FBO Profile: Summit Aviation (VBT)

Curt Epstein
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While many FBOs in the U.S. are similar, it comes as a surprise to find one that breaks the mold.

One of them is Summit Aviation, the lone service provider at the Arkansas Bentonville Municipal Airport/Louise M. Thaden Field (VBT), which recently relocated across the airport to the brand new Thaden Fieldhouse. Summit has been the FBO at the 1940s-era, dedicated GA airport for more than a decade, ever since VBT was ravaged by a tornado to the point that its future was in jeopardy. Dave Powell, the company’s owner, decided to take on the aircraft servicing at that point and began to build infrastructure.

Nestled on the shore of Lake Bentonville, the $12 million Thaden Fieldhouse (like the airport, named after local pioneering aviatrix Louise Thaden), which opened in October after a year-long construction program, includes the FBO’s 10,000-sq-ft two-story terminal (which more than tripled the size of its previous facility), with a passenger lobby, and CSR desk on the ground floor and flight-planning area, pilots' lounge, shower facility, and two snooze rooms upstairs. Among its amenities are a 20-seat A/V-equipped conference room, full kitchen, crew car, and onsite car rental. Café Louise is a popular destination for pilots and non-aviators alike and overlooks the ramp, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as the best airport coffee in the country, according to Brad Elliott, who as the FBO’s recently named general manager, oversees the entire complex. The café can also cater box lunches and there are several other restaurants within a mile of the airport.

The interior of the 22,000-sq-ft building is finished in wood and polished concrete, to tie into the area’s outdoor tourism activities. The area is a prime mountain biking destination, so aircraft often arrive carrying bicycles, and for those who forgot to pack theirs, the FBO has several for borrowing. Also available for crew use are paddleboards, canoes, and kayaks, accessible from the dock just in back of the building. In the warmer months, the FBO staff will have fishing poles available as well. A retail store offering camping supplies, provisions, and sports equipment is also part of the complex, along with the company’s Part 141 flight school offices, flying club lounge, and museum hangar. The latter typically features a rare, flyable warbird on display, loaned by a local owner on a rotating basis, currently a Griffon-engined Spitfire. Since the airport is also home to aerobatic aircraft manufacturer Game Composites, the FBO can also arrange factory tours for arriving customers.

Located just two miles from retail behemoth Walmart’s headquarters, as well as that of food giant Tyson Foods, the airport sees a steady flow of aircraft carrying vendors and distributors to business meetings. Turboprops and small to midsize business jets are common sights on the donut-shaped ramp.

The FBO has 30,500 sq ft of heated hangar space, which can accommodate aircraft up to a Cessna Sovereign. It is home to a handful of turbine-powered aircraft ranging from an Embraer Phenom 300 to an Airbus Helicopters AS350. Elliott noted that the facility’s hangars are fully booked and the company is looking to add another 12,000 sq ft structure.

The facility, which has a staff of approximately 40 people, is open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. seven days a week. Elliot noted that the airport sees approximately 20,000 operations a year and pumped 160,000 gallons of fuel from its Shell-supplied fuel farm, which holds 10,000 gallons apiece of jet-A and 100LL. The FBO has a 3,000-gallon jet-A tanker and a 1,500-gallon avgas truck, with self-serve fueling available for the latter.

"Everyone who works here is passionate about aviation,” Elliott told AIN, adding that every current member of the location’s line service staff holds a pilot's license. “You get the whole service whether you are a Piper Cub, up to flying a jet.” The facility is a service Textron service center, providing maintenance for aircraft up to Beechcraft King Airs, as well as aircraft charter.

With a 4,426-foot main runway at VBT, larger aircraft typically use nearby Rogers Executive Airport, but Summit’s ownership is aiming to make its airport into the gateway to the Ozarks backcountry, while at the same time increasing the public’s exposure. “The whole goal of this facility is to bring in the public, so we’re getting more people involved in aviation who normally wouldn’t be introduced,” said Elliott. “They sit down at the restaurant that overlooks the ramp, and we have airplanes sitting right outside, so once they leave, they are really intrigued. Folks come in not knowing about aviation and they’re walking out with a Discovery flight with one of our many instructors.”

Summit, which also operates a second FBO in the state at nearby Springdale Municipal Airport, just added helicopter instruction to its flight school offerings this past year. It will soon introduce aerobatic training, and a corporate pilot program is on the horizon. It currently has 115 student pilots and a fleet of 13 aircraft in its training fleet.

The 22,000 sq ft newly-built Thaden Fieldhouse at Bentonville Municipal Airport/Louise M. Thaden Field, houses Summit Aviation's new FBO, flight school, café, museum hangar, backcountry shop and fl...

The 22,000 sq ft newly-built Thaden Fieldhouse at Bentonville Municipal Airport/Louise M. Thaden Field, houses Summit Aviation's new FBO, flight school, café, museum hangar, backcountry shop and flying club lounge. Located on the shore of Lake Bentonville, the FBO also offers pilots the use of aquatic equipment such as paddleboards and kayaks from its very own dock.