Air show to celebrate Walnut Ridge Airport’s history slated for this weekend

by George Jared ([email protected]) 873 views 

An aerial photo of the Walnut Ridge Army Air Forces Basic Flying School in the 1940s.

The U.S. military thought they’d found the perfect spot in Tennessee to build a pilot school.

It was 1942 and the world was at war. There was only one problem. To build an airfield in the chosen spot, about 5 million cubic yards of dirt needed to be moved. It wasn’t long before a flat expanse just north of Walnut Ridge was discovered and the Walnut Ridge Army Air Forces Basic Flying School was born.

It has been 75 years since the pilot school was built, and local organizers are planning an aerial show Saturday to commemorate the anniversary, organizer Harold Johnson told Talk Business & Politics. The former school is now the Walnut Ridge Airport, and in terms of runway square footage, it’s the second largest airport in Arkansas. As many as 5,000 people could attend the event hosted by the Wings of Honor Museum located near the airport.

“This pilot training facility was instrumental in us winning the war … American lives were saved because of the work done here,” said Johnson, who also serves as the museum president. “We felt like we should celebrate our heritage.”

It will be the first aerial show held at the airport since 2001. The show, advertising and all could cost up to $75,000 and the lion’s share of the costs are being paid through donations, officials said. Area flooding could hamper attendance numbers, and if the floods hadn’t occurred, as many as 10,000 people might have attended the show, Johnson said.

Construction on the pilot school began in late summer in 1942. At its peak, there were more than 5,000 people living on or near the school, meaning it was larger than nearby Pocahontas or Walnut Ridge, according to information at the museum. An estimated 5,310 men entered pilot training. At least 4,641 pilots were certified. It was reported that 42 pilots lost their lives during training.

The federal government bought more than 3,000 acres to be used by the pilot school. It had three runways that span about 5,000-feet. The land acquisition and construction cost almost $10 million or $160 million in today’s dollars, Johnson said.

After the war, up to 10,000 aircraft were brought back to the airfield. Many were disassembled, and some were even buried in the ground somewhere on the property, according to local legends. A section of the property was bequeathed to what is now Williams Baptist College, and the airport itself, and an adjoining 1,800 acres were given to the city of Walnut Ridge.

“This airport has been a great asset to the city of Walnut Ridge,” Johnson said.

Dozens of WWII vets are expected to attend the festivities slated to start Friday (May 5). Hundreds of war vets will attend, as well, Johnson said. For more information, contact Harold Johnson at (800) 584-5575.