RECENTLY, crammed into a late-night puddle jump from Dallas to Little Rock, we were reminded of what could be considered Arkansas’ greatest, long-forgotten export.
This Arkansas airline—yes, Arkansas airline—helped lay the foundation for the growth of commuter airlines in the United States.
For a chunk of the mid-to-late 20th century, Skyways was Arkansas’ regional little carrier that could, one of the first operations of its kind in the country and a trailblazer in the operation, management and structure of commuter airlines. Founded as Scheduled Skyways in 1953 by Fayetteville Flying Service owner Ray Ellis, the airline made its hay early on by ferrying University of Arkansas officials between campuses in Fayetteville and Little Rock.
According to the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society (AAHS), the first flight of Scheduled Skyways departed Drake Field in Fayetteville and touched down at Little Rock’s Adams Field on Sept. 1, 1953, with Mr. Ellis piloting the Cessna 195.
The route map soon expanded to include Fort Smith and Harrison, then Texas and Missouri. Eventually, it touched eight states. Flying mostly Piper Navajos and Beech 99s, Skyways had a fleet of 14 Metroliners when it was merged with Air Midwest in 1985, according to the AAHS.
By then, Mr. Ellis’ little airline was servicing 22 cities in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Missouri.
Mr. Ellis indeed was a pioneer of Arkansas aviation—he’s considered by AAHS to have been a major influence on the development of airports and the aviation industry in the state. One of the founding board members of the Arkansas Air Museum at Drake, Mr. Ellis was appointed to the Arkansas Aeronautics Commission by Republican Gov. Win Rockefeller and re-appointed by Democrat Gov. Dale Bumpers, serving as commission chair in 1972. Plus, Mr. Ellis served as president of the Fayetteville Chamber and Fayetteville Rotary Club.
His little Sherpa of a commuter carrier delivered sometimes rough-and-tumble rides for those quick daytrippers and others between Adams Field and the Hill, but deliver them it did, safe and sound.
Eventually, it did just that across the mid-South.
Floating softly down into a comfortable early fall night, south Little Rock’s quarries standing out from the cityscape below like pockets of pitch-black void, we couldn’t help but fondly remember one of Arkansas’ greatest exports, the little carrier that could.