncie, who worked for Ozark Airways and had more than 2,000 hours in the air, offered instruction. In 1928, Arkansas Air Tours began, supported by local enthusiasts who organized flying clubs.

During World War II, Arkansas was home to six ordnance plants. The sites were located near Jacksonville, Marche, Hope, El Dorado, Pine Bluff and Camden. These plants were the location for the manufacture of detonators, fuses, primers and bombs; proving grounds for testing munitions; rocket loading, testing and storage; and producing chemical agents needed in bombs and explosives. Four of the plants were government owned and contractor operated (GOCO). The Southwestern Proving Ground and the Pine Bluff Arsenal were government owned and operated. All the plants depended heavily on civilian workers for their main work force. The wartime industries brought needed money and jobs for Arkansas citizens, particularly women, and contributed greatly to the economy of Arkansas. After the war, the state never returned to heavy agricultural-based economy that had been present before World War II, developing instead a more industrialized economy.

The end of the Second World War left some Arkansas communities with extensive airfields. The Walnut Ridge Army Flying School was chosen to serve as an airplane graveyard, and newly finished airplanes were flown in and converted into scrap. A different scenario unfolded at Fayetteville, where the municipal airport, named Drake Field in 1949, predated the war. Raymond J. Ellis’s Central Air Transport flew 5,000 baby chickens in 1946 for John Tyson, from Joplin, Missouri, to Springdale, Arkansas. Ellis started the state’s first commuter service (to Little Rock) in 1946. South Central Air Transport (SCAT) was the first of his efforts, but Scheduled Skyways, founded in 1953, was the most enduring. In 1954, Central Airlines came to Fayetteville, eventually merging with Frontier Airlines.

With the start of the Cold War, Arkansas became home to two air force bases. Eaker Air Force Base was located outside of Blytheville in northeastern Arkansas; it closed in 1992. Little Rock Air Force Base (LFAFB) opened in 1955 and served as home to the Strategic Air Command. It has survived base closings, and the 188th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard at Fort Smith successfully appealed its shutdown.

Arkansas currently has five military installations: Little Rock Air Force Base, Pine Bluff Arsenal, Camp Robinson and Camp Pike, Ebbing Air National Guard Base, and Fort Chaffee Joint Maneuver Training Center. The U.S. military contributes significantly to the Arkansas economy, providing 67,000 direct and indirect jobs and a local economic impact of more than $4.5 billion a year. Little Rock Air Force Base alone is the third-largest employer in the state, including more than 7,500 active-duty military and civilian members and 1,488 civilians. Arkansas has a proud history of military service, infrastructure and resources. Our service men and women and our military installations not only play a vital role in our national defense, but they make an enormous, positive impact on the state’s economy.

There was also another aspect of the defense industry in Arkansas you may not know about ­– missiles. William L. Ripley, a North Little Rock science teacher, organized the Arkansas Amateur Rocket Society in the fall of 1957. On a much larger scale, in the 1960s, silos for Titan II missiles — intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads — were established in Arkansas.

Today, the defense industry is still the lifeline of the Camden area economy, including Ouachita and Calhoun counties. As the manufacturing center of south Arkansas, the area is home to the Highland Industrial Park and a highly skilled workforce with a long history of aerospace and defense manufacturing, specializing in munitions, rockets, guided missiles, launchers and other battle vehicles. Companies at the Highland Industrial Park include Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne, General Dynamics, Esterline Defense among others.

With the rapid growth and development in northwest Arkansas because of companies like Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt, the region needed a larger airport that could accommodate larger airlines. With Air Force One in the background and a crowd of roughly 8,000 people looking on, President Bill Clinton dedicated the new Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport on November 6, 1998. The airport officially opened for commercial service on November 1, bringing to an end an eight-year process of planning and construction.

Fast forward to today, and Arkansas is still a leader in the aviation industry. Home to nearly 180 well-known companies in the industry, aerospace/aviation is Arkansas’ leading export, in part because the state offers a very competitive environment for aerospace and aviation companies to operate. Arkansas has numerous available sites with runway access and aviation-focused facilities, along with a highly skilled labor force nearly 1.3 million strong.

Little Rock is home to Dassault-Falcon Jet Corporation’s Completion Center, a major producer of business airplanes. The Completion Center is located at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, and employs about 1,500 people. Occupying nearly 1,000,000 total sq. ft., Little Rock is the largest Dassault facility in the world. The Center handles all phases of aircraft completions and modifications such as instrumentation, wiring, interiors, painting, engineering and flight testing. The Little Rock Completion Center is the main completion center for Falcon Jets worldwide. It is among the best equipped and most efficient in the world.

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