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The Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport near the city of Mena (Polk County) in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas is located approximately 160 miles west of Little Rock (Pulaski County). It is an airport that focuses on private aircraft and, as of 2011, does not have scheduled commercial air service.
BeginningsThe first rough airstrip was located south of the town on the McBride family’s property, and a hangar and flying school opened in 1942, run by Hartzell Geyer. The initial runway was a grass one that a local farmer would mow and bale for hay. Due to increased commercial traffic, the Civil Aeronautics Commission (CAC) after World War II determined that Mena would be needed as an emergency landing site for airplanes. One of the major draws for the area was its central location about sixty miles from Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and ninety miles from Texarkana (Miller County), a perfect location for an emergency airport. The CAC—now the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—purchased land from the McBrides for construction of an airport.
FacilitiesMena Intermountain Municipal Airport has two runways. Runway 17/35 is a paved 5,000-foot runway that is in the same location as the original one. A recent addition of the 6,000-foot runway 9/27 permits larger aircraft to utilize the airport. These runways can be used by everything from light general aviation aircraft to multi-engine jet aircraft.
The airport also houses aircraft repair and refit facilities that employ more than 160 people. Services such as painting, repair or reconstruction of an engine or airframe, upholstery work, and avionics repair are available at the airport. These repair and refit services are used by private, corporate, and governmental organizations from across the United States and around the world, attracting a substantial amount of traffic to the airport and bringing millions of dollars into the Mena economy each year.
Due to the proximity of the airport to Rich Mountain, and the foggy weather that often blankets the area, there have been a number of crashes since the airstrip/airport started operations. From 1936 through 2008, twenty-six planes have crashed in the vicinity of Mena, resulting in seventy-one fatalities. The worst incident was on October 31, 1945, when a Douglas R4D-7 crashed in bad weather and killed all fourteen people on board.
ControversyThe Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport is known nationally and internationally as the central location in a controversy over illegal drug shipments and weapons transfers during the Iran-Contra affair. In the 1980s, the airport was the alleged base of a massive drug smuggling, money laundering, and arms smuggling ring run by American Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal. There are also allegations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used the airport as a base of operations to help train pilots and troops for the intervention in the Nicaraguan uprising by the Contras during the 1980s.
According to some reports, the airport, from 1981 to 1985, was a major transit point for the entrance of cocaine and heroin into the United States. The estimated value of the narcotics smuggled through the facility is $3 to $5 billion. For a portion of this time, the alleged ringleader of the drug smuggling, Seal, appeared to have been working with the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The goal was to expose the involvement of the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime as a major supplier of cocaine from Colombia. One mission in particular used a C-123K cargo plane outfitted at the facility. The aircraft flew with various cameras used to obtain photographic evidence of the Sandinistas in the act of smuggling narcotics. Allegations later surfaced that many of the gun shipments sent to Nicaragua as part of the Iran-Contra Affair were sent from the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport. In essence, not only was the airport used to smuggle illegal drugs into the United States, but it was also a departure point for weapons used to arm the Contras in Nicaragua.
Three former presidents of the United States have faced criticism over the alleged illegal actions at the airport: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. According to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all charges and cases dealing with Barry Seal and others with connections to the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport were dropped due to potential national security risks. In other words, the charges of drug smuggling and money laundering were not enough to warrant the release of information about the use of the airport in the Iran-Contra Affair.
George H. W. Bush, during his term as president, did not attempt to prosecute any people involved in either the drug smuggling or the arms dealing. Clinton was the governor of Arkansas during the time period when these actions allegedly occurred. No public figures with a connection to the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport acted to investigate or prosecute those involved, at least not publically. This has caused a small cottage industry to arise among those who adhere to various conspiracy theories.
For additional information:Mena Centennial History, 1896–1996: A Photographic History of the City of Mena, Arkansas.Murfreesboro, AR : Looking Glass Press, 1996.
Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport. http://www.menaairport.com/ (accessed May 4, 2011).
The Rich Mountain Project. http://okwreckchasing.org/richmtn.html (accessed May 27, 2011).
Robert SherwoodGeorgia Military College
Last Updated 1/20/2012
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