Days after a deadly plane crash in Conway claims the lives of a Texas pilot and a 71-year-old Conway woman, talk of a new airport in the city ramps up.
Conway needs to look no further than Saline County and Benton for a possible blueprint for making the move.
There's not much left of the original Saline County Airport these days. An old sign once welcoming you to Watts Field is now rotting in the elements. Hangars that were once home to more than a dozen airplanes, only house a desk and a trashcan. A mailbox for Looney Aviation in hangar 26 is full and unchecked for months.
“We had a lot of camaraderie, a lot of good fellowship,” said pilot Ron Broadaway.
The airport opened in 1957 in a remote field one mile west of Benton. Recreational pilots and students, feeling the need to fly, called the 4,000 square feet of runway home for five decades. Broadaway was one of them.
“I watched the pilots train where I grew up in Newport. Training for World War II to go overseas, I grew a fascination that stayed all the way along. I took it seriously in about 1989 and I’ve been flying ever since. I learned to fly at the old Benton airport, which was exciting,” said Broadaway.
As is often the case with growing communities, the world moved in around the tiny airport creating some tricky obstructions for pilots to think about.
“We had a subdivision, a school, Interstate 30,” said Broadaway.
One of the more notable obstacles was the Holland Baptist Church which built a new sanctuary in 1975.
Vicky Deere remembers the construction and an interesting complication it created. “We had a steeple and the FAA made us take it down for federal regulations because the airport was back here,” said Deere. "My grandpa was so bound and determined that the steeple would be put back up on Holland Chapel that he had it moved over to his house on Alcoa road. It stood up there as a reminder that it would one day be back up on Holland Chapel.”
“We had a lot of fun learning to fly. We learned to fly well. We were fortunate that we never had any major problems with the old airport in Benton,” said Broadaway.
But with churches and homes and baseball fields surrounding the airport, Saline County Judge Lanny Fite knew the congestion couldn't carry on. “We were losing planes each year. Mainly there were just recreational flyers coming into the old airport. It could not handle a jet,” said Judge Fite.
And it wouldn't be long until a pilot's luck ran out and disaster, like the June 30th Conway plane crash that killed two, happened at the Saline County Airport.
In Part 2 of this THV Extra, we'll show you how Judge Fite and county leaders took a generous donation from a major company and turned it into a solution to Saline County's airport problem.