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One of the most beautiful restorations hangared at Flabob is a 1928 Stearman C3B owned by Ron Alexander. (Chad Slattery)

The People and Planes of Flabob

This California airport is hallowed ground for homebuilders and Hollywood stunt pilots alike.

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FROM THE AIR YOU CAN CLEARLY SEE THAT THE NEW FLABOB AIRPORT is taking over the old one. Lines of shiny new hangars have sprouted among the old buildings, and the runway, taxiways, and ramps have a fresh look to them.

The old Flabob started its life in 1943, when pilot Flavio Madariaga and his business partner, Bob Bogen, purchased a dirt airstrip nestled between the small town of Rubidoux and the city of Riverside in southern California. The two men combined their first names to create "Flabob," but it was Madariaga's personality and talent that shaped the airport. For 40 years he built it up, often with his own hands, making it a mecca for people who are passionate about building and flying airplanes. When Madariaga died in 1984, his son, Don, took over.

During the next 16 years, Flabob fell on hard times and seemed destined for closure, but in 2000, as a new century began, so did a new Flabob. The Thomas Wathen Foundation, founded by Thomas W. Wathen, the former head of the Pinkerton security company, purchased the 82-acre airport, saving it at the 11th hour from commercial real estate developers. Today, the Wathen Foundation uses the newly renovated airport and its resources for educational programs, enlisting aviation to teach science, math, and technology to young people. And a small general aviation community still calls the airport home.

Despite all the spiffing up, Flabob still has a vintage charm, thanks in large part to Madariaga's wheelings and dealings. Not only a master machinist and a skilled pilot, Madariaga was also a brilliant scrounger who bought, sold, and traded airplanes—and nearly everything else. An old gas station canopy that he salvaged still serves as an open-air shelter for aircraft. And he once paid a dollar for a building that had housed a defunct nightclub and moved it to the airport, where he reopened it as a nightclub, restaurant, and social center.

Once, while flying over the southern California desert, Madariaga spotted some men stacking what looked like lumber, so he landed his Stearman to see what they were doing. It turned out that the area had been a training ground for General George S. Patton's U.S. Army tank corps in 1942. The men had purchased as surplus the wood from crates in which the tanks had been delivered. It was high-grade, one-inch oak, and Madariaga tried to trade the Stearman for it, but the men said they didn't know how to fly. Madariaga then threw in free flying lessons, closing the deal on the spot.

Don Madariaga (one of Flavio's four children) recalls the airport's spartan beginnings: "The old plowed-out runway was about 200 yards long. Only one building was there: the original hangar. When we first moved here, Dad put up a circus tent [which the family lived in] on a horse ranch next to the airport property. We were there for about a year until he could build a house." His dad, says Don, also constructed movie props for the film industry. "He made the vines that Tarzan used to swing on," says Don. "There was a big pond there with an overhanging tree, and he built a Tom Sawyer raft and the vines like he built for Tarzan, and we as kids used to swing on them."

When some buildings at nearby U.S. Army Camp Hahn were declared surplus, Madariaga tried to buy them, but rules stated they could be sold only to farmers and clergymen. Madariaga decided to pose as a farmer. "He did have a dog and a horse but that wasn't enough," says Don. "So he went and bought a donkey by the name of Napoleon and a wagon on the other side of town, and we hooked [the wagon] to the bumper of the car and towed it back to the airport. And I'd swat the donkey on the fanny, while dad was driving the car, to keep him moving [alongside the car]. Then he bought some chickens." The government finally agreed that Madariaga looked like a farmer, and he bid successfully on the buildings and moved them to the airport.

One of the buildings still houses the Flabob Airport Café, which has remained the social and communications center of Flabob. Open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., the café's walls are covered with photographs of pilots and vintage airplanes. Scale model aircraft hanging from the rafters stir gently in the draft from ceiling fans. Waitresses bustle by delivering cheesesteak sandwiches and biscuits with sausage gravy. The café is a portal to the old Flabob.

In a back corner, black-and-white photographs show Madariaga and his wife Bertha, or Bert, as everyone called her, posing by various aircraft. She is beautiful. He is movie star handsome, a cross between Clark Gable and Gilbert Roland.

Situated some 50 miles east of Los Angeles, Flabob has long drawn aviation folks connected to the film industry. Legendary stunt flier Frank Tallman, who flew an airplane through a billboard in the 1963 movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, had a hangar here in which he restored military aircraft to appear in movies. Tallman later hooked up with movie pilot Paul Mantz, who specialized in flying through buildings, and in 1961 the two founded Tallmantz Aviation at what is now known as John Wayne Airport, in Santa Ana, California.

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