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 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.

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.

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