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Arkansas Aviation Then and Now

Airports and air travel are essential to Arkansas’s growth and economic development, and the history of aeronautics in Arkansas is colorful. Today I’d like to talk about this industry that has contributed so much to the high quality of life in the Natural State.

Charles McDermott, a transplant from Louisiana, was one of Arkansas’s first aviators. The 1872 patent for his airplane was titled “Improvement in Apparatus for Navigating the Air.” The machine was built with flaps and the pilot operated it with his feet. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Mr. McDermott exhibited his invention at the Arkansas booth in 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. History doesn’t record whether any of his flying machines actually flew.

In May 1910, Fort Smith was the site of Arkansas’s first well-documented flight when James C. “Bud” Mars hit sixty-miles-per-hour in a Curtiss Bi-Plane.

Louise Thaden, who was from Bentonville, won the Women’s Air Derby in 1929. In 1936, she and her co-pilot beat all the men pilots in the Bendix Trophy race from New York to Los Angeles. The first African American known to receive a pilot’s license was Pickens W. Black, a Jackson County planter from Blackville. His private pilot license was issued in November 1933 and his last in 1958.

Those pioneers laid the foundation for an industry that has grown into 99 publicly owned general aviation public-use airports; and 3,400 general-aviation aircraft. We have nearly 6,000 pilots, four FAA-approved pilot schools, nearly 2,000 student pilots; and more than 800 flight instructors.

General aviation airports contribute $467 million to the state’s economy every year with 5,100 jobs and a payroll of nearly $167 million. That doesn’t include the general aviation jobs at commercial-service airports across the state.

The “Economic Impact of Arkansas Airports” report shows that all sectors of the industry combined provide more than 42,000 jobs; generate $1.5 billion in payroll; and produce $3.5 billion in economic activity.

The Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas National Airport, known as XNA, are among the one-hundred largest airports in the nation. Between them, the two fly nearly two-million passengers a year.

A robust air-travel system is high on the list for site selectors who are considering Arkansas. To maintain our top-flight system,  the Division of Aeronautics oversees the industry with a staff of five and a commission with seven members that the governor appoints. To underscore the importance of the industry, in 2019, I moved the division into the Arkansas Department of Commerce as part of my government transformation initiative.

Like every other business, COVID turned the airline industry on its head. In 2020, air travel was down 50% nationally. Travel spending decreased from nearly a trillion dollars in 2019 to $679 billion last year. That affects so many other areas, such as business travel, conventions, and tourism.

As our air-travel industry emerges from the pandemic, we can look to the ingenuity and tenacity of our founding flyers such as Charles McDermott, Pickens Black, Louise Thaden, and Bud Mars, and soon Arkansas aviation will be flying higher than ever.

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