Aviation has a rich and strong history in Conway. When World War II began, the Defense Department called for the training of 7,000 pilots and in 1940 the Civil Pilot Training Program (CPT) was established. The four men shown in this picture were instrumental in getting a CPT program located in Conway that operated during the war.
During World War I, sixteen-year-old William M. Berry enlisted with the Army Air Force Wing, headquartered at Eberts Field in Lonoke, Arkansas. He traveled all the way to Lonoke before being discovered and told he was too young to enlist. Too embarrassed to return home, he headed to El Dorado to work in the oil fields. There he met Buck Carter, the private pilot of Col. T.H. Barton, for whom Barton Coliseum was named.
Buck Carter was also a flight instructor and he soloed Berry in 1924. When Berry returned to Conway in 1928, he taught his friend, Lt. S. Theodore Smith, how to fly. Smith had served in France during World War I. The two men subsequently partnered to acquire a small American Eagle, a bi-plane manufactured in Little Rock.
Berry and Smith soon began working toward a common dream—establishing an airport in Conway. That dream was realized in June 1928 when the city bought land from T.M. Ingram for a small airport to be located on the southeastern corner of the city. It would be one of the first in the state.
In the early 1930s, Greenbrier native Dennis Cantrell worked his way through college repairing cars for his neighbors and friends. After graduating Arkansas State Normal School, he played professional baseball for two years. He was also interested in flying and in 1933, Berry soloed him in a Command-Aire which he had flown to Conway for Cantrell to repair. Cantrell and his brother, Thomas, bought their first plane, a small J-2 Piper Cub, in 1936.
During the Depression, these men followed diverse employment paths. Smith became a city official, serving in various capacities. Berry worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps before joining the Commerce Department's Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) as State, then Regional, Director in Fort Worth, Texas. Cantrell worked with the Soil Conservation Service in Conway as Chief Supervisor of Maintenance for their fleet of cars and trucks. He was later transferred to a Texas office as a regional supervisor.
When Berry heard about the new CPT program that the Defense Department had created in 1940, he saw an opportunity for Conway and ASTC. He passed the information on to Smith who helped convince ASTC to implement the program and offer the ground school part of the program.
Cantrell, contacted by Smith, then got involved. He convinced his alma mater to offer Meteorology, Navigation, Civil Air Regulations, Aerodynamics and other needed aviation courses in its ground school. It was at this time that Smith promised that when the training program ended, Cantrell would become the lessee of the Conway airport which would become an authorized station for the repair and upkeep of private planes.
The school also needed at least four flyable planes. Kenneth Starnes of Little Rock then entered the picture. He owned aircraft that he used for crop dusting as well as in barnstorming tours all over the south. He agreed to become the administrator for the school and moved his equipment to Conway. The city became the first in Arkansas to participate in the CPT program. The school would eventually operate 33 Navy Type N3Ns and about 12 smaller trainers with 22 full-time flight instructors.
In addition to the CPT Program, other training programs set up in Conway during the war were the War Training Service (WTS) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). There was also the Navy’s Pre-Flight Program which operated from 1942 to 1946 for Navy cadets only.
After the war, Starnes returned to Little Rock and established Kenneth Starnes Aviation Service. He also became the Cessna Aircraft Company’s statewide distributor. Starnes made his home in Conway for several years before his death in 1982.
Cantrell began operating the Conway Municipal Airport, eventually named Cantrell Field in his honor. By the 1980s, 30 private aircraft were based at Cantrell Field. There was also an Agricultural Flying Service operated by Don Aukes who had been serving Faulkner County farmers since the 1950s. Cantrell passed away in 2002.
Berry eventually returned to Stuttgart after working for the Federal Aviation Administration. He leased and managed the Stuttgart Airport for a time and the airport’s administration building bears his name. Smith served in many civic projects in Conway and Faulkner County. Both passed away in the mid-1970s.