The newly modernized terminal at Pine Bluff’s Grider Field Municipal Airport will be rededicated in ceremonies beginning at 10 a.m. Oct. 5 and the fifth annual Razorback EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Fly-In is slated for 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Oct. 6.
“I hope everyone will mark the rededication ceremony on their calendar and join us in celebrating this occasion,” said airport manager Doug Hale. “The facility looks great and will serve the airport as well as the City of Pine Bluff proudly for many years to come.”
Hale said that he’s pleased that after being highlighted with the rededication, the updated terminal will likely host even more visitors the following day when the Razorback Fly-In takes place. Hale said “war birds” and vintage and homemade planes will be on display at the airport during the fly-in, and a car show that starts at 11 a.m. will feature European and Corvette car clubs along with hot rods.
“Hamburgers and hot dogs will be sold during the fly-in to help in raising funds for the EAA,” said Hale. “Admission and parking will be free.”
For more information on the fly-in, telephone Gerald Loyd at 870-377-2728.
The current terminal dates back more than 50 years ago, having been originally dedicated in 1960. The roots of the airport itself extend to 1940, when the federal Civil Aviation Administration declared Toney Field – the city’s first airport – inadequate. The late James W. Leslie wrote in his 1981 book Pine Bluff and Jefferson County: A Pictorial History that city officials then began exploring means of acquiring a field which would meet government specifications.
On Aug. 6, 1940, Pine Bluff voters approved a $200,000 bond issue to finance construction of a municipal airport. The current site was selected from the W.W. Phillips plantation. The city sold $120,000 in four-percent Airport Improvement Bonds to Simmons First National Bank and the city then purchased 700 acres of land from Phillips for $42,000. Afterward, 80 acres were purchased from Ella G. Mills, giving the city land for a field over a mile square, The Commercial reported on Nov. 20, 1940.
Around the same time, after a search had commenced for a civilian primary flying school to use the field, William R. Kent of Southern Air Service in Memphis contacted Pine Bluff Mayor James P. McGaughy about the matter. Kent came to Pine Bluff and the Pine Bluff School of Aviation was established with an expressed purpose of providing flight training to Army Air Corps cadets.
While the city built the landing field, the aviation school constructed barracks, hangars, a flight control building, mess hall and other structures needed in training the cadets, who came from across the nation. Leslie related that the first class of 56 cadets arrived in March 1941 and before the school closed in October 1944, the classes had grown to 325 students and nearly 600 civilian personnel. Reportedly, about 10,000 fliers were trained there.
Along with the Army’s Pine Bluff Arsenal, Grider Field and the Pine Bluff School of Aviation changed the Pine Bluff region practically overnight from a primarily agricultural economy to a strongly diversified mixture that included government services and expanded industry.
Airport records state that the Grider Field training site property was transferred back to the city in 1947 by federal authorities.
Today, the airport covers over 850 acres and includes the terminal, a restaurant, a Federal Aviation Administration weather monitoring station, private corporate hangars, fixed-base operators offering fuel and avionics services, a fire station, private rental hangars and historic displays. The Little Rock Air Force Base uses Grider Field for C-130 aircraft training activities, and the FAA trains its own pilots at Grider Field.
Now a city department, the airport derives funding from fuel sales, user leases and general city appropriations.
Nearly $900,000 in federal and state grants have been appropriated in internal and external terminal improvements and additions since 2008, Hale said. About $10,000 has been spent on new furnishings and art. Meanwhile, grants also allowed the airport’s taxiways to be resurfaced this year. Two years ago, similar funding made resurfacing of its runways possible.
“For many of our visitors, the airport is often their first impression of Pine Bluff,” said Hale. “I know all the improvements we’ve made will help in favorably impressing them.”
Barbara Ann Hollis, Rickey Works and Sara Works are working toward developing a Grider Field Aviation Museum in a World War II-era Army Air Corps barracks building on airport grounds. The group is aiming at establishing the museum as a nonprofit organization funded through donations. The three are also seeking to have the barracks building placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We’ve been busy,” said Hale. “And we’ve been enjoying it.”