The Manila Airport has come a long way from two sod runways to the 4,200 feet of paved runway, modern buildings, and state of the art hangars, increasing the number of services and improved facilities. Many pilots, then and now, have received their training at this site.
Nelson Benson, president of the Manila's Pilot's Association, could be called a historian on the Manila Airport. Before World War II, the land was privately owned. New Hope School was also located on the property. The land was purchased by the government to provide an auxiliary training base. His early childhood memories include watching the airplanes at Manila. The field was a part of the Blytheville Air Force Base pilot training program. The Benson home was near the northeast corner of the airport grounds where aircraft were pulled in and parked. Benson enjoyed watching the airplanes come and go and knew that someday he wanted to be a pilot.
"The pilots would come to our house to get a drink of water from our pump and many times they would take me over and let me sit in the airplanes. Through the years I have often wondered about the pilots I met and wondered if they made it home," Benson said.
World War II ended and the section of land (640 acres) was transferred to the city of Manila with stipulations. By law, airport income can only be spent for maintenance and improvements of the airport facility. Today approximately 500 acres is rented out for farming and the revenue from the crops help support airport maintenance and improvements.
Originally, veterans had priority to rent the land but many farmers have farmed it over the years.
One of the early airport managers was Johnny Fairchild.
"Fairchild did all he could for the airport with the funding available. He was dedicated to the airport and taught a lot of people how to fly," Benson recalls.
Over the last six years the Manila Airport has received several grants and used the money to improve the facilities and services.
"We have one of the best airports of any town our size," Benson said.
Benson praised the Manila Pilots Association members for the work they do.
The Manila Pilots Association was formed in 1996.
"The MPA works with the city on projects, grants, and general upkeep at the airport. Greg Smith does a good job mowing and taking care of the airport, community center, ball park grounds, and airport building," Benson said.
With grant money, the runway was extended to accommodate larger aircraft. A return taxiway will be completed in the near future. A credit card fuel system has been installed which has proven to be very convenient for pilots. There is also a fixed base operator (FBO-aircraft mechanic) located at the airport. New hangars have been constructed.
Another completed project is the installation of two fire hydrants by the city. This offers better fire protection for the airport center, hangars, aircrafts, and buildings. This project was done through state grant funding.
"We have spent approximately $1 million on airfield improvements at a cost to the city of about $150,000 over the last six years. The balance was paid by grants," Woody Townsend, airport project coordinator, said.
Townsend said a grant application is pending that could fund road paving as well as provide additional paved parking area that will serve both the terminal, airport center and the maintenance hangar.
Steve Bright, a member of the MPA, has coordinated a calibration workshop for area agriculture pilots four out of the last five years. Manila Airport was one of four statewide locations holding the workshop.
"When airplanes are housed at the Manila hangars, a portion of the personal property tax the owners pay goes to the Manila School system. The airport helps the community in many ways," Benson said.
Members of the MPA are from Manila, Kennett, Monette, Leachville, Black Oak, and former area residents now living in Mississippi and near St. Louis, Mo. There are 26 members in the MPA.
The Manila Pilots Association will soon sponsor their sixth annual air show. The event is set for Saturday, Aug. 31.
The success of the air show each year is the joint effort of the MPA, the city, and the sponsors.
"We have good sponsors that support us each year. I'm president of the MPA but the members make my job very easy," Benson said.
Greg Smith does an outstanding job booking excellent performers as performer chairman. Melinda Smith serves as VIP chairman. David Wildy will be Air ride chairman. Several local pilots volunteer to fly airplane rides that people of all ages enjoy. Perry Cude takes care of the advertising. Woody Townsend just completed building a barrel train that will be part in the ground activities. Jimmy White, airshow chairman, is also the food sales chairman. Ray Benson is the announcer chairman, and vehicle parking director. Earl Smith is the aircraft display/greeter chairman. Benson is miscellaneous/ticket sales.
"All of the members work together and do their part," Benson said.
Performances scheduled include Skip Stewart flying his Pitts Special Aerobic plane; The Swift Magic Team doing formation aerobics; Johnny Smith flying his High G Ultra Light Aerobatic plane; Greg Byrd flying a German Built Extra 300; the Arkansas Central Parachute Team; Butler Smith with his Show Cat and Todd Green doing his wing walk routine and Clint Allen in his Citabria. Jimmy Franklin and his Jet Waco will bring his crowd pleasing act to Manila. Franklin has been flying airshows for over 30 years. He is one of the known for his spine tingling flying and showmanship. At the age of 12 he soloed himself while home alone and by the time he was 19, he was performing airshows in this 1940 Waco bi-plane. He has performed in Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Australia. Franklin's talent can also be seen in countless movies and television shows such as "Terminal Velocity," "Rocketer," "Three Amigos" and "World's Most Amazing Videos." He has received many awards as an airshow professional.
The Magic Team originated in 1991 when Lowell Sterchi - Magic One (Chattanooga, Tenn.), Dewayne Upton - Magic Two (Jackson, Miss.) and Michael Kennedy - Magic Three (Lebanon, Tenn.) combined their 30 plus years of airshow experience to create an all-new formation aerobatic act. They chose the fabulous Globe Swift for their aircraft and are the only team in the world performing in this super bird. The Swift is an All-American classical designed by the same engineers that produced famous WWII fighters such as the P-40 Warhawk. The team's sky filling, high-speed formation aerobatics display precision formation flying at its best.
The air show is a great opportunity to let people visit the airport.
"The air show is not a money making project. We want to advertise the airport, attract industry, and provide an affordable outing for the entire family," Townsend said.