Northwest Arkansas’ outdoor recreation economy is thriving.
Strategic investments from the public and private sector have boosted the region’s tourism profile in various areas, including parks and preservation, trail development, cycling and mountain biking.
Those expanded opportunities for locals and tourists alike are critical economic drivers. And they’re also avenues for allowing people to experience the state’s natural beauty.
But those opportunities aren’t limited to the ground.
Recreational aviation, or backcountry aviation, is a growing aspect of the state’s tourism profile. Backcountry refers to remote destinations that are undeveloped, isolated and hard to reach by anything but light aircraft.
“There’s no better vantage point than through the air,” said Krista Cupp, communications director for Runway Group in Bentonville.
The aptly named Runway Group is one of the leading groups taking a targeted approach to developing backcountry aviation as a new tourism opportunity in Arkansas. Runway Group is a business team led by Steuart Walton and his younger brother, Tom Walton. They are both pilots. They are also grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and the sons of Jim Walton, chairman and CEO of Arvest Bank Group Inc.
Runway Group aims to promote an outdoor-focused lifestyle by making strategic investments in several areas including real estate, hospitality, cycling and aviation. The company’s community hub for recreational aviation is called the Fieldhouse. It’s located at Bentonville Municipal Airport/Louise M. Thaden Field. A flight school also is there, and a flight club, Oz1 Flying Club, was formed to promote aviation’s social aspect and share aircraft operating costs among members.
The backcountry aviation arm of Thaden Field’s offerings is called Fly Oz, directed by pilots Chip Gibbons and Steve Johnson. Runway Group created the initiative as an opportunity for pilots and non-pilots to connect to outdoor recreation opportunities through a network of grass airstrips tucked away in the state’s mostly mountainous northwest and north-central regions.
“It’s part of a larger initiative to get people in the air,” said Chad Cox, aviation director for Runway Group and general manager for Summit Aviation, Thaden Field’s fixed-based operator. “Flying isn’t just about getting from Point A to Point B. It’s also about connecting to what is happening in the cycling world, the climbing world, paddle sports, regional outfitters and restaurants. Connect those things, and you add to the overall adventure of Northwest Arkansas.”
Cox said the larger recreational ecosystem served by Fly Oz in Bentonville makes the initiative unique in the aviation industry.
“When people come here, we hope they have interest beyond flying because we have a lot to offer,” he said.
Cox explained that once recreational aviators find their way to Thaden Field, Fly Oz has 64 airstrips within 80 nautical miles of the city, offering various outdoor recreation attractions.
Through partnerships with resorts, outfitters and property owners, some of the experiences at or near the Fly Oz airstrip network include float trips, fishing, mountain biking, hiking and camping. Some popular locales include Byrd’s Adventure Center along the Mulberry River in Ozark, Buffalo Outdoor Center along the Buffalo River in Ponca (Newton County), Kings River Outfitters/Trigger Gap near Eureka Springs, and Gaston’s White River Resort along the White River in Lakeview (Baxter County).
The goal is to get outdoor enthusiasts closer to the off-the-beaten-path amenities that make the Natural State a destination.
“We hope to become an entry point for people who may not have imagined experiencing some of this adventure by air,” Cox said. He underscored that Fly Oz opportunities aren’t solely for pilots.
“In all of the United States, there are maybe 600,000 pilots,” he said. “That’s not many people, and you’re only going to affect so many people if you’re only open to people who are already pilots. We want others to experience going somewhere in an aircraft for an outdoor recreation activity or adventure. That’s where we want to go.”
If attractions beyond Arkansas’ borders are of interest, Gibbons has created a national database for backcountry flying called The Airfield Guide. Created in partnership with the nonprofit group Recreational Aviation Foundation, the website is a repository of information for airstrips around the country, including runway lengths, obstacles and terrain, arrival and departure procedures, and even videos to help pilots operate in and out of new airstrips.
AN IDEA TO LIFE
Cox, 41, has worked as a professional pilot for 13 years. He’s been in Northwest Arkansas since 2013, working with the Walton brothers to bring an idea to life.
“Steuart, specifically, had a vision for aviation in Northwest Arkansas,” Cox said. “He wanted to see it grow beyond how Fortune 50 companies use it to get their associates from here to there. His experience [living in] England showed him aviation could be a form of outdoor recreation. Much of the United States doesn’t see it in that light, and he wanted to bring it back to his home.”
Cox explained that in the U.K., most small- and mid-sized municipal airports do not resemble those in the U.S.
“Steuart was involved in an airport that barely had a fence around it,” he said. “It was a grass airstrip. It had a club. He saw that built-in sense of community that a lot of airports here don’t have. He shared that vision, and we’ve been working together now — Tom, Steuart and I — for nine years. We’re excited to continue it in the years to come.”
Cupp described Cox as understated, though his impact isn’t.
“He’s a force in the aviation industry in the country,” she said. “You can’t highlight his leadership on the development and vision for this initiative enough. It was Steuart’s vision that came to the table, but Chad is the leader here.”
State officials are taking notice. So much so that the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism now includes backcountry aviation as part of its marketing budget, explicitly highlighting Cox, Gibbons and the Fly Oz initiative on the state’s tourism website.
The national profile is growing, too.
“Ten years ago, if you asked someone where is the Mecca [of backcountry aviation], it’d be Idaho or Montana,” said Harper Goodwin, an El Dorado native who’s now an Arkansas liaison for the Recreational Aviation Foundation. “It’s still Idaho and Montana, but Arkansas is a real close second. It’s becoming an equivalent to how well-known cycling and mountain biking is around Northwest Arkansas.”
Goodwin was a commercial pilot for American Airlines for 34 years until retiring. He now uses his lifetime of aviation skills as a backcountry pilot, operating a Cessna 210. He and his wife live along the Kings River between Eureka Springs and Berryville, near the Trigger Gap Airstrip.
In the aviation community, Goodwin said Northwest Arkansas is uncommon.
“It’s a unique little pocket that sometimes I take for granted, that most places are like this,” he said. “But that’s not the case. This region is a really special place in the United States.”
Cox and his team at Thaden Field are continually working with Bentonville officials and other communities throughout Arkansas to grow the Fly Oz profile. Significant among those partnerships are the airstrip landowners.
Cox referred to an amendment passed in 2013 by Arkansas’ 89th General Assembly as a critical event in getting backcountry aviation off the ground in the state. Essentially, it protects private airstrip owners throughout Arkansas from litigation from non-commercial aviation activity on their land. The bill added “aviation” to the other recreational activities listed in the state’s existing Recreational Use Statute — hunting, camping, fishing, swimming, etc. — that passed in 1965.
“When they added aviation activities, that unlocked the ability to start calling up landowners,” Cox said. “A group of us from our little FBO in Bentonville looked up these airstrips and owners, and either by air or by car, we went and talked to each one [about using their airstrip]. We had a very high success rate explaining to them that there are now protections they didn’t have before.
“I think that’s just the welcoming spirit of Arkansas that allowed that to happen. We owe a big thank you to the landowners who make their airstrips available to us.”