In November 1940, construction of the Pine Bluff School of Aviation began utilizing $200,000 in municipal bond money and a $107,320 grant from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). Earlier that year, as World War II raged in Europe, the Civil Aviation Authority adopted stricter regulations to allow airfields to accommodate larger and faster aircraft. Consequently, Pine Bluff’s first airfield, Toney Field, became obsolete.
Pine Bluff community leader, pilot, and member of the National Aeronautical Association, Felix G. Smart, knew that Army Air Corps commander Major General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold was attempting to arrange contracts with private flying schools to conduct primary flight training for novice Army Air Corps pilots.
Smart contacted Arnold’s headquarters, ensuring the Army Air Corps awareness of the planned airfield. In December, commanding officer of the Army Air Corps training facility at Randolph Field, Texas, Brigadier General Gerald C. Brant, arrived in Jefferson County with his staff to inspect the site for a new training facility. He gave his approval.
A cotton field was leveled, surveyed, and sodded to make way for the airfield to include administrative buildings, hangars, barracks, a mess hall, and a control tower. Eventually, there were 14 buildings on a 15-acre tract where up to 150 cadets could be housed and trained. Six Fairchild PT-19 (single propeller, two-seater aircraft) were flown from Hagerstown, Maryland, for the beginning flight training.
The airfield was posthumously renamed to honor World War I pilot John McGavock Grider of Osceola. On March 22, 1941, Grider Field received its first class of 50 cadets scheduled for 10 weeks of flight instruction. On May 24, 1941, the field was formally dedicated. Over the next three-and-a-half years of operation, the training school at the airfield increased its fleet to 275 aircraft, admitted about 12,000 pilot trainees, and graduated approximately 9,000 pilots.
In 1947, the airfield was returned to the City of Pine Bluff by the Civilian Aeronautics Authority (CAA). The city maintained the airfield until 1957. Soon after, the Pine Bluff Aviation Commission was established to manage and maintain the airfield as a general aviation airport for southeast Arkansas.
Today, four of the five original round-topped hangers and one of the original barracks for pilot trainees still stand. Grider Field is an 850-acre airport facility located nearly six miles southeast of Pine Bluff, off Highway 65 South and north of U.S. Highway 425. It has a small terminal, restaurant, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) weather monitoring station, private corporate jet hangars, fire station, aircraft rental hangars, a flight museum, and a host of on-site operators offering fuel and avionics services for southeast Arkansas.
It is operated by a full-time, on-site airport manager and a six-member volunteer commission. Corporations like Tyson Foods, Jefferson Regional Medical Center, Evergreen Packaging, Walmart, Tractor Supply, Brookshire’s, the Pine Bluff Arsenal, the Arkansas Department of Corrections, University of Arkansas, and the Union Pacific Railroad all utilize the airport. The Federal Aviation Association has also trained pilots at the airport. As a department of the City of Pine Bluff, airport funding is derived from fuel sales, user leases, and general appropriations from the city.