In 2010 a small group of local fliers wrote “A History of Aviation in Conway, Arkansas,” and much of the book is a warm remembrance of Dennis F. Cantrell Field and its people, not least of which was Cantrell himself.
Conway Municipal Airport, as it was then called, started in 1928 on the same 150 acres it still occupies, and it was said at the time that the largest airplane made at the time could easily land on its grass airstrip, though single-engine biplanes were the common traffic until the rise of the monoplane in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
During World War II, the airport attracted Women’s Army Air Corps and U.S. Navy training programs to Arkansas State Teacher’s College (Now UCA) and Hendrix College in what then-airport operator Kenneth Starnes called in 1942 “the first million-dollar business that ever had been here; the first big money that ever came to Conway.” About 50 military training aircraft, including 33 Stearman biplanes, were based at Conway Municipal Airport during the war and more than 2,000 pilots received training there.
Aviation mechanic and flyer Dennis Cantrell took over the airport lease in 1947, and would continue as its sole operator until retiring in 1986.
The book, written by brothers Robert and Stuart Hoyd, Al Hiegel, and Harrell Clendennon, is full of anecdotes and stories about the airport and several about Cantrell, who is described as inspiring to the groups of children who frequented the airport over the years and impressive to the adults who’d come from far corners to have him fix their aircraft or just to drop in for a visit.
The book describes a hailstorm that damaged every airplane not under a good roof in 1951, and a disastrous hangar fire in the same year that destroyed 14 airworthy machines, including seven owned by Cantrell. The most expensive single loss in the fire was a V-tailed Beechcraft Bonanza, then a brand-new design at the cutting edge of private aviation (and still not far from it) just purchased by Dave Ward, of Ward Body Works/Ward School Bus Manufacturing and in whose honor Dave Ward Drive was named.
1n the mid-1970s, the Conway Development Corp started angling for the construction of a new airport and the redevelopment of the Cantrell Field property for industrial use. Cantrell and some other aviators spoke out against this. At a public meeting in Jan. 1976, Cantrell said that with some improvements the airfield would be good for five or 10 years at the least, but that he couldn’t speak for the next 20.
“I believe that if Conway grows like it has in the past, with minor changes we can keep pace,” Cantrell said later in 1976. “But we should keep our eyes open and if [the need for a new airport] hits us in the face we can base our actions accordingly. With what we’ve got we’re ahead of most; for several years I believe we’re in good shape.”
The airport was named in his honor in 1978.
Plans for a new airport fell to the back burner until the mid-1990s, when Dallas aviation engineering firm Huitt-Zollars presented a report showing that Cantrell Field would fail in almost every way to meet the city’s projected 2015 needs, specifically in runway length, inadequate runway overrun areas and load-bearing weights, too few taxiways and aircraft storage space, too little fuel storage and too little automobile parking.
The main runway, this report stated, were “marginal for takeoffs on hot, humid days and landings on wet runways” for larger, heavier aircraft.
Again, many local pilots defended the airport’s staying where it had always been, and Bill Cope, former president of the Conway Pilot’s Association and owner of current Cantrell Field operator Conway Aviation Services, took up the cause.
By 2005, the Lollie Bottoms site had been identified as the preferred location for a new airport, bringing concerns the population of ducks and geese in the bottoms would mean swapping one danger for another: bird strikes.
“It basically tears that engine apart,” Cope said in 2005 of the possibility of a bird strike on one of the twin jets that were increasingly flying into and out of Cantrell Field. “And then you’ve got what was designed as a twin-engine aircraft that’s struggling to break ground. It’s a dangerous situation.”
In May of 2007, Cope said that he and the airport’s supporters “can sit around the old airport and argue about [it] all we want to, but the fact is the city fathers, the CDC, the chamber of commerce and the FAA have all determined the airport needs to be moved.”
Then, on June 30, 2007, the pilot of a Cessna twin-jet couldn’t slow down after landing at Cantrell Field just after a rainshower and didn’t have enough runway or airspeed to take off again. The aircraft ran off the west end of the runway and hit a house, catching fire and killing its pilot and a woman inside the home.
Conway Mayor Tab Townsell said he saw the crash as a tragic exclamation point for end of discussing a Cantrell Field relocation, and in July he and City Engineer Ronnie Hall went to the FAA’s regional headquarters in Fort Worth “to get an airport, and we’re not coming back until we’ve got one.” In April, 2008, the FAA issued a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) for the Lollie Bottoms site after a multi-year study into birdstrike and flooding hazards there.
Now, with the new airport taking shape and an agreement for the sale of the Cantrell Field property reached, the “old” airport is scheduled to cease operation in September, 2014.
Part workplace, part community economic engine and part social club, Cantrell Field’s role in the lives of Conway’s fliers, many of whom literally grew up at Cantrell Field, won’t be forgotten when the last plane departs.
The new airport will also be named Dennis F. Cantrell Field.