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 4 of 6)
On the afternoon of September 3, 1984, Madariaga, 72, took off from Flabob's runway, something he had done thousands of times before. He and wife Bert were flying their twin-engine Piper PA-23-235 to Las Vegas. The Piper ascended at a steep nose-up angle and stalled; it then descended out of control and crashed, killing Madariaga and his wife. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that during his preflight inspection, Madariaga had not observed that the elevator was in the locked position, and thus he had taken off with no pitch control.
When son Don took over running the airport, heirs were divided on whether to keep it or sell it to developers. The uncertainty dragged on for 16 years, and dispirited the Flabob community.
Leo Doiron, who has been the airport manager under both the Madariaga family and Tom Wathen, remembers that "we had a core of people here, but a lot started to drift away. It was pretty much decided that they were going to sell the airport, so don't put any money into any of these buildings because they're all going to be torn down for houses."
Things began to wear out. "When Flavio put in all this piping, it was old steam piping and not galvanized," says Doiron. "We'd have a geyser here and a geyser there. It was like patching up a submarine once you spring a leak. Thank God Tom Wathen came along and purchased it."
Wathen had long ago worked as a line boy at an airport in Vincennes, Indiana, where he washed airplanes, swept hangars, and pumped gas in exchange for flying time, and the experience probably had a lot to do with his resolve to preserve Flabob as an airport. (Wathen got his private pilot's license in 1958. Today, he has more than 3,500 hours and owns several airplanes. He also rebuilds aircraft and has restored a number of vintage Ercoupe monoplanes.) But getting the airport was a close call. Wathen was vacationing in Paris when his friend and attorney John Lyon, the secretary of the Wathen Foundation, called to say that Flabob was about to be sold to developers. After Wathen okayed the purchase, Wathen's son, Doug, and Lyon drove from Los Angeles that evening to meet with Don Madariaga at Flabob. Sorry, you're too late, he said. Madariaga was scheduled to meet with real estate developers the next morning to close the sale of the airport to them, but he did not yet have a ratified contract. Lyon offered the same amount as the developers: $3,030,000. He then wrote a check for a down payment of $100,000.
"We called Tom back in Paris and woke him up about three in the morning," says Lyon, "and I said, 'There's good news and bad news. The good news is we own an airport. The bad news is we just wrote a rubber check for $100,000.' " Later that morning Wathen called his New York bank to cover the check.
"We took over June 1, 2000," says Wathen. "You had to see this place four years ago. It [was] just one big dust bowl. I think we've removed 13 different structures from the property, and we've built 14 new ones. We paved the runway and all the taxiways up to the hangars."
"Tom Wathen is so much like my dad it's amazing," says Don Madariaga. "He's like a reincarnation—his love of aviation, love of Flabob, and love of people."