Four days after coming on board as Conway's first female airport director, Michelle Anthony sat recently at a table in the facility's floor-to-ceiling glassed conference room and ticked her fingers with dates and places along her aviation career progression.
"We were pretty much homeless," she said, speaking of the beginning in 2010 when she loaded up her daughter, Mattie, then about 9 years old, from their friend's Hot Springs basement and headed back home to Lawrence County.
Recently divorced with no college education, Anthony followed her cousin's advice and went to the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport to talk to then-Director Mitch Whitmire about an administrative assistant job there.
She said she knew nothing about airports.
"He told me, 'I don't think you can do it, but I'll give you a chance.' I thought I was applying for an admin position, but it was an admin/lineman position," said Anthony, now 49. "I didn't know what a lineman was."
Anthony pauses, then deadpans.
"It was fueling," she said. "My second day there, we had 21 Black Hawks [helicopters] come in. Then the next day, there was like 18. It went on and on. We had a military field contract. I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"
Nearly a decade later, after she earned her wings at the helm of two of the state's airports -- Walnut Ridge Regional Airport and Dexter B. Florence Memorial Field in Arkadelphia -- Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry chose Anthony out of 24 applicants to take over the city's 431-acre Conway Municipal Airport.
Castleberry appointed a three-person search committee to whittle down the applicants to a few finalists for the spot, and then he made the final selection.
"Her knowledge of the industry stood out above the rest," Castleberry said. "Not only that, but I think she has a good rapport with people. She'll be able to work well with the pilots and be a good manager."
Anthony, whose annual salary was set at $70,000, was selected after the previous airport director, Josh Zylks, whose annual salary was $63,036, was terminated in March amid allegations of dishonesty and rule violations, according to documents previously obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Zylks and Anthony vied for the Conway job in 2014, but Anthony said she pulled out of the running because the position didn't mesh well with raising her teenage daughter at the time. Today, Mattie is 18 and graduated from high school this spring.
"It all kind of worked out," Anthony said. "We've just been blessed."
Anthony said she wasn't looking for a new job when the Conway position came open. She was deep into her position as the first airport director at Arkadelphia, starting in 2016. That airport, which had been opened more than five decades, was historically operated by Henderson State University, which offers a four-year aviation program, but then the city took over its operation.
She hit the ground running at Arkadelphia, streamlining its federal compliance certifications, strengthening safety standards, initiating wildlife management programs and solving a drainage issue the airport had suffered since its inception.
"The airport had always flooded when it rained and caused problems," Anthony said. "I started looking at the issue and stepped back with an engineer. We took thousands of [photos] at different times of the day. There was a ditch on the right-hand side of the runway that looked deep, but it was actually shallow. We cleaned it out and in 2017, the airport drained completely for the first time."
The efforts led to the facility being named the Arkansas 2017 Airport of the Year by the Federal Aviation Administration Southwest Region. There are 92 airports in the state.
"All because we went out and cleaned a ditch," Anthony said.
Gary Brinkley, Arkadelphia city manager, said he was sorry to lose Anthony to Conway, but said she "deserves the rewards of a bigger job."
"She did a great job for us," Brinkley said. "She listened to her pilots and hangar customers. They'll love her up there."
Conway Municipal Airport opened at its new 6,300-square-foot facility in 2014 at Cantrell Field, about 10 miles southwest of Conway's city center. The airport, which has a single runway, houses three jet hangars that serve as a base for several corporate flight departments and 72 hangars for smaller aircraft.
The airport operates a full Phillips 66 fuel service and a 24-hour self-serve option, as well as ground service and a main complex with a flight-training classroom, a conference room, a pilot's lounge with bathrooms, shower, sleeping space, vending machines, weather computers and free Wi-Fi.
The operation is fully self-sustained on an annual budget of about $1.1 million.
Castleberry said he's looking to Anthony to help grow the airport to meet the growing needs of Conway. The city is awaiting word from the FAA about a grant to increase the number of hangars.
"We've not received official word yet," he said. "We're hoping to hear something soon."
Anthony said in addition to reviewing the airport's compliance documents and safety standards to "make sure we are solid," she's aiming to increase services to pilots and spread the word about the airport's offerings to increase traffic.
The facility has vending machines for soft drinks and snacks as well as free popcorn and coffee, but Anthony said she's looking for an avenue to increase the hot-meal offerings.
"The pilots are your voice. They will promote your airport for you," she said. "They will fly 50 miles farther for an airport that offers more. You've got to have the cheapest fuel and free food. It's got to be all about customer service."
SundayMonday on 08/13/2019
CORRECTION: The runway at the Conway Municipal Airport is 5,500 feet long and 100 feet wide. The dimensions were incomplete in an earlier version of this article.
Print Headline: Conway airport's new director learned about aviation management on the fly