An hour's east from one of the world's busiest airports, its ramps bustling with high-flying commercial airlines, cargo jets and pilots, sits a small airport in an unassuming city that may hold the secret to aviation's future well-being.
It's a place where pumping avgas and Jet A takes a back seat to fueling kids with enthusiasm for aviation. And that makes this airport – where a swarm of restored antique planes make their roost – a rare bird, indeed.
If it's true, as the saying goes, the future is in the past, then the 87-year-old Flabob Airport (KRIR) and its Tom Wathen Center in Rubidoux, California are doing more than making history. They are creating hope.
Most fixed base operators talk about red carpet service, quality line work or a realm of repair, interior and avionics offerings. But ask Bill Sawin, Sr., president of Flabob, what this FBO is all about and he'll tell you something different.
"Our mission," says Sawin, "is using the fascination of flight to inspire the love of learning for successful careers and satisfying lives."
Clearly, this is no ordinary FBO. Of course, one glimpse of the airport's namesake 1945 DC-3, the Flabob Express, lets visitors know this place is different.
Bucking the trend
One of the newest members of the Phillips 66® Aviation-branded network, Flabob with its nonprofit Tom Wathen Center is doing all it can to fuel young people's imagination using aviation. In an industry that has lost 10,000 pilots in the past few years, according to pundits, Flabob is trying to buck the trend.
It all starts at the Tom Wathen Center, named after the former CEO of the Pinkerton security company who saved an historic airport the day before it was to be sold to developers.
"Tom Wathen bought and restored Flabob for one reason," explains Sawin. "He believed – and this is the foundation of what we do here – that you can enrich people's lives by combining aviation and education, his two passions."
Long a haven for aircraft restorers, homebuilt designers, stunt pilots and vintage plane fans, Flabob is now a vibrant center for educating and mentoring.
"We include all people, particularly youth, veterans, and the disadvantaged and challenged," Sawin says. "There is excitement in working with the head, hand, and heart side by side with all of Flabob's pilots, craftsmen and innovators in an authentic workplace. We preserve and disseminate the history of aviation, while we nourish the designers, builders and innovators of tomorrow."
The list of enrichment opportunities at Flabob reads like a charter pilot's flight log, long and diverse: after-school and middle-school programs, an Air Academy, aeromodel-building courses, an Aviator's Club for teens focused more on character building than aviation, gang intervention, even an on-site charter prep school.
Flabob is also home to EAA Chapter 1 – founded by pioneering aircraft designer Ray Stits in 1953. Since then, Flabob's EAA volunteer pilots have flown more than 14,000 youths as part of the Young Eagles program.
And that, says Sawin, is one reason Flabob joined Phillips 66 a year ago. The FBO is served by fuel marketer World Fuel Services.
"Phillips 66 is engaged with Flabob Airport to help youth education, which is our focus," Sawin explains. "It is a leadership organization that really understands what we need to do for youth education."
Phillips 66 Aviation has long provided a $1 a gallon avgas rebate to pilots who take Young Eagles flying.
"Funding Young Eagle flights through the Phillips 66 rebate has become part and parcel here," Sawin explains. "From my perspective, when a company like Phillips 66 puts their toe in the water to help pilots fly youth, I think that's a big deal. That rebate is a wonderful program."
All those Young Eagle flights and education-mentoring programs not only draw young people, it also brings in their parents, airplane enthusiasts and other community members to experience aviation the Flabobian way. And that has made the airport popular.
"Seventy hangars are filled with airplanes," Sawin says. "We have a waiting list to choke a horse."
The Flabob Airport Café, its wood walls a photomontage of flight history, may lure hungry pilots with flavorful cuisine. But it's the deep curriculum developed by the Tom Wathen Center that is nourishing the minds of young people throughout Riverside Valley.
There is the Flabob Air Academy, a five-day program held eight times a year for students 12 to 17, immersing them in aviation.
At the academy, kids learn about the history of flight, then inspect a full-scale replica of the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer. They study the theory of flight with lessons on lift, drag, thrust and gravity, then build wing ribs. They make stick-and- tissue Delta Darts to learn about aircraft building. And they are introduced to aviation weather, aerial navigation, piston and jet engines, aeromedical issues, aviation law, how to calculate aircraft weight and balance, remote-piloted unmanned aircraft, pre-flight procedures and aircraft accidents.
At week's end, it all comes together when students catch rides with EAA volunteers in vintage airplanes – and get to manipulate the controls.
Up to 400 kids a year discover aviation through the academy.
"Of course, it'd be great if all the Air Academy students went into aviation," Sawin says. "But our goal is use the fascination of flight to inspire lifelong learning."
Flabob feeds its Air Academy with elementary school outreach programs and an after-school program for middle-schoolers.
The prep school on the field, created with a charter school company, teaches grades 7-12 core STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And yes, those students can be found lunching at the airport café.
Dreams off the ground
In the Flabob Aviator's club, local high school students learn about character building and leadership. Mentors guide teens in college and career planning; public speaking, with docent opportunities during airport tours and events; aircraft restoration as a teamwork exercise; and real-world internships on the field.
"Mentoring can do much for a teenager, and aviators make great mentors," Sawin says. "We're lucky to have so many people at Flabob who use their skills and success in aviation, restoration and business to guide kids and stimulate their minds and dreams."
Some lucky Aviator Club members earn trips to AirVenture. This year, Flabob is taking six students to the Oshkosh, Wisconsin aviation festival.
Even youths lost in the gritty world of Riverside Valley gangs are given a chance for redemption at Flabob. A gang intervention program has successfully lured some gang members away from the streets and into internships and jobs at the airport.
On Saturdays, teenagers enroll in aircraft restoration projects at Flabob, with a deep subject list that introduces students to industrial arts. Their time counts as credit towards FAA Airframe and Powerplant certificates. High schoolers have restored a 1941 Aeronca CA65; the restorations of a Stits SA7 Skycoupe and a Stinson 109-3 are underway.
Other teens take on Flabob's aeromodel building, learning the principals of aerodynamics, plus aircraft structures and configurations.
For those inspired to pursue aviation, the Tom Wathen Center offers access to $10,000 Private Pilot Training Scholarships. Budding pilots will soon be able to learn on a $250,000 multiengine, three-screen flight simulator donated by the University of North Dakota.
Revenue from Flabob's FBO operations, tenant leases, and programs like its Flabob Express Discovery Tours help fund The Tom Wathen Center's long and growing list of programs. A capital campaign is underway to further expand their reach.
It's an unusual business model that is as fascinating as the airport's name. One that makes you want to learn more – just like everything else at Flabob.