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The Saline County Regional Airport, now located at 1100 Hill Farm Road in Bryant (Saline County), has a history dating back to World War II. Governed by the Saline County Regional Airport Commission, the airport serves hundreds of small-aircraft pilots daily. The airport sits on 1,200 acres of open field located southeast of Bryant, eight miles from Little Rock (Pulaski County). The Saline County Regional Airport features thirty-six T-hangars, ten private hangars, and three large corporate hangars.
The first privately owned airstrip in Saline County was built outside Benton (Saline County) by Mike Richards, a used-car dealer and contractor, in 1942. However, Richards’s airstrip was bisected when Highway 67/70 was built in the late 1950s. On March 9, 1958, the Arkansas Democrat reported that Richards’s airstrip contained a landing strip and ten planes, two of his own. It was located parallel to the Saline River near the Malvern highway crossing. Richards sued the Arkansas Highway Department for compensation. The case went before the Arkansas Supreme Court, and, as the case was progressing, Richards announced plans to relocate.
By June 3, 1958, Richards had paved a new airstrip on the other side of the new highway. Charles O. Smithers, the county judge, left further development of the new airport to local aviation enthusiasts. On December 15, 1958, the Democrat published the results of Richards’s suit. Richards was awarded $50,000 in compensation for the 12.35 acres of land taken from him by the Highway Department, although he had reportedly invested $110,000 in land and improvements in the sixty-five acres covered by the old airport. By the time the suit was settled, the new airport was operating between Holland Chapel and the Holland Gravel Plant just outside Benton.
Reportedly, in the late 1950s, the airfield was outfitted with natural-gas-powered lighting by the Arkansas-Louisiana Gas Company, making Saline County the first in Arkansas to use such a system; it was replaced by electrical lighting in the early 1960s. By 1980, the airport was controlled by Leon Goff, who had John Wells take over after he was injured in a plane crash. After Wells crashed an amphibious aircraft he had picked up in Washington state, Seth Otts succeeded him.
An ice storm damaged the airport’s large maintenance hangar in 2000. After nearby Holland Chapel was expanded, its steeple became an obstacle for incoming pilots to avoid. Because of this, the steeple was shortened and a red beacon was installed at its highest point.
In 1999, the airport changed its official name to Watts Field in honor of veteran pilot Doug Watts, who had kept a plane there. Watts died during an airshow in Mississippi while attempting to climb a rope ladder hanging from a flying plane over the bed of a moving pickup truck. Watts climbed the ladder but, once the plane had risen into the air, lost his grip and fell about 100 feet.
In October 2000, Garver Engineering prepared a new airport master plan for the Saline County Airport Board. As part of the twenty-year plan, the airport was to relocate to a large field near Bryant donated by the Alcoa Corporation.
Plans for the new airport included many modern amenities, including a 5,000-foot landing strip, a 2,000-square-foot terminal building, new hangars, a fueling station, taxiways, and an apron, among other improvements, and it encompassed 230 acres with the possibility of a 1,000-foot extension to the runway. In addition, the five-member board of directors became a seven-member commission.
The newly named Saline County Regional Airport opened on March 12, 2007. It does not service any commercial airlines, instead catering to both small private aircraft like Cessnas and Pipers and large corporate planes such as Gulfstreams, Falcons, Lear Jets, Hawkers, and Beechcrafts. The Saline County Regional Airport receives federal funding through Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airport Improvement Project Grants and grants from the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics.
For additional information:
“Benton ‘Airport’ Has Paved Strip but Nothing Else.” Arkansas Democrat, June 3, 1958, p. 3.
LaRue, Robert. “Aviation in Saline County.” The Saline 29 (Spring 2014): 67–71.
McGinnis, Rosalie I. “New Hot Springs Highway to Have Lasting Impact on Saline County.” Arkansas Democrat, March 9, 1958, p. 18A.
Saline County Regional Airport. http://www.salinecounty.org/airport (accessed January 2, 2018).
Cody Lynn Berry
Last Updated 1/2/2018
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