Aviation came to Hot Springs in 1911 when residents first received air mail. In 1924, Hot Springs Airport Co. built a landing strip south of the city to take passengers on trips over scenic areas of the county.
The Chamber of Commerce, encouraged by the public response, established a landing field (called Marsh Field, then Chamber of Commerce Airfield) on what is now Airport Road. Locals often called the airport Stover Field after John Stover, its first full-time manager. Hunter Airways of Little Rock flew between Little Rock and Hot Springs starting in 1931, and Stover organized a charter and ambulance service as well as a civilian pilot training school.
The increasing number of patients needing to be flown to the Army and Navy General Hospital during World War II spurred the push for a larger facility. With a successful bond issue and government funding, the city purchased 600 acres at the same site at 525 Airport Road, and paved runways replaced grass strips, metal hangars and concrete buildings arose. But what to name our new airport?
The city council voted to name it in honor of Mayor Leo McLaughlin, who had ruled city and county politics since 1927. Many citizens were outraged that the airport had been named for McLaughlin, who had tried to evade military service in World War I. Over 5,000 people signed a petition to rename the airport. They were unsuccessful, but their effort was the first widespread, public resistance to the "McLaughlin Machine" and laid the groundwork for the G.I. revolt that drove McLaughlin from office in 1947. At the first meeting of the city council after McLaughlin’s ouster, the airport was renamed Hot Springs Memorial Field in honor of Garland County’s war dead.
In 1947, Hot Springs Airways was the first scheduled air service. Throughout the 1950s, Delta, Trans-Texas, and Central Airlines began service into Hot Springs. In 1955, the field’s runways were extended and lighting was added, and in 1958 a control tower was built. Jet passenger service began in the mid-1960s. The peak in passenger boardings and arrivals occurred in 1969 with 63,202 travelers passing through the airport. Although commercial air service declined after the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, general aviation expanded as a few large companies built corporate hangars for their aircraft.
Modern times have seen the rise of privately-owned aircraft, and today the airport, which has a 6,595-by-150-foot runway and a 4,099-by-100-foot runway, has 95 hangers of various types and is home to 112 based aircraft and many transient aircraft, an avionics shop, two air ambulance charter services, expanded ramp parking, transient hangar space, a full-service fixed base operation, and many general aviation repair stations.
Passengers boarding Southern Airways Express planes to Dallas/Fort Worth or Memphis can see the adjacent Hot Springs Office and Technology Park, an 87-acre site with 38,000 square feet of building space, at the south end of the airport.
The 840-acre airport, led by Director Glen Barentine, averages $1 million annually in improvement projects, and the total economic benefit to the community of the airport has been estimated by the state of Arkansas at $52.65 million annually. The airport hosts many community events, and as part of the airport’s 75th anniversary celebration, Bombers and BBQ, which will run May 27-28, Hot Springs Memorial Field will host this year’s annual Memorial Day weekend fireworks display at 9 p.m. on May 28.
In 1909, patrons at the Arkansas State Fair at Oaklawn Park marveled at the first recorded airplane flight over Hot Springs. They would surely be astonished if they could see the modern airport that the city boasts today.
For more information, the Garland County Historical Society may be contacted by email at [email protected], phone at 501-321-2159, or at garlandcountyhistoricalsociety.com.