In 1999, Tom Wathen retired as chairman of Pinkerton’s, the international security and detective firm, and set out to fulfill his longtime plan to devote his time and his resources to charitable activities. With the help and advice of friends, he determined that his Wathen Foundation would be dedicated to aviation education and preservation.
It quickly became apparent that the Foundation needed a facility for its work, in effect a “campus” where teachers, volunteers, young people and others could get together. Knowing that Flabob Airport had long been for sale, Wathen thought it might be a good site for the Foundation’s work. When the Wathen Foundation inquired early in 2000 if Flabob was still for sale, it was told that it was too late, as an offer to purchase the land for non-aviation development was far advanced. Fortunately, when the family owners realized that the Wathen Foundation was serious in its interest in purchasing and preserving Flabob, they gave their enthusiastic support and cooperation to the effort.
On May 31, 2000, the Wathen Foundation completed its purchase of FlabobAirport. Under the ownership of the Wathen Foundation (and its airport arm, Flabob LLC), many needed improvements have been made to FlabobAirport. The 3,200 foot runway has been widened and resurfaced, the parallel taxiway has been resurfaced and extended the entire length of the runway, and aircraft parking areas and taxilanes have been paved. The airport cafe has been refurnished, repainted, and otherwise improved.
Two new hangars have been built, and twelve more are nearing completion. Antiquers, restorers, and builders will be especially welcome in these new hangars. A large new hangar and meeting place for EAA Chapter One was dedicated at Chapter One’s fiftieth anniversary open house, and will be a place for meetings and programs of many aviation organizations in addition to Chapter One. Aviation-related businesses are welcome. Polyfiber, world’s leading manufacturer of aircraft fabric and coatings, is located at Flabob. Marquart Aviation remained at Flabob until Ed’s passing. Several restorers, repair facilities, specialized fabricators, and related businesses have recently gone into business at the field, and proposals from others were solicited.
Under the direction of Dr. Art Peterson, President of the Wathen Academy, the educational programs at Flabob are a solid and growing community asset. The EAA Aviation Foundation worked with the Wathen Foundation to present the first off-Oshkosh offerings of its Air Academy programs for young people, and these have now become a Flabob staple with some 4-6 programs annually for middle and high school students. The programs last several days and are designed not only to inform but to motivate the students to work hard in school, especially in the areas of mathematics, science, and technology. Many parents have reported a remarkable increase in studiousness and even in civility after these programs. Wathen Academy personnel and volunteers also bring programs to area elementary, middle, and high schools, and leave a display of aviation magazines and publications, constantly refreshed, for the youngsters to read, take home, and enjoy.
Under Foundation sponsorship, middle and high school students rebuilt a 1941 Aeronca Super Chief under expert adult supervision, and earned subsidized flying lessons. Two follow-on projects are under way: a Stinson 108-3 donated by a group headed by EAA Secretary Alan Shackleton, and a Stits Sky Coupe. A group recruited from an area youth gang learned aircraft covering under the expert tutelage of Polyfiber experts, and have now formed their own business to offer aircraft recovering, under continuing quality-control from qualified experts.
A public charter school, Flabob Airport Preparatory Academy, operates at the airport with support from the Wathen Foundation. Future expansion of aviation education at Flabob may take many forms, but will continue to stress the value of such learning not only for aviation itself, but as a powerful motivator for learning in many areas, for good citizenship, and for leadership.
The first years of Flabob’s third era point the way to a bright future and a new spirit in the Flabob “family” of pilots, owners and fans. The annual Veteran’s Day observance has already become a community institution, drawing thousands to honor those who fought for our freedom. The Young Eagles flight program of Flabob’s EAA Chapter One has taken on new vitality. And in 2008, Flabob achieved the flight of its 11,000th Young Eagle, believed to be a record, and certainly remarkable for a small field.
The members of the Flabob family are a constant source of reliable and enthusiastic volunteers for its youth and educational programs. Additional pilots, owners, enthusiasts, and visitors are welcome at Flabob where they will find a friendly atmosphere of the kind which typified airports years ago.