An Airport Conceived with ‘The Right Stuff’

Air Races at the Mojave Airport ran from 1969 to 1979. (Courtesy photograph)

by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
Mojave Airport had a year filled with new beginnings and aviation firsts in 1986, Aerotech News’ anniversary year.

Fourteen years earlier in 1972, the East Kern Airport District was formed with Dan Sabovich, a flying rancher from Arvin, as the first general manager.

“Friends call Dan Sabovich a ‘can-do guy’ because he transformed a deserted airstrip into a place that adventurous fliers can call home,” says a quote from a Los Angeles Herald Examiner article.

Sabovich had a vision for the abandoned Marine Corps Air Station. He said, “What I wanted to do was to have a civilian flight test center that was just like Edwards.” It was described as an airport where ‘dreams took flight.’

Dan Sabovitch leans on an aircraft at the Mojave Airport. (Photograph courtesy of the Sabovitch collection)

He worked with well-known aviation personalities like Darryl Greenamyer and Clay Lacy to bring air racing to Mojave beginning in 1969. Three long runways and lots of wide open spaces were appealing to the warbird crowd, who wanted to deliver Reno-style unlimited class air racing to the public.

Sabovich believed it to be a great way to show off the attributes of this former military base and get people interested in his dream of turning it into a premier flight test center.

Air Races at Mojave lasted for 10 years, from 1969 to 1979.

Aviator’s World, an aviation memorabilia store, operated in the main administration building where the Voyager Restaurant is now.

In an interview in 1986, store owner Lee Heron said, “We’re like family out here.”

Bob Laidlaw, founder of Flight Systems, with the F-100. (Photograph courtesy of the Gary Childress collection)

Heron also worked on the Voyager Aircraft and stated for a local newspaper, “The airport is a magnet for people whose life is wrapped up in the dream of making new airplanes.”

Sabovich encouraged Hollywood film companies to come to the airport to make movies, commercials and TV episodes.

Famous for being the first man to break the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager made a commercial for Delco batteries in a hangar at Mojave Airport.

Also, Cal Worthington, a well-known local car salesman and World War II veteran, stood on his head while riding on top of a biplane in the skies above Mojave Airport. “That was him doing it,” said Sabovich. “He said if he didn’t do it, people wouldn’t believe him.”

Early companies at Mojave Airport
General Electric Engine Test facilities and Flight Systems occupied buildings at Mojave Airport when Sabovich first arrived. GE came over from Edwards in 1967 with their Boeing 707 testbed aircraft. Flight Systems, Inc. was founded in 1968.

The UDF Boeing 727 on the flightline. (GE photograph)

GE Flight Test at Mojave
In the summer of 1986, GE was conducting flight test work on their GE36 Unducted Fan (UDF) engine. The testbed aircraft was a Boeing 727. It was an experimental aircraft engine, a hybrid between a turbofan and a turboprop.

The engine had a pair of six-stage contra-rotating free turbines, each with large diameters running at slow speeds, and they were connected directly to a couple of eight-blade, 12-foot diameter unducted fans, which made for a very unusual sound as it flew past.

Later the testbed aircraft for the UDF was a McDonnell-Douglas MD-81.

Flight Systems, Inc.
William R. “Bob” Laidlaw formed Flight Systems Inc. in 1968 and based the business in Mojave, which has been a hub for experimental aviation for many years. The first aircraft used by Flight Systems was the Canadair F-86 Sabre. They were converted into unmanned drones to be used by the U.S. Army for targets.

The Rutan VariEze in flight. (Courtesy photograph)

The U.S. Army QF-86E drone program finished in June 1986, and the drone requirement was then filled by the QF-100. The first F-100 arrived at Mojave in early 1985 for conversion.

Gary Childress, F-100 Crew Chief at Flight Systems said, “There were only two F-100 aircraft assigned full time in Mojave —N404FS, an F model and N405FS, a D model.”

“Both of these aircraft were government leased. The company had several more F-100F aircraft that were purchased from Denmark, they operated in Europe towing targets until they were returned to Mojave and sold off,” Childress said.

If interested, there is a YouTube video of the Flight Systems F-100F towing a target in Sardinia, Italy –

Rutan Brothers Legacy at Mojave Airport
Rutan Aircraft Factory began business at Mojave Airport in 1974, developing the VariEze aircraft. Subsequent Burt Rutan designs made first flights at Mojave Airport, including: the Quickie, Defiant and Long-EZ prototypes and the one and only Voyager aircraft, piloted by Rutan’s brother, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, which made the epic flight around the world in 9 days, 3 minutes, 44 seconds, beginning on Dec. 14, 1986 and ending on Dec. 23, 1986.

The Voyager sits on the ramp at the Mojave Airport in 1986. (Courtesy photograph)

The ‘round the world, non-stop, unrefueled Voyager flight put the eyes of the world on the Rutan Brothers and Mojave Airport.

Burt Rutan established Scaled Composites in 1982 and is now best known for the first privately-funded manned space flight, with Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, winning the Ansari $10-million X-Prize on Oct. 4, 2004 with Paul G. Allen’s SpaceShipOne.

National Test Pilot School
The National Test Pilot School was established in 1981 by Sean Roberts. In 1986, NTPS constructed a large hangar and classroom complex at the east end of Mojave Airport. Today, NTPS trains military and civilian students from over 30 different countries around the world. Dr. Allen Peterson is the present president and CEO.

Aerotest Inc.
The company was founded by engineer and test pilot W.R. ‘Bob’ Laidlaw in 1986. He was the same person who started Flight Systems, Inc. at Mojave in 1968.

The company maintained and repaired commercial aircraft, including jumbo jets. Aerotest personnel maintained many of the airliners in storage at the airport.

The National Test Pilot School. (Courtesy photograph)

More than 400 people were employed at Aerotest in 1986. A huge 120,000-square-foot hangar was constructed at Mojave Airport in 1990. The company moved operations from Mojave to Santa Barbara in 1994.

Looking to the future
Today, the tenants at Mojave Air and Space Port are thinking and acting far into the future — and the future is space.

Virgin Galactic’s Cosmic Girl, The Spaceship Company, Stratolaunch, Masten Aerospace and Scaled Composites are all looking upward to the stars.

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