February 4, 2015 Edition

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Walnut Ridge Regional Airport was recently informed that it will be allowed to renew its military fuel contract. The contract application was rejected at first due to insufficient military fuel sales. The airport was allowed to retain its contract due to it serving as an emergency staging area. It has been serving as a military fuel vendor for 12 years.

Airport moves forward with FEMA

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

After months of working toward getting its military fuel contract renewed in spite of insufficient sales, Walnut Ridge Regional Airport was approved to continue its contract by the Defense Logistics Agency on Jan. 20.

This was largely in part to the airport's work with organizations such as the federal and state emergency management agencies to set up a state staging area for use in natural disasters and other emergencies.

In June of 2014, the airport entered a memorandum of understanding to promote coordination between it and the Air Coordination Group, which integrates local, state, federal and commercial aviation assets, to work together in response to emergencies and disasters.

There are many possible threats that could cause a declaration of emergency, but by in far the largest hazard threatening Arkansas is a catastrophic earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

According to Airport Manager Michelle Anthony, some of the major reasons why Walnut Ridge was selected for this staging area was because of location outside the seismic zone, the size of the facility and that it held a military contract.

Jerry Chism, Director of the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics, included this statement in a letter to the DLA asking to reconsider its decision on the contract about a week before it was renewed: "One of the most critical features considered is the availability of a viable fuel source, particularly for military aircraft. I can say without hesitation that the loss of this fuel contract will undoubtedly remove the best available airport from consideration and will likely hinder the recovery effort to save lives and property."

In addition to aiding in emergency situations, the fuel contract also brought in revenue that helps the airport stay self sufficient and brings in many soldiers to the airport, which has a long history of serving the military.

The airport was built in 1942 as a military training base and has been a military fuel vendor for about 12 years.

"That's our history," Anthony said. "I couldn't imagine the military not stopping here."

Military bases at Fort Campbell and Fort Knox both sent letters to the DLA in petition for the airport to retain its contract. Captain James A. Bukovec with the Godman Army Airfield at Fort Knox wrote: "I personally have never seen in my over 15 years in aviation an airport that is as patriotic as Walnut Ridge. They are truly dedicated to serving military members."

Anthony said that U.S. Sen. John Boozman's office was vital in retaining the contract.

"This airport has an important role as a disaster relief staging area and its ability to function in this capacity without a DLA fuel contract would put emergency preparedness in jeopardy," Boozman stated in a press release.

Anthony said Boozman and his staff fought very hard for the airport and cannot be thanked enough.

Through these and many other petitions, the DLA resolved to reverse its decision.

Anthony said after finding out about the new required fuel sales, she wasn't sure what to do. However, when she found out that exceptions could be made, she began making calls and sending letters immediately.

"When I knew there was some hope, I just couldn't give up," Anthony said.

Airport Commission Chair Don Cavenaugh said both Anthony and former chair Dan Coker worked hard to reach people and without them, the contract wouldn't have gotten renewed. "We really need to thank both of them and Sen. Boozman. It was through their combined effort that we were able to keep this contract," he said.

Over the next five years, Anthony and Airport Commissioner Lloyd Clark will make contact with several military camps that could utilize the airport in efforts to increase fuel sales. "We need to make sure they are aware of the capabilities we have here," Clark said.

With the military contract in hand, the airport is moving forward in it's efforts to be set up as an emergency staging area.

An Arkansas Resource Distribution Rehearsal of Concept (ROC) Drill is slated on March 25-26 in Jacksonville and will help prepare airport management, elected officials and Air Coordination Group members for future emergencies.

Walnut Ridge will ultimately be set up to where it can aid in emergency situations effecting Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, according to Anthony. A major earthquake is the biggest concern but the airport could provide aid in a variety of different ways for many types of disasters.

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