Pine Bluff’s Grider Field Municipal Airport is again hosting the Black Pilots of America’s annual Operation Skyhook Friday through Sunday.
The 17th annual Memorial Day weekend fly-in event figures to attract about 100 member pilots and their families and guests from across the country, as well as several hundred observers. Various aircraft will be on display and several pilots will be offering free flights to children, who will gain “Young Eagle” status after the experience.
Ken Johnson, president of the local BPA president and chief of the Pine Bluff Aviation Commission, calls the gathering “my favorite time of the year.”
“I get excited as it approaches each year,” he said. “I’ll be seeing many of my old friends and some of my former students who I taught to fly and are now in aviation careers. I also enjoy seeing so many of the young eagles taking their flights. It’s always a lot of fun for everyone.”
Johnson said he’s especially pleased that the association continues to choose Pine Bluff as Operation Skyhook’s site.
“I play just a small part in that,” he said. “I extend the invitation.”
He said BPA leaders have complimented the city for its “cordial, friendly and hospitable” treatment of the group.
In return, the city’s tourism industry receives a major boost.
“Operation Skyhook brings in a lot of motel, hotel, restaurant and gasoline business,” Johnson pointed out. “That money turns over here and has a nice impact on our economy.”
Mayor Debe Hollingsworth echoed Johnson in expressing hope that the BPA has found “a permanent home” for the event.
“People here love the BPA and Operation Skyhook,” she said. “I know it’s something that the kids look forward to each year. But I probably need to expand on that and say it’s something kids of all ages look forward to, because it’s not unusual to see parents and grandparents becoming excited over the planes and all, just like the young kids do. And I think parents and grandparents get a kick out of seeing the little ones having so much fun.
“Operation Skyhook is a nice way for families to observe Memorial Day weekend together and be thankful for our freedoms and the sacrifices of our past and current military heroes,” she continued. “It provides a great atmosphere for a family outing and gives Pine Bluff a wonderful opportunity to show off our refurbished airport.”
The facility has been updated with assorted enhancements in recent years with $3 million in improvements just since 2008. The airport’s renovated terminal building was rededicated in ceremonies conducted late last year.
“We’re honored to have the BPA back with us,” said airport manager Doug Hale, who noted that the city and various local agencies provide support to help enableg Operation Skyhook activities.
The BPA will be officially welcomed to the city in a 9 a.m. ceremony Friday. Afterward, planned activities include a flour bomb drop competition at 10 a.m. and young eagle flights starting at 3 p.m.
On Saturday, a pilot proficiency and formation flying contest will begin at 10 a.m. and young eagle flights will get under way at 3 p.m. A balloon burst and spot landing competition is slated for 10 a.m. Sunday, with young eagle flights following at 3 p.m.
Also, displays are planned and pilots will be available to speak with children. Johnson said Milton Crenchaw — the lone surviving Tuskegee Airmen flight instructor — has been invited to attend as a special guest on Saturday. Crenchaw spoke last year at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
“I hope Mr. Crenchaw is able to be here,” Hollingsworth said. “He’s a living legend, a true hero. I think it’s wonderful that he and the other pilots can take time out to mentor young people at Operation Skyhook. That’s the type of leadership we need to be providing.”
Admission to BPA public activities will be free.