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Land of OZ

Exploring the secret joys of Bentonville and beyond

“Fun, simple, and safe.”

Jordyn Haught, the director of OZ1 Flying Club at Bentonville Municipal/Louise M. Thaden Field (VBT) in Arkansas, is explaining the impressive success of her 272-member club. Her eyes are sparkling with a secret she’s dying to reveal, but she wants me to discover it for myself. The same sparkle is pervasive around Summit Aviation, the entity at Thaden Field that runs an FBO with a trendy restaurant, a flight school, OZ1 Flying Club, and Fly Oz, a network of backcountry strips. The people at Summit are on to something spectacular and they know it.

Bentonville's Secret

An Ozarks sunrise. Smooth air  and clear skies make for easy formation flying with Chip Gibbons’ Maule. Photography by Mike Fizer.

I’d heard buzz about the Bentonville aviation scene and decided to fly my Piper Super Cub out and spend a few days exploring. I taxied tentatively up to a Frank Lloyd Wright-looking FBO with a roundabout aircraft apron in front. Surrounded by more expensive and impressive pistons, turboprops, and jets, I taxied clockwise and stopped in front, under a “no fees, just great service” sign. Line workers responded like in movie clips I’ve seen of full-service gas stations in the 1950s, hustling up to my airplane, inquiring about the service I needed, and even dropping a red carpet by my door for me to step out on. Over the course of a few days, I would watch numerous aircraft of all types arrive to the same welcoming greeting.

Summit Aviation is structured to get people flying and move them along to their aviation goals. Learn in the flight school, move over to the flying club to upgrade skills and enjoy your certificate, and explore backcountry flying in the resplendent Ozark hills with Fly Oz. Chad Cox, a millennial with a deceptively casual carriage, is the boss at Summit. More of a player/coach, he’s an active helicopter instructor with multiple fixed-wing ratings. He eschews the typical power gestures, preferring to be in the action alongside his team. He brings a fun energy that permeates Summit. This combination of young leadership—like Cox, Haught, Caio Campos, who runs the flight school, and Will Gunselman, the FBO manager—directing the skills of older experts is powerful for Summit. The entire experience across each of the entities is fresh, upbeat, and deep in expertise.

The flight school is staffed by a dozen CFIs paid a base salary, with benefits, to instruct a minimum of 850 hours a year. They’re bonused for each hour above the minimum. CFIs and students congregate in a large, open work space overlooking the flight line that hums with energy. Summit has dozens of CFI applicants awaiting an open position. It’s hard to imagine a better place or a more enjoyable setting for an instructor. Last year the flight school booked over 10,000 instructional hours, some 8,500 of them in the air.

Thanks to scheduling software with a custom curriculum developed by Chip Gibbons of the Fly Oz airfield network, students and instructors show up prepared, with a shared understanding of the student’s performance to date and the focus of the next flight. A large electronic status board, projected conspicuously on a side wall of the instructor corral compares the flight school’s minimum weather requirements to current conditions and displays a green circle or red stop sign for each type of flight activity. It reminds me of the way we managed flight operations in the U.S. Air Force, only this is more modern and the information displayed is automated in real time. At a glance students and instructors can see what events are approved based on a set of conditions pre-established by Campos and Summit leaders.

The flight school is a main feed to Haught’s OZ1 Flying Club. Based on the type of membership and the number of airplanes they want to access, members pay $1,500 to $3,000 registration, $150 to $300 a month, and then rent airplanes by the hour. The club’s fleet of seven airplanes includes Cirrus SR22s, Cessna 182s, and a 180-horsepower Piper Super Cub on 32-inch bushwheels. Club members can also check out a shotgun to bring along to a remote strip for hunting or skeet shooting if that’s their thing.

OZ1 Flying Club’s safety record is good, not perfect. They mandate checkouts in each airplane and they’re serious about proficiency and responsible behavior. They’re such a pleasant group, laser-focused on the customer experience, so I inquire about how they handle members who don’t adhere to standards. “We transition them out,” Haught explains matter-of-factly. “It’s unpleasant and thankfully rare, but we can’t allow those people to damage what we’re building here.”

Not all members are local; a dozen remote members travel to Bentonville periodically from as far away as California and New York. In the open club lounge walled floor to ceiling with windows overlooking VBT’s grass and pavement runways, I run into two people, one lounging, watching airplanes, another a local business manager using the capacious lounge as a remote office. Neither are pilots. They just like airplanes and the excitement around the airport. OZ1 has 60 “social” members and growing.

Haught’s biggest challenge is growth—keeping apace of her growing membership with airplanes and resources to protect the member experience. The simple, safe, fun mantra seems catchy enough, but in practicality it’s a difficult recipe to manage. Safety dictates work and rules that can stifle both simplicity and fun. Can she continue to scale OZ1 Flying Club to maintain the right balance among those principles? Her passion and fidgeting excitement seem something of a spoiler alert that she’ll do it.

Fly OZ!

My hosts for the week are friend and colleague Steve Johnson, founder and owner of SuperCub.org, and Chip Gibbons, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist. Both share extensive IT skills and a passion for backcountry flying. Johnson discovered the secret Fly Oz early and relocated to Bentonville to be part of it. Gibbons founded and sold an IT business and seeded Tailwind Aviation Foundation, which supports local aviation initiatives. Together with their IT skills, Johnson’s extensive industry relationships, and Gibbons’ local knowledge and reputation, they’re building out Fly Oz, a network of 64 backcountry airfields in the Ozarks.

VBT is full of delightful surprises, among them the number of, and the stunning countryside around, the airfields in Fly Oz’s network. We launched as a flight of three Super Cubs on a blustery morning with winds gusting over 18 knots. Johnson led and I slid up loosely as number two, following along in ForeFlight with the FLYOZ waypoint filter depicting network airfields, most of them privately owned. Lucas Nunley, OZ1 Flying Club’s chief pilot, joined as number three. Just 5 miles from Bentonville we warmed up at Sugar Creek Airport (58AR), a 3,200-foot-long field on a gorgeous meadow along clear-running Sugar Creek. We circled around a small ridge and, not unexpectedly, I lost sight of Johnson while dropping below two small peaks as I gave him room to land. It’s not unusual to lose sight of others in the group when around terrain as you provide time for the aircraft ahead to make the landing and get off the runway. It’s incredible that this is a mere five miles from Bentonville! I dropped lift flaps and slowed to 50 mph, anticipating a quick 90-degree right turn to a short final. We rounded a small peak to a very short final. I slipped with full flaps and dropped to a tailwheel-low wheel landing, braking on the mains, tailwheel in the air, and then pulled off by Johnson, who was laughing, thumbs up, at my surprise, my undiluted joy.

It was thrilling to use my Super Cub for exactly why I bought it: using demanding flying skills to explore amazing places.Next, we bounced our way to Banks Ranch (62A), a grouping of four small airfields nestled in the Arkansas lake country, to take “a look.” Johnson wasn’t convinced, based on the winds and the turbulence, that we’d be able to land. We started with the easier of the runways, based on the wind: an 1,100-foot-long strip with a dropoff at the end. We approached from the south, which Johnson hadn’t done before. Go-around was an option, so we decided to fly to a low approach and land if we were under control and it felt right. Again, I dropped down amid the lush Ozark landscape and lost Johnson and the strip. I slowed, configured, and pointed in the direction Johnson was headed. I saw a clearing that looked right, and, working large control inputs through gusty crosswinds, bent around a tree on short final, dropped in, and stopped several hundred feet before the dropoff, exhilarated.

Our second strip at Banks proved more challenging: a 1,500-foot-long, 50-foot-wide strip with a dogleg 700 feet down. We flew overhead, and descended amid moderate turbulence in a left turn, dropping deep into a valley, following a river up to the airfield. It took some discipline to focus on my approach and not the spectacular surrounding scenery. Once again, trying to make sure I had spacing to land, I lost Nunley, who’d moved in front of me to lead the way. I kept following the river, spotted the airfield, flew down to the flare, just above landing speed, continued through the dogleg a few feet off the ground then chopped power and landed as the strip straightened. I was thankful for all of those “drift” exercises I’d practiced and taught, flying in a similar position, moving side to side on larger runways to practice low, slow control. It was thrilling to use my Super Cub for exactly why I bought it: using demanding flying skills to explore amazing places.

Our final stop for the morning was Trigger Gap Airport (17A), Fly Oz’s flagship airfield. Its 3,000-foot-long runway is routinely accessed by Beechcraft Bonanzas and Cirruses. The only challenges are it’s on a bluff, and winds can get tricky. On our approach, the wind sock was almost straight at nearly a direct crosswind. It took full aileron deflection at times to keep the PA–18’s upwind wing down and rudder to align the fuselage with the runway. I was relieved to taxi to a stop. We shut down and paused to take in the views in all directions. Trigger Gap exposes a beautiful view of the Ozarks. Fly Oz has set up picnic tables and campsites that make it a pleasant picnicking spot for visitors.

We endured a bumpy 30-minute flight back to Bentonville and debriefed in Louise, the airport café named after Louise Thaden, a Bentonville native and the first woman to win the prestigious Bendix Trophy. All of that before noon. Some simply spectacular, challenging flying with a great group of CFIs who delight in exposing the “secret” of flying the Ozarks. I spent the afternoon with a tour of the Walmart museum a couple of miles from the airport and then used part of Bentonville’s extensive mountain bike trail network to walk around the Crystal Bridges Art museum with collections spanning five centuries of American artworks.

I found the surprise, as the Summit people knew I would. You can’t help but find it. A welcoming airport community, spectacular backcountry flying, world-class mountain bike trails, and internationally recognized art museums. Bentonville’s got secrets, and the residents are thrilled to share them with you.

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Illustration by Nate Padavick
Arkansas Plane Route Map Illustration by Nate Padavick

Richard McSpadden

Senior Vice President of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden was appointed executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute in February 2017 and was promoted to senior vice president in July 2020. He currently leads a team of certified flight instructors and content creators who develop and distribute aviation safety material –free of charge— in order to advance general aviation safety industrywide. ASI distributes material through a dedicated YouTube channel, iTunes podcasts, Facebook, and a dynamic website. ASI material is accessed 12 million times annually. A native of Panama City, Florida, McSpadden started flying as a teenager and has logged over 5,000 hours flying a variety of civilian and military aircraft. McSpadden is a commercial pilot, CFII, MEI with SES, MES ratings and a 525S (Citation Jet Single Pilot) type rating. He taught his son to fly, instructed his daughter to solo in their Piper Super Cub, previously owned a 1950 Navion that was in his family for almost 40 years, and currently owns a 1993 Piper Super Cub. McSpadden holds a degree in Economics from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Public Administration from Troy University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Air War College. Prior to joining AOPA, McSpadden had a successful career in the information technology industry, leading large, geographically dispersed operations providing business-critical IT services. McSpadden also served in the Air Force for 20 years, including the prestigious role of commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team where he led over 100 flight demonstrations flying the lead aircraft. Additionally, McSpadden currently serves as the industry chair for the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee.

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