Though not inherently unsafe within its perimeter, Conway’s Cantrell Field presents the same safety issues as any airport that’s had a city’s growth envelope it.
There have been three fatal accidents at Cantrell Field since 1990. The last was on Nov. 6, 2012, when a Cessna 210 Turbo Centurion piloted by Robert Allen lost power just after takeoff to the west. An engine failure on takeoff puts the pilot of a single-engine aircraft in one of aviation’s most difficult situations, and they are instructed that the best chance of surviving is to pick their spot for an emergency landing straight ahead if at all possible.
Straight ahead for Allen was the old Conway neighborhood. When his engine failed suddenly at less than 300 feet over the airport’s western threshold, Allen made the split-second decision to do the one thing pilots are cautioned against: turn back. Pilots call it "the impossible turn."
Allen got the big Cessna back onto airport property, but didn’t have enough altitude or airspeed for a controlled landing. He died of his injuries at UAMS that night, but no one on the ground was hurt.
Local pilot and flight instructor Harrell Clendennon said that all pilots do, or should, have a lingering suspicion that their engine is about to fail during the entire takeoff process and constantly plan for it.
It’s not uncommon for Conway’s pilots to talk about which of the few bad options they’d have a seconds to decide on if "the fan quits" after they take off. There’s a small field just north of the International bus plant and a smaller field across the railroad tracks from the St. Joseph Cemetery, and that’s about it as far as open fields go.
Harkrider Street’s an option if the pilot could thread the needle between utility poles and power lines but there’s a good chance of hurting or killing a motorist, and a forced landing almost everywhere else risks the lives of people in their homes or businesses or schools. There’s still a little open land for a pilot taking off to the east, but they would have to get over a subdivision to get there.
Another related safety issue is a that a pilot landing too far along the runway or too fast — or both — faces a similar dilemma: they can either brake and hope to stop or accelerate and hope to get airborne. With homes and businesses at the west end and Interstate 40 on the east end, running off the runway can end in tragedy.
On Sept. 12, 1990, the pilot of a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron landing in heavy rain wasn’t able to stop and tried to get the airplane back in the air. The Beechraft clipped the airport’s perimeter fence and crashed into a house on Bruce Street before catching fire and destroying both the airplane and the house. Co-pilot Kerry Gooch was killed, but the pilot, three passengers, and a woman in the house survived.
An almost identical crash happened in June, 2007, but with a bigger and faster airplane. Just after a rainshower, pilot Hugh Rains landed a Cessna Citation 500 twin-jet and couldn’t get it slowed down, according to a National Transportation Safety Board accident report. Like the Beechcraft pilot 17 years before him, Rains tried to get the jet back in the air, but didn’t have enough runway. The jet hit a house on Ingram Street about 200 feet from the end of the runway with its engines screaming, killing Rains and resident of the home Janet Brady. Again, both the airplane and the house were consumed in the fire.
The NTSB investigatory report of this crash notes that Cantrell Field’s main runway is 4,875 feet long, and that the calculated landing distance for a Citation 500 on a runway with standing water is 4,789 feet.
The new airport in the Lollie Bottoms will not have these problems. A 1,000-foot object-free safety area extends from either end of the runway and the city has easements going out 2,500 feet that prevent any structures from being built in the glide slope. Though the airport can be expected to bring some degree of development to the Lollie Bottoms area, for the foreseeable future pilots taking off and landing in either direction will have nothing on the ground to hit and more than a mile of farmland straight ahead.