After 72 years of operation, city leaders and the aviation community have a new vision for Bentonville’s municipal airport, Louise M. Thaden Field, to become a destination airport for aviators and an added amenity for locals and tourists.
About six years ago, as city stakeholders began discussions about its future, they determined Bentonville’s airport should not try to compete with Rogers and Springdale, said Chad Cox, aviation director of Runway NWA, a Walton-backed civic group in Bentonville focused on community enrichment. Instead, he said, it should be “in its own class — a place that can still offer good service to jets and vendors coming in but is also a ‘home away from home’ type of airport.”
The city’s master plan for the municipal airport, updated in 2016, states that the airport is to “create an environment that generates interest in aviation” and attracts “a broader scope of people beyond just pilots and tenants … and engage them not only in typical aviation-related activities … but rather a unique, interactive airport environment.”
Most airports are seen as a place to keep people out of because of security issues and the emphasis on safety with aviation, Cox said. “In my hometown they put a fence right by the road, so if I wanted to come look at an airplane or ask a mechanic questions, I didn’t even have access to a terminal building to do that.”
“What we’re trying to create [at Thaden Field] is a destination, where you’re coming to the airport,” he said, “Not the tall fences and the badges and the intimidating security, but more of the type of place you heard people 50 years ago saying, ‘I grew up at the airport, the hangar doors were open, lawn chairs were out, people were flying in.’
“We may easily end up best in class in terms of a destination airport.”
Backcountry aviation — taking airplanes into remote areas for fly-ins or recreational trips — will be one of the keys to accomplishing that. Across the country, flying is beginning to be seen not just as a way to get from one place to another, but as a recreational activity and a way to take advantage of out-of-the-way hiking, biking, camping, rock climbing, canoeing, fishing and dining spots.
For the past three years, there has been a push to create a network of grass airstrips in remote locations across the Ozarks, Cox said. As a result, “Flying Oz” was created as an itinerary of 60 grass strips to fly into within 80 nautical miles of the airport, “with plenty of wilderness, rivers, hikes, mountain bike trails to explore.”
“People can easily fly from Bentonville to Kings River Outfitters [in Eureka Springs] or Byrd’s Adventure Center [in Ozark] or Gaston’s [in Lakeview] for a morning to fish,” Cox said. “They can get there quickly, and it’s cool to [land on] a grass strip. When they are ready to leave, they are back to Northwest Arkansas in half an hour. We see the Bentonville airport as a jump-off point for adventure.”
Arkansas is the perfect location for backcountry aviation, Cox said. It sits in the center of the country and is easily accessible to everyone. With the lower altitude, small aircraft produce more power, so performance is better. And, in 2012, the Arkansas legislature amended the Recreational Use Statute to protect landowners from liability associated with allowing airplanes to land on their private airstrips.
At Thaden Field, Summit Aviation offers instruction in handling tail wheel planes, which are better suited for landing on grass strips. Instruction includes practicing takeoffs and landings on the grass runway located at the airport.
A new flying club is in also in development to make it more affordable for pilots to have access to aircraft. Philip Johnson, director of the nonprofit OZ1 Flying Club, said the way to make aviation social and accessible is “through shared costs of operating aircraft in a flying club and having a flying club that can host events and offer unique experiences for pilots and enthusiasts alike.”
Membership for the club, which will launch in mid-August, will be $75 per month.
Complementing all of this is the 22,000-square-foot Thaden Fieldhouse, which is being built on the northwest corner of the airport and will open in September. It will house an aviation exhibit hangar, an “outfitter”-type retail space, a conference room, a lounge and a restaurant. The exhibit hangar will display several air-worthy aircraft at a time, and the selection will continually change.
“One week it could be World War II planes or another week, acrobatic planes,” Cox said.
Summit Aviation flight school, which has between 100 and 120 students of all levels, will be housed on the second floor of the building. A diner-style restaurant, a project of Walton-backed Ropeswing Hospitality Group in Bentonville, will provide indoor and outdoor dining with a large balcony where guests can watch planes take off and land. The restaurant will be named “Louise,” after Louise McPhetridge Thaden, the famous aviator in the 1920s and 1930s, who grew up in Bentonville. The airport is also named after her.
Further to the north, Lake Bentonville will be expanded, the playground replaced and a boardwalk added between the fieldhouse and the lake, with kayaks and paddleboards.
Just north of the airport property, a 70-acre public park is in development on land owned by an LLC controlled by the Walton Family Foundation. Osage Prairie Park will include an archery range, music venue, apple orchard, walking trails and sculptures. Work will begin in the next four weeks and will take 18 months to complete.
From a tourism standpoint, Kalene Griffith, president and CEO of Visit Bentonville, said she is excited about the transformation at the airport because it will increase tourism in the area as individuals fly in for a day or two and have easy access to downtown Bentonville.
The developments at Thaden Field also open the door for her organization to recruit aeronautic-type meetings or conventions to come to Bentonville. Visit Bentonville has already reached out to three or four aviation groups to ask for their request for proposals with the hopes of hosting their meetings in 2019 or 2020, Griffith said.
“This is an opportunity for us to utilize Thaden Field as a venue to highlight our community,” she said.