New airport bears Cantrell name

by Sonja J. Keith

While the city of Conway boasts a new airport, it bears a familiar name and honors a family long associated with aviation. The legacy of Dennis Cantrell and his family will live on as Conway begins a new chapter in its aviation history.

At the Sept. 5 dedication ceremony for the new airport, Mayor Tab Townsell read a proclamation transferring the name Dennis F. Cantrell Field from the airport located in the central area of the city to the new facility at 3240 Sand Gap Road in West Conway along the Arkansas River.

Cantrell’s involvement with the city airport dates to the early 1930s. From 1946 until he retired in 1986, he was the general manager of the municipal airport. In September 1978, the name Conway Municipal Airport was changed to Cantrell Field in honor of Cantrell.

“Mr. Cantrell through unflagging efforts not only maintained Conway’s Municipal Airport but grew and modernized the airport from a single sodded runway to a modern airport with two lighted, hard surface runways serviced by modern radio navigational equipment and hangar facilities,” Townsell read from the proclamation, which also cited the city’s “all due thankfulness for his accomplishments toward the advancement of aviation in Conway and for advancing the city itself along with those achievements and in honored recognition of the long transformational years he served Conway piloting a developing industry in a developing city.”

The mayor, citing the full support of the city council, added, “That even as the Conway Municipal Airport has relocated, its official name has relocated as well. The new airport will be hereafter known as the Dennis F. Cantrell Field.

“Mr. Cantrell, even though you have long gone on to ‘Touch the face of God’ as the poet described in ‘High Flight,’ let those peoples here today bear witness to this new, proud facility and let them know that you were right all along. That this new airport, this new Dennis F. Cantrell Field, is indeed the face of Conway to much of the business and corporate community and it is a major component of our collective face forward to future prosperity. Mr. Cantrell, today we all say aviation is economic development.”

Dennis and Marjory Cantrell’s daughter, Pat Cantrell Otto, and their grandsons, pilots William and Bryant, were on hand for the airport dedication and were presented with a copy of the proclamation.

“My grandfather was all about aviation,” William told those in attendance. “This is a world class facility and we thank you for naming it for our grandfather.”

Pat and her sons have spent a lot of time at the old airport and have many memories. “There’s no way I can live long enough to outlive the number of days I’ve spent at the airport,” Pat said. “I know my mom and dad are flying high and proud of Conway.”

Growing up, Pat recalls being at the airport seven days a week with her parents who operated the airport. “It was a team of the three of us and then the six of us,” she said, referring to her late husband Bill and their two children. “I don’t remember not being there.”

William and Bryant remember if they weren’t at school, they were at the airport. “It’s where we grew up,” William said. “We went there every day after school.”

“We have a lot of memories growing up at the airport,” Bryant said.

Both recall that it’s at the old airport where they learned to ride bikes, drive and fly. William’s first documented flying lesson was at age 7. Their first solo flight was from Cantrell Field.

Pat, her parents, her husband and both children were all pilots. Today, her sons fly as part of their work.

While they are sad to lose the old airport for sentimental reasons, they are impressed with the new airport. “Where we grew up will no longer be the airport,” William said. “It will be difficult to see a shopping center in that spot,” Bryant added.

When the city named the airport for Dennis Cantrell years ago, it was a humbling experience for the man and his family, who had put so much into promoting aviation and Conway. Today, his family still considers it a major honor and they too are moved that city officials chose to transfer the name to the new facility.

“We’re very appreciative that the city would recognize his service,” William said. “He took great pride in that name.”

On the day that the new airport opened, Bryant and his mom were up early to be the first to land at the new facility. Pat hopes to also be the last to take off from the old airport, marking the end of a special chapter for her family. “One of us will try to be the last airplane to leave,” William said.

“That would be our wish,” Pat said. “It’s so nice we had a long ride.”