"When you come into my airport you line up with the cross, close the
throttle, bless yourself, turn left and land."
By John D. Lyon and
Following a major rejuvenation, Flabob Airport (RIR) in Riverside, California, has become a rewarding destination for those pilots seeking hundred-dollar hamburgers with classic aeronautical ambience.
Three years ago, the Wathen Foundation, created by Tom Wathen, bought the airport, which was in serious need of repair. The Foundation has restored existing structures, upgraded the runway and taxiways, and returned the airport cafe to its original splendor as a legendary site for general aviation pilots. Locals report that airport traffic has increased significantly in the past year.
The restaurant’s origins date back to the early days of aviation. Flavio Madariaga, guiding genius of Flabob, recognized from the beginning that an airport cafe was key to the success of this small airport populated by builders, restorers, airport bums, flyers, would-be flyers, and all the other members of a viable flying village. The first restaurant was in a lean-to constructed on the side of Hangar One, which was itself a tarted-up WPA tool and equipment shed left over from the New Deal. It had a grill, counter and stools, and outside a hitching post for the frequent arrivals on horseback to this then-rural strip. (Later the lean-to became the apartment of “Professor” Art Scholl, who came by his title legitimately; for many years he taught machining in Hangar One for San Fernando Valley College, until his career as an airshow and movie pilot took precedence.)
The little cafe was soon too small. Flavio — who must be regarded as a serious contender for the title of greatest scrounger of all time — borrowed a mule, some chickens, and a goat, with which he was photographed to qualify him as a “farmer” and hence eligible to buy government surplus. Thus equipped, he visited nearby March Field and purchased what is said to have been the cookhouse for the NCO Club, which he dragged back to Flabob and erected in its present location on the flightline. The cafe and airport offices occupied the building, but successful growth led to the eviction of the offices and the cafe has been sole occupant for decades.
Today, the ambience is classic airport cafe, with giant-scale airplane models dangling from the massive beams overhead, old wooden props on the walls, and hundreds of photos of airplanes, pilots, and happenings at Flabob. The foyer displays photos going back to 1925, when original airport operator Roman Warren (known as the Cowboy Aviator) flew his Thomas-Morse Scout under the low concrete span of the Rubidoux Bridge. There is a long center table where pilots and visitors sit next to someone who may be a stranger at first, but is a new best friend by the time the coffee arrives. The restaurant’s large windows provide a good view of the runway, and of the fields beyond — still occupied by grazing livestock — with the Santa Ana Mountains in the background.
The food is hearty airport cafe fare, simple and ample. The Philly Cheesesteak and the Chili-Size are perennial favorites. The operators of the cafe are from the Kozzee Cafe a few miles down the road — and with a name like that, it’s got to be good. The Flabob Cafe is open 7 am to 3 pm seven days a week (909-683-9066).
Just about anyone who’s who in general aviation has eaten at Flabob’s airport cafe, including Frank Tallman, Paul Mantz, Jim Appleby, and designers and builders like Ray Stits, Lou Stolp, Ed Marquart, and Bill Turner.
Frank Tallman had hangars at Flabob, which he used for restoring military aircraft. He later paired up with Paul Mantz, forming Tallmantz Aviation in the mid-1950s, and the dynamic duo provided Hollywood with a steady supply of aircraft and pilots. Jim Appleby also set up shop at Flabob, producing a wide range of flying replicas of World War I aircraft, many of which were used in feature films. He also supplied many non-flying replicas to the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant chain.
Ray Stits designed and test flew 16 amateur-built designs at the facility, including the world famous Sky Baby, a biplane with an eight-foot wingspan. He also founded EAA’s historic first chapter at Flabob, and went on to develop his now-famous Stits Covering, known currently as Polyfiber, which is still located at Flabob. Lou Stolp developed many designs at Flabob, and refined his Stolp Starduster here. As of April 2003, the Stolp Starduster Corporation has announced its intention to move back to Flabob from its current location.
Ed Marquart used the facilities here to give life to his Maverick, Lancer, and eventually the popular Charger aircraft. Bill Turner built a number of replicas of great racers, including the Miles & Atwood racer, the DeHavilland Comet, Gee Bee Z, and Roscoe Turner’s Meteor. He also worked with EAA Chapter One to restore Benny Howard’s “Pete.” Several of Turner’s replicas are currently active in the airshow circuit.
Not surprisingly, many of these new aircraft designs and projects were conceived in the airport cafe.
Flabob Airport has become a legend in the past half-century as one of the most prolific centers of aircraft design, construction, and restoration. The Wathen Foundation is dedicated to preserving the history of Flabob and encouraging new involvement in aviation. So keep an eye out on your next visit to the Flabob Cafe, you may just see aviation history being born.