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Flabob Airport: Historic Riverside Landing Strip and Mural Enclave

Just outside Riverside's city limits, in the community known as Rubidoux, a small airport that dates back to 1925 proudly wears wings of quirkiness.

Built to support the original waves of aviation activity in the region, when Riverside was a citrus industry player, its eccentric charm began when it was purchased by Flavio Madariaga and his partner Bob Bogen in 1943. The Fla' and Bob of Flabob made additions to the airport, mainly using leftover anything, which brought personality to the small air strip, café, and grounds with patches of palm trees groves. The collection of buildings will sometimes stand in for small exotic airports around the world in movies and television. A world circa 1943, that is.

There's also an interesting approach to murals on the grounds. First, Flabob Airport Café is a building that was built to be the cookhouse for the NCO Club at Camp Haan, the anti-aircraft auxiliary of March Field during World War II. It was relocated to the airport grounds as a scrap building. A small mural, around old 40 x 5 feet, about cowboys on a cattle round-up, was recovered from a nearby dance hall and was placed in the cafe.

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You see where this is going. It's a site where found objects make a sense of place, at an airport with a working landing strip and small mural enclave.

Drive down one street heading toward the main entrance, and you are greeted by the wall of Hanger One's mural welcoming you to Flabob. It looks like movie set dressing, but it's an original design -- still incomplete. The mural is all about Roman Warren, the "Cowboy Aviator," on his 1926 flight under a bridge in the Santa Ana River bridge, and looks like its fading after years in the sun.

Warren was the original manager of "Riverside Airport," the municipal predecessor of Flabob, founded in 1925.

Entrance to Flabob | Photo: viewfromaloft

Another recent mural is "Don's 24 Hour Flying Service," designed and painted by Rafe Tomsett, a retro sign that borders on comic book form, and somehow looks less retro when you are looking at it while standing under a canopy from an old Phillips gas station -- also scrap.

Flavio Madariaga's eldest son, Don, ran an on-demand air taxi service. Don also ran the airport after his father died, before the site was bought by the Tom Wathen Foundation in 2000, according to John Lyon, who helped negotiate the purchase and wears many hats in supervision roles, member of airport boards, and "self-appointed historian."

And Lyon is no stranger to the power of images on a wall. "When my wife and I moved to California in 1973, the Fine Art Squad's 'Isle of California' was brand new and fresh," Lyon said. "Whenever I was on Butler Avenue [in West L.A.], I stopped the car, got out and gazed for a time, absorbing the details."

Dons 24 Hour Flying Service | photo:viewfromaloft

Back at the airport, he points out more details, like how "The First Flight mural" is made of high-profile leftovers. The Rotary International Club had a Raul Rodriguez-designed float in the 2003 Rose Parade, which marked the centennial of powered flight, with a petal-powered 1903 Wright Flyer.

After the parade, Rotary gave it to Flabob, covered with seeds. "We looked forward to the world's largest Chia Pet," deadpans Lyon. "But because they were covered with varnish, the seeds stubbornly refused to germinate."

So it became an installation, and a mural is the backdrop. A mounting made from scrap iron lying around, and a free standing wall, were added in anticipation of being used for a mural which, Lyon says, kept the "scrounging" aesthetic of Flabob.

Rotary Rose Parade Float, 2003 | Courtesy of Rotary International

The added art is was painted by Kathy Dillon and plays off of the "First Flight" photo by John T. Daniels, having you witness that historic aviation moment you have seen before, but from another angle. With Orville coming toward the viewer, the scene is 180 degrees in a different direction, placing you in the flight path, not off to the side.

There are details of track, bench, and shovels taken from the photo, and background details of the camp and hill placed after researching photographs. In the historic photo is the running boy Tom Tate, the Kitty Hawk local who was at the first flight. In the mural, the artist's son stands in.

Stand in front of Orville and you get a clear view of that image, frozen in your mind from years of referring to the photo since grade school. If the weather is clear, the color of right morning sky is also the background of the mural, a reminder that first flight was on a windy and very sunny day. You are dropped on the sands of Kitty Hawk -- unless there are pick-up trucks parked in front of it. You will have to wait until the truck owners come out of the café after having their biscuits and gravy.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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