BENTONVILLE -- Luke McBride and his family -- his wife and two young children -- were visiting Bentonville Airport/Thaden Field on a recent afternoon during their spring break.
"Obviously the kids love planes," McBride said. "The park right outside is spectacular. Also good food. The whole area is well taken care of."
The McBrides of Springfield, Mo., also were planning to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, had been to some local breweries and were planning to go on a few hikes.
But the airport caught their attention.
Just as Bentonville has grown, its airport -- which sits on 144 acres in the middle of town -- has evolved.
The 22,000-square-foot Thaden Fieldhouse, which opened on the airport's northwest corner in 2018, is a hub of activity. It contains a restaurant, Louise, that offers a prime view of airplanes taking off and landing over adjacent Lake Bentonville. The fieldhouse also is home to a flight school, store, flying club and exhibit hangar. Kids can frolic on the playground just outside.
Next to the fieldhouse is a circular apron where planes can pull up and drop off passengers.
The airport is a combination of pilots and the community coming together, said Brian Baldwin, president of the Airport Advisory Board.
And it has drawn some national attention. "Coolest airport in the country" was the headline for a story Flying magazine published about the airport last year.
Business jets come in several times a day, but most of the traffic is small planes with people learning to fly or traveling with family, according to Chad Cox, executive director of Summit Aviation, the airport's fixed base operator.
"We hope everyone sees this airport as a great destination," Cox said. "More and more people are finding out about how special it is."
'NOT JUST AN AIRPORT'
The airport is unique because of the hard work and dedication of many people, and relationships created between private and public sectors, said Bill Burckart, a City Council member who served on the Airport Advisory Board from 2009 to 2017.
"Our success and uniqueness did not happen by accident," Burckart said. "A long-term plan was developed to create an experience for our citizens and our customers. We wanted to create a destination, not just an airport. Once the goals and plan were in place, all the stakeholders and the city pulled in the same direction, and 'no' was not an option. You have to be intentional in every step you take."
Baldwin, besides being Airport Advisory Board president, is also a pilot who has a hangar at the airport.
City officials had a decision to make after a tornado in 2006 damaged the airport, he said.
Baldwin said Bob McCaslin, the city's mayor from 2007 to 2018, told him there are two kinds of cities: those that have an airport and those that want one.
"Under his leadership, he made it clear we do not want to be one that had one and let it get away from us," Baldwin said.
Officials discussed the airport's role.
"The vision we had was to grab the unique differences and expand on those," Baldwin said.
The No. 1 goal was to make the airport more approachable.
"You have to take that connotation that it's just for pilots and rich people and turn it around to where kids look at this and say, 'I want to be a pilot someday. I want to be a flight attendant someday. I want to work on airplanes someday. I want to be an air-traffic controller someday.'"
The airport is just four miles from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Local trails, restaurants and other amenities are also easily accessed from the airport, Baldwin said.
"This is as close to downtown as you are going to get. So how do we serve that?" Baldwin said.
"Understand we have a lot of airports around us," he said. Springdale, Fayetteville, Rogers, Siloam Springs, the Northwest Arkansas National Airport and "little Bentonville in the middle," he said. "We all have unique aspects to what we do. What we are trying to do is to accentuate and accelerate the unique elements that we have here."
'WE WANT YOU TO LOOK IN'
Dave Powell of Rogers has a hangar and plane at the airport. His wife also has a plane, he said. Powell has been a pilot for 35 years.
"The airport has taken a unique approach in that we are a community airport," he said. "There are no fences. We want you to look in. We want people to come have a hamburger and watch the planes take off. We want to reach out to the community and say this is your airport."
General aviation has not seen much progress in terms of small airports. As the world has changed, many airports have become less inviting, Cox said.
"For starters, we ensured the environment at the airport is inviting and then hire people who understand the mission," he said. "If people want to be at the airport, creating a vibrant flying community becomes an easier task. The amenities, from our retail area, which sells everything from fishing gear to pilot supplies and snacks, helps to make this a natural stop."
Additionally, most of the fixed base staff are building careers in aviation, which provides a level of excitement and youth, he said.
IMPROVEMENTS, ECONOMIC IMPACT
An extension of the lighted asphalt runway by 500 feet to 5,000 feet was completed late last year. The longer runway allows for larger planes to land and take off. Funding came from Blue Crane, the real-estate arm of Runway Group, Griffin said. Runway Group is a holding company headquartered in Bentonville backed by Steuart and Tom Walton.
Current projects include widening the runway by 10 feet to 75 feet. That project contract was just granted and will cost about $3.8 million, funded through federal and state grants, said Debbie Griffin, city director of administration. Griffin also is the airport manager.
The city will develop the west side of the airport for hangars, which will be done in phases.
"We received $400,000 in state grants to provide basic infrastructure for what we are calling the first 'neighborhood' to continue west-side development," Griffin said. "We have received over 15 statements of interest from developers/pilots who would like to build hangars. The first phase will include six hangars. We are targeting to begin the infrastructure improvements this summer and development to begin this fall."
There are over 30 hangars that bring in $40,000 annually in hangar and ground leases, Griffin said.
On a busy day, the airport can see up to 100 planes, but a typical day sees about 60 planes, she said.
More hangar development is needed, Cox said.
"We have created a demand," he said. "You have people saying, 'I have a plane, and I want to move to Bentonville,' or 'I have a plane over here I want to move to Bentonville.'"
Griffin said it is hard to determine the economic impact the airport has on the city. Because the airport doesn't have a tower, officials don't track all landings and takeoffs, but fuel purchases in January 2023, the last month available, totaled 18,835 gallons compared to 15,889 gallons in January 2022.
Summit Aviation sold 319,455 gallons of jet fuel in 2022. The city receives 10 cents for every gallon sold, Griffin said.
"With the work that has been done to make the Bentonville a destination airport, we see people fly in daily for business and pleasure," she said. "We know that with those visits come purchases in lodging, dining and shopping in our community."
The airport makes money from fuel sales, hangar leases and other businesses at the airport like the restaurant in Thaden Fieldhouse and billable hours from the flight school. Summit Aviation also has a maintenance shop that stays busy, Baldwin said.
The airport also has a grass landing strip, a unique feature, and connects to back country recreational aviation through FlyOz, Griffin said.
There is a series of grass landing strips throughout the Ozarks recreational pilots like to fly and Bentonville has become very popular, Griffin said.
The strip is owned by the city and maintained by a nonprofit, Tailwinds, she said.
Game Composites, an airplane manufacturer, is located on the southwest corner of the airport. Game Composites is privately owned and continues to expand, bringing high-quality technical jobs to Bentonville, Griffin said.
"It is kind of cool to know that Bentonville is home to an aircraft manufacturer, and you will often see the planes being built flying above the city with a through-the-fence agreement with the city," Griffin said.
Through-the-fence access agreements allow an aircraft to taxi from adjacent or nearby private property across the airport boundary through an established access point, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Another investment being made in aeronautical studies impacts future careers and workforce in the aviation industry. The Bentonville School District's Ignite program launched its aviation course for high school students this school year. Classes meet at the airport.
The flight school also has a record number of students as the popularity of learning to fly has grown substantially and recreational air activity has increased, Griffin said.
The flight school has been around since 2006. Today, around 10,000 hours per year are instructed. There currently are 121 students spread across private, instrument, commercial and instructor certificates, Cox said.
"We believe that Bentonville is an emerging hub for aviation," Cox said. "From vintage aircraft to cutting-edge technology, Thaden Field is a place for pilots and aviation enthusiasts to gather. I hope we are just scratching the surface of what Thaden can be as an access point for aviation experiences unmatched by its peers."