If a coast to coast flight is in your future, chances are good that you’ll make a stop at Great Bend Municipal Airport (GBD) in Great Bend, Kansas.
“If you look at a map of the United States you will notice that Great Bend, Kansas, is just about in the dead center of the country. We make a good fuel stop,” said Assistant City Administrator Dawn Jaeger.
The airport was built during World War II and saw service as a training base for B-29 crews. Testament to this is a memorial plaza to honor the B-29, as well as the men and women who kept them flying.
In 1946 the airport was declared military surplus, and the city acquired it and began the process of turning it into a civilian field. The airport now occupies 1,880 acres and has two runways, 17/35, which measures 7,851 feet, and 11/29, which measures 4,706 feet.
GBD has commercial service provided by Great Lakes Airlines and approximately 40 based aircraft, including twins and single-engine aircraft, as well as antiques. Commercial service is co-located with all the GA activity on the main ramp, according to Martin Miller, airport manager.
Centerline Aviation is the FBO that provides fueling, flight training and charter. The airport has a self-fueling service that caters to both the 100LL and Jet-A crowd.
While much of the GBD’s traffic is made up of transient general aviation aircraft on cross country flights, Jaeger notes the airport is an important piece of the city’s economic infrastructure.
“We have the Fuller Brush manufacturing plant here, an air ambulance, a bank check service, and a United Parcel Service contractor. They all utilize the airport,” she said. “We market the airport as both an economic engine for development and as an asset to the community, because a lot of economic development is based on quality of life — and we have that here.”
The airport also is a recreational focal point of the community, because after World War II part of the property was turned into an Expo Complex and one of the runways was turned into a car race track.
“Both are a pretty big deal,” said Jaeger. “The Great Bend Expo Complex hosts a huge farming implement show each year and the race track is historically significant because The National Hot Rod Association held its first national event in Great Bend.”
Races are run on a 8,000-foot runway turned into a drag strip. The first drag race was held May 17, 1953, by a local car club called the Gasket Blasters, according to Hank Denning, president of the Sunflower Rod and Custom Association, which organizes the races today. Just two years later, on Sept. 29, 1955, the National Hot Rod Association’s inaugural race was held at Great Bend, attracting 219 cars and 15,000 spectators.
Over the next 40 years the Great Bend track had a variety of operators and hosted club-organized racing events of one kind or another. When interest in the races declined, so did the upkeep of the track, and there was talk about shutting it down for safety reasons.
A newly reconstituted Sunflower Rod and Custom Association stepped up in the 1990s to improve the track with resurfacing and changes to the timing and lighting systems.
“Each year this group of all volunteer people, racers and a multitude of local sponsors make improvements to maintain and preserve its historical presence in drag racing and to promote our fantastic community as a great place to race,” he said, noting that each year the association hosts about 14 events.
Denning has been involved in the airport and the races since he was a teen. His mother installed radios in aircraft during the war and his father was a World War II veteran and Prisoner of War.
“They would converse about the training and the aircraft that would come in and out of the facility,” he recalled. “I took it for granted that everybody did that. Then as you age you find out that is not the case and we have a special part of the history of our nation sitting in our backyard.”
Miller, who has been airport manager for about eight years, notes that efforts are made to celebrate the aviation heritage of the airport.
“We host a fly-in or an air festival annually,” he said. “The event includes World War II exhibits and aircraft. These events are designed for the public and, to date, have no admission costs to the local citizens.”