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.
Flabob needed additional hangars, there was never been enough for those who wanted one. Soon after the Wathen Center bought Flabob, twelve new hangars were built, and when the nearby airport at Rialto airport closed, 57 of their hangars were dissembled, moved from Rialto, and erected at Flabob. Antiquers, restorers, and builders are 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. This new building has become a place for meetings and programs of many aviation organizations in addition to Chapter One. Aviation related businesses are welcome. Poly Fiber, world's leading manufacturer of aircraft fabric and coatings, is located at Flabob. Several restorers, repair facilities, specialized fabricators, and related businesses have recently gone into business at the field.
From the start, the Wathen Center has made it a goal to be a center of aviation education for young people, particularly those at risk. In fact, Tom Wathen began calling Flabob a campus instead of an airport. The educational programs at Flabob are a solid and growing community asset. The EAA Aviation Foundation worked with the Wathen Center 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. These programs last several days and are designed not only to inform but to motivate students to work hard in school, especially in the area of mathematics, science, and technology. Many parents have reported a remarkable increase in studiousness and even in civility after these programs. Wathen personnel also conduct regular tours of the airfield for elementary school students, these have become particularly popular.
Under Center sponsorship, middle and high school students rebuilt a 1941 Aeronca Super Chief under expert adult supervision, many earned subsidized flying lessons. Two follow up projects are underway that are being restored by young people who meet every Saturday morning supervised by a Wathen Center professional aviation mechanic.
In 2002, A group recruited from an area youth street gang learned aircraft restoration under the expert tutelage of Poly fiber experts. This effort has evolved into an on-going program for challenged youth, including incarcerated young people who are transported to Flabob to learn the art of aircraft restoration and maintenance. This program has many successful young graduates who are now professional aircraft restoration mechanics and pilots. In fact, one of the premier aircraft restoration shops in the Western United States is now owned and operated by young men who learned their skills in this program. This shop has won numerous awards for craftsmanship, including several first place winners at the world's largest airshow at Oshkosh. Many of these professionals now teach and operate the program for at risk young men, willingly giving back to the community for the opportunity given to them.
A public charter school, Flabob Airport Preparatory Academy operates at the airport with support from the Wathen Center. The school is completing a new facility to hold 240 students who will closely interact with the aviation activities as Flabob.
In 2014 the Wathen Center seated a new Board who promptly hired a new staff. A new Airport Manager and a group of expert aviation professionals were hired to improve and manage education programs. This Board and staff promptly raised funds to start a substantial building program for new activities. In recent years, the Wathen Center built a public park at the entrance of the airport, a new headquarters building, a renovation of the café including new bathrooms and an airside dining deck. A derelict hangar has been converted to a state-of-the-art exhibition hangar for the Wathen air racer collection. A new one-of-a-kind program to teach high school and college students the skill of designing and building liquid fuel rockets has been created, including a new fully equipped rocket lab on Flabob. This program looks to train young people to enter the new field of commercial rocketry. Finally, a 37,000 sf hangar has been built to house the Spartan College of Aviation Technology, who will have 300 students on site learning to become Aircraft Maintenance Technicians.
Future expansion of aviation education at Flabob may take many forms, and with a free public charter middle/high school as well as a world class aircraft mechanic's school we are well positioned to be leaders in technical education. We will continue to stress the value of leaning not only for aviation itself, but as a powerful motivator for learning in many areas, for good citizenship, and for leadership.
In March of 2016, our founder and benefactor Thomas W. Wathen passed away. He was the consummate gentleman and showed the way in preserving aviation history and aircraft. He set the example on how to bring a new generation into aviation and has left a great legacy of leadership and kindness. Those who now lead Flabob continue to follow the path set by this extraordinary man.
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 institutution, drawing thousands to honor those who fought for our freedom. The Young Eagles flight program of Flabob's EAA Chapter One has taken on a new vitality. Flabob has set records for the number of young people flown in this program, 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.