The airfield we know as Pine Bluff Regional Airport got its start 80 years ago during World War II. How much do you know about Grider Field and its rich military history?
March 22, 1941 is a big day in Pine Bluff aviation history. That’s the day when Pine Bluff School of Aviation, as it was originally known, was opened as a U.S. Army Air Corps detachment during World War II. Named in honor of World War I pilot John McGavock Grider, the airfield encompasses approximately 850 acres located approximately three miles southeast of Pine Bluff off Highway 65 South.
The story of Grider Field begins in 1940, after new regulations adopted by the Civil Aviation Authority had made Pine Bluff’s first airfield, Toney Field, obsolete. With war raging across Europe and Japanese militarism rising in the Pacific, the Army Air Corps planned to arrange contracts with private flying schools to conduct primary flight training for the fledgling Army Air Corps pilots. The new airfield slated for Pine Bluff would serve this purpose.
Construction began in late November with a combination of $200,000 in municipal bond money and a $107,320 grant from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration. In just over four months, a cotton field was prepared for an airfield, along with construction of administrative buildings, hangars, barracks, a mess hall, and a control tower, which allowed the facility to accommodate up to 150 cadets for training. The original training fleet consisted of six Fairchild PT-19 single prop, two-seated aircraft.
On March 22, 1941, under control of the United States Army Air Corps, Grider Field received its first class of fifty cadets scheduled for ten weeks of flight instruction. The training school at the airfield increased its fleet to 275 aircraft, admitted around 12,000 pilot trainees, and graduated approximately 9,000 pilots during its three-and-a-half years of operation. At one time, 275 aircraft were being used to train 758 prospective pilots.
After the end of World War II, the airfield was returned to the City of Pine Bluff by the Civilian Aeronautics Authority in 1947. The city operated the airfield until 1957, when the Pine Bluff Aviation Commission was established to manage and maintain the airfield as a general aviation airport for southeast Arkansas. Today, Grider Field is home to a terminal, restaurant, a growing aviation museum, a Federal Aviation Administration weather monitoring station, private corporate jet hangars, and T-hangars. Corporate users of the airport include Tyson Foods, Jefferson Regional Medical Facility, Evergreen Packaging, the Pine Bluff Arsenal, the Arkansas Department of Correction, and the Union Pacific Railroad.
How much of the original facility can still be seen? As of 2020, three of the four original round-topped hangers still stand. Only one of the aviation school’s original barracks remains. It is being restored to its World War II-era condition using historic records, oral history, and authentic materials. When restoration is complete, the structure will become a museum that will house a growing collection of aviation artifacts and memorabilia.
A highlight of Pine Bluff Regional Airport’s annual calendar is “Operation Skyhook,” a fly-in sponsored by Black Pilots of America, Inc. Every Memorial Day weekend, member chapters arrive for a few days of fun, aviation camaraderie, and flying competition. Most of the participants own their aircraft and take great pride in showing off their most prized possessions. Generous BPA, Inc. members volunteer to give airplane rides – “Young Eagle flights” – to hundreds of enthusiastic kids from the surrounding area. The Black Pilots of America cancelled Operation Skyhook for years 2020 and 2021. We are very hopeful that they will resume their normal activities in 2022.
The local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association has hosted a formation flying clinic annually at Grider Field for approximately five years. Aviators from all over the U.S. come in to learn how to fly formation with other aircraft.
Sources: EncyclopediaofArkansas.net, PBF-Airport.com