The People and Planes of Flabob
This California airport is hallowed ground for homebuilders and Hollywood stunt pilots alike.
- By Marshall Lumsden
- Air & Space magazine, November 2004
(Page 3 of 6)
In 1971, after it had taken him four and a half years to get his Skycoupe certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, Stits gave up the airplane design business. "I had 15 employees then," he recounts, "and I would have [had] to start selling 90 airplanes a month to break even on it." Meanwhile, he had turned to developing a fire-retardant airplane fabric covering. He came up with Poly-Fiber, which today is the largest business at Flabob. At 83, Stits still flies his 1975 Cessna 182.
Stits' presence at Flabob drew others interested in aircraft design, including Ed Marquart, a private pilot who arrived from Pennsylvania in 1955. "I had heard about Flabob and Ray Stits through the EAA publications," he says. "I went to work for Ray…for about a year and a half, doing tooling, welding, and setting up fuselages." While still working for Stits, Marquart worked nights and weekends on an airplane he had designed himself. He called it the Marquart MA-3. It turned out to be the predecessor to the popular MA-5 Charger, a graceful, swept-wing, two-place, open-cockpit biplane for which about 450 sets of plans have been sold. Of those, 100 are being built, and 85 are flying.
Marquart's hangar is chock full of future projects. One is the fuselage of a 1929 Driggs Skylark biplane, one of only 21 ever built. He swapped an MA-4 kit for it with a man from Kentucky, who agreed to bring the fuselage across country on a trailer. Says Marquart: "I haven't finished this yet, and he hasn't finished the MA-4 yet, and that was about 1968."
Clayton Stephens has hung around Flabob longer than just about anybody else. He learned to fly here in 1945, and logged a lot of time on Civil Air Patrol searches. Stephens and a fellow CAP pilot, George Ritchie, built a business at the airport fixing up airplanes and reselling them. When Ritchie's wife Margaret showed an aptitude for aerobatics, they worked together with Marquart to modify a Taylorcraft high-wing monoplane for her. But the modified craft couldn't match the performance of the Pitts biplanes frequently used by aerobatic pilots, so Stephens and Ritchie built the Akro. It was the first low-wing monoplane constructed in the United States especially for aerobatics. With the Akro, Margaret Ritchie won the national women's aerobatics title in 1966. The canopy was designed to accommodate Ritchie's beehive hairdo, and when she was killed while flying the Akro in 1969, the sturdy little aircraft was cut into pieces and buried with her.
For a few years, Stephens continued to sell plans for Akros. "There were a couple dozen made, and newer variations of it are still in competition," he says. The late Leo Loudenslager, a seven-time U.S. National Aerobatic Champion, modified an Akro to create the Akro Laser 200, which is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
Look out on Flabob's ramp and you might see Bud Bell tooling up in his restored World War II Jeep. He and his wife Joyce seldom miss breakfast at the café. Bell was a soldier stationed in Europe, with Patton's Third Army. "I figured after being in the Battle of the Bulge with all that freezing snow, I didn't want any more winters so I came out here," he says. Bell remembers when the runway at Flabob was half blacktop and half dirt. "Even on the flightline between the hangars there'd be a big patch of bare dirt, and, of course, you'd run up [the engine] and turn and dust would be flying everywhere," he says. "You'd get chewed out when somebody was painting."
Another frequent Flabob presence is pilot Andy Anderson, whose license plate reads "Flabob." Anderson retired in 1979 from the Santa Fe Railroad, where he'd spent most of his career as a telegrapher. Having learned to fly at the age of 53, he now spends most days flying his 1962 Cessna 150, and on a hazy afternoon last June, he let me ride along. When smog rolls in from the Los Angeles basin, Anderson, like other Flabob pilots, has his own landmarks for finding his way into the pattern: an ARCO gas station, a freeway intersection, and a shopping mall.
Returning on the downwind leg, we're flying directly at the most prominent landmark of all, Mount Rubidoux, a 1,400-foot-high rocky ridge only a half-mile off the end of the runway. Anderson takes dead aim at a 45-foot cross that stands on the summit. On a clear day, pilots say, if you line up the cross with some storage tanks on another ridge about three miles distant, you are exactly at pattern altitude and heading. Madariaga, Anderson reports, used to say that you fly until the cross fills your windshield, then you say a prayer and turn left. Indeed, as Anderson turns onto base leg to come around and land, he seems to be uncomfortably close to the mountain. But he lands without event.