The People and Planes of Flabob

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

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

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For a while the Tallmantz payroll included aerobatic pilot Art Scholl; he later started a production company at Flabob, producing aerial photography and flying sequences for movies and television shows. Scholl was also a veteran airshow pilot, flying the Pennzoil Special, a highly modified de Havilland Super Chipmunk that is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. (In 1985, Scholl, 53, died while filming an aerial sequence for Top Gun: After putting a Pitts S-2A into an intentional spin, Scholl never regained level flight and the airplane plunged into the Pacific.)

Some people have been around the airport so long that they seem to be part of the infrastructure, and they can fill you in on the rest of Flabob's history. Ray Stits, a pioneer in homebuilt aircraft, arrived here in March 1951. He was already well known for building the world's smallest monoplane, the Stits Junior, which he made because somebody told him he couldn't do it. Its wingspan is eight feet, 10 inches.

Once at Flabob, he outdid himself with the Stits Sky Baby, the world's smallest biplane, which has a seven-foot, two-inch span. Over the years at Flabob, Stits designed 14 aircraft for homebuilders.

"Flavio built this place from scratch," says Stits. "You had to check for wild stray dogs and cattle on the runway. There were four hangars here and a little cement-block office building. I got an empty hangar, doors [missing]. Okay, I can get that for 15 dollars a month? Here's my 15 dollars."

Stits was responsible for the Experimental Aircraft Association being organized by chapter. In 1953, he heard that somebody named Paul Poberezny in Hales Corner, Wisconsin, was starting an organization for homebuilders. He inquired about it. "Got a letter back," he says. "Two pages of bylaws. Thought about it for a couple of weeks, and it was five dollars membership. And, okay, here's my five dollars. Let's change the bylaws to provide for a West Coast chapter." Poberezny agreed, but said that Stits had to get 10 members signed up. "Got nine other people," says Stits. "Wrote back and said, 'Okay, you got Chapter One.' "

Today, the EAA has almost 1,000 chapters worldwide, and Chapter One, which held its first meeting in 1954, has more than 500 members, many of whom live in other states and pay dues just so they can say they belong to it. A group of dissident Chapter One members formed another chapter at Flabob a few years ago—Vintage Aircraft Association Chapter 33. The two chapters are now friendly, but each sponsors its own fly-in. Chapter 33 holds one with an open house in May; Chapter One hosts its event in September.

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.

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