April 20, 2011 Edition

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Walnut Ridge City Council members Rob Combs (from left) and Paula Haskins and Airport Commissioner Frank Wilson discuss items on display at the Wings of Honor Museum following a community leaders meeting on Monday night.

WR Airport focus
of special meeting

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

Approximately 25 community leaders attended a special meeting at the Walnut Ridge Airport and the Wings Of Honor Museum, followed by a meal at the Parachute Inn, on Monday evening. The meeting was held to acquaint community leaders with the promise the airport holds for the area's future and to enlighten them on the history of the airport. It was also an opportunity for office holders to work together and share ideas, plans and hopes for the future.

State Rep. James Ratliff, County Judge Dale Freeman, Northeast Arkansas Intermodal Authority Executive Director Wayne Gearhart, Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Mike Montgomery, Walnut Ridge Airport Manager Mitch Whitmire, members of the airport commission, Mayor Don House and the city council and Wings of Honor Museum president Harold Johnson met in the airport terminal at 6 for a tour of the terminal.

Whitmire informed the group of ongoing work at the airport including work being done on the Quonset huts the airport owns.

"Some of the huts are being repaired because they are historic buildings, and others will be rented out to individuals, businesses or industries," Whitmire said. "We are shining up the airport to make it look its best by making repairs and cleaning out items we no longer need."

Following the tour of the terminal, the group adjourned to the Wings of Honor Museum where Johnson and Coker gave PowerPoint presentations about the airport, from its beginning through the 1960s, and the businesses now located on airport property.

"The museum is meant to preserve the history of the air field and to honor those who fought for our freedom," Johnson said. "The airbase once housed eight mess halls and two movie theaters (one for blacks and one for whites), a hospital and more. It had its own water plant, sewer plant and fire station. A temporary POW (prisoner of war) camp was once located at the base.

"Construction began on the airbase in June of 1942 and gave people who were building it good paying jobs, following the Great Depression." Eighteen classes graduated from the flying school.

Johnson added that 42 young men died while training at the airfield, and 42 baby boys were born at the base hospital, as well as 40 baby girls during the war years.

The museum houses much of the history of the air field as well as photos of soldiers, their planes and even letters from one soldier to his wife written during the war.

Coker brought the program back to the present with his presentation of current businesses and industries now located on airport property.

Most of the industries in Walnut Ridge are located near the airport, according to Coker. Those industries include Robert Bosch Tool Corp., Castino, Contech Manufacturing Company, Frit Industries, Allied AgCat, Fire Training Academy and tower, Custom-Pak, Douglas Quikut, American Agviation, Arkansas Turbine, Laco Machine Shop, Universal Asset Management and West Machine Shop. The airport fire station and the old terminal building, now used by the county's Amateur Radio (HAM) Operators, and the Parachute Inn restaurant are also located there.

"Someone from every state in the United States has eaten at the restaurant," Coker said.

"The airport has a $750,000 operating budget," said Coker. "We were notified some time ago that the FAA will approve no further sale of airport lands. All revenue collected from leases, farmland and other assets must be used for the airport.

"The United States Government has invested millions of dollars in our airport. In the event of a catastrophic earthquake, our airport will be the lifeline of this area."

He said the airport will soon have an LPV approach, a $750,000 project. The LPV lighting is something every airport in the US will eventually have to have per the FAA. Government money will pay for that update, while from the Airport Improvement Plan will be used to repair ramps and culverts.

"Arkansas State University has informed us they would like to use our airport to land their plane carrying football players home after away games," Coker added. "We will need to work with the FAA to receive the certification required, but we intend to try to comply with the college's request."

Following a meal at the Parachute Inn, which was paid for by an anonymous donor, Mayor House thanked everyone for coming and told them that the city and county must continue to move forward with the airport's plans for the future.

"It takes a lot of vision and people to get things done - and we've got them," House said. "We have to have additional utilities to the property out here to get a lot of things accomplished."

Judge Freeman added, "The airport is the key to economic development for Lawrence County. It can be a large asset to us all."

Rep. Ratliff agreed. "I'm proud to see everyone working together to better this area," he said. "I'm excited about working with everyone."

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