By Tracy Overstreet
Grand Island’s Central Nebraska Regional Airport will celebrate its 75th anniversary Saturday.
It has trained bombers that ended wars, had a notorious hijacking reputation and is on a record-setting pace for modern passenger traffic.
“It’s been a huge part of the history of Grand Island,” said airport Executive Director Mike Olson.
The airport started in 1937 and was formally dedicated in ceremonies on Sept. 27 that year. It was named Arrasmith Field, after prominent Grand Island doctor W.W. Arrasmith, who was serving as the chairman of the chamber of commerce’s aviation committee.
“More than 5,000 people, about 25 percent of Grand Island, turned out for the dedication,” Olson said. “Schools closed for the event.”
Arrasmith had worked to secure funding from the Department of Commerce, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the city to turn a formerly privately owned grass airstrip into an airfield featuring four 4,000-foot concrete runways.
The progress was great for Grand Island, but soon great for the country as well, as the U.S. Army took over the airfield in 1941 and it became the Grand Island Army Air Base.
More than 170 new buildings were added as the airfield expanded to become the training ground for B-29 crew.
“Eleven hundred troops trained here,” Olson said, “including the 6th Bomb Group.”
The B-29 crews who trained in Grand Island went on to serve in the Pacific and European theatres. Some were part of the Manhattan Project and went on to Tinian Island on missions to drop atom bombs over Japan.
“Regardless of whether you think the atomic bomb was good or bad, it ended the war and saved a half-million troops that would have been needed to invade mainland Japan,” Olson said.
One of the 6th Bomb Group members, Army tail gunner Richard Sidders, will be on hand from California for a special dedication of a plaque the bomb group is presenting to the airport at 10 a.m. Saturday.
The airbase was returned to the city in 1948 and later the Hall County Airport Authority was formed to oversee the airport operations as commercial use grew.
By the 1970s, air traffic had peaked at 50,000 passengers a year.
In 1977, the Grand Island airport hit notoriety by topping the list of hijackings. There were two successful hijackings that year, Olson said. A man with a shotgun stormed the cockpit of a Frontier 737 and rerouted that plane to Atlanta, where he was captured. A small single-engine plane was also hijacked to Denver, where the hijacker was shot and killed.
Boardings began to decline through the 1980s and 1990s, but that began to change after the airport underwent a complete airside rebuild of all the ramps, taxiways and runways.
“We had $24 million of capital improvements from 2000 to 2006,” Olson said. “We have one of the finest airfields in the country.”
The airport authority board then focused on marketing and successfully attracted Allegiant Airlines to offer flights to Las Vegas and then Phoenix/Mesa. The Las Vegas flights are 92 percent full on average, while the Phoenix flights have been 94 percent full.
American Eagle was then added as an Essential Air Service carrier to Dallas/Fort Worth and has been running 80 percent full.
Anything above a 75 percent load factor is good news, so the airlines have all been extremely pleased, Olson said.
Boardings are expected to reach a new record high of more than 50,000 at the end of this year.
Perhaps the airport’s greatest transition is yet to come, he said, as plans are under way for a new terminal (the original terminal was built in 1954) and a jet bridge to keep passengers covered from the elements as they walk from the terminal to the plane. A new terminal for fixed-based operator Trego-Dugan is also planned, along with the extension of the main runway to 8,000 feet, which could expand the destination offerings at the airport.
“We’re celebrating 75 years of the airport growing up,” Olson said. “The transformation over the next four to 10 years is going to be neat.”
If you go
What: 75th anniversary celebration of the Central Nebraska Regional Airport.
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8
Where: Central Nebraska Regional Airport, 3773 Sky Park Road.
Activities: Paid flights on an A26-B World War II attack bomber, “Lady Liberty,” pancake feed 7 to 9 a.m.; Grand Island Senior High ROTC hot dog feed 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; static aircraft display; kids games and inflatable jumpers; free admission, unveiling of the 6th Bomb Group plaque at 10 a.m. at Arrasmith Park.