"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."
In addition to the new facilities, Flabob now boasts a big new EAA Chapter One hangar, which will house some of the new academic programs under way. To run Flabob's education programs, Wathen hired Art Peterson, a former university professor and college president. Peterson is also an aviation enthusiast. In 1969 Peterson had a job that required him to travel long distances, and he took up flying because he felt it was safer than driving.
"I thought it was kind of nice of Tom to take an old codger in like me," says Peterson. "I was 72 when he hired me. But I love aviation and I love education, and this was just the perfect place to come."
Peterson and his assistant, Kathy Rohm, whose title is director of community relations, are the paid staff for the program. "We go out to grade schools in Riverside County and give rudimentary courses in aviation," says Peterson. And once a month they run five-day programs at Flabob for middle- and high-school students. "My entire faculty is unpaid," he says. "We have 12 to 15 experienced people who come in and share. One woman is a top lighter-than-air pilot; she flies a Fuji blimp."
"I love the progress we've made," says Wathen. "I wish we'd done it all in the first year, but now we've got momentum. It has been so exciting for me to think of what we can do here, and it becomes more and more possible all the time. What I see now is a building of the infrastructure to form classrooms and ultimately housing for the youngsters, and a more active recruiting of youngsters. I see the airport as EAA West."
There are still ties to an earlier era. The end wall of the café is covered by a large mural advertising the bygone Don's Flying Service. Now and then somebody touches up the paint.
And the art of scrounging hasn't been lost. One of the first sights to greet people driving in to park at the café is a 12-foot replica of the Wright Flyer, mounted on a steel pylon. The propellers turn slowly, powered by chains that are driven by an electric motor. In a move that would have pleased Flavio Madariaga, the replica was rescued from a float that rode in last year's Pasadena Rose Parade.