Tom Wathen

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

When Tom Wathen retired in 1999 as CEO of Pinkerton, he found more time to pursue his lifelong passion for airplanes. Last year he bought FlaBob Airport in Riverside, California home of EAA Chapter 1 and earlier this year he acquired the patents and designs for Glasair and GlaStar. Since the late '50s he has owned 15 airplanes, and has just finished building a replica of Roscoe Turner's LT-14 Meteor. In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Tom about airplanes, airports, the New Glasair company, and a subject that's on everybody's mind: airport security.

ProfileThomas W. Wathen was born October 5, 1929, in Vincennes, Ind., across the Wabash River from O'Neal airport. The airplane bug bit early. He built model airplanes, became a Civil Air Patrol Cadet, and traded airplane rides for work around the airport. He graduated from Indiana University in 1951 with a degree in Police Administration. He joined the Air Force, was stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB and the Pentagon, and served in the Office of Special Investigation from '52 to '54, then became a program security director at North American Aviation on the B-70 and X-15. After North American he became the west coast security director of RCA, then the first security director of Mattel. In 1964 Tom began his own private security company with California Plant Protection, which he expanded into a national company with 20,000 employees. In 1987 he acquired the historic Pinkerton agency and expanded his business to eventually employ 50,000 people in 225 offices around the world. He retired from Pinkerton in 1999.

Tom didn't fly during his Air Force stint, but he got his private pilot certificate in 1958 in Dayton in an Aeronca. Shortly thereafter he bought an Ercoupe and restored it, which began a series of restoration projects including Piper's first PT-1, the 1934 Grovesnor House DeHaviland Comet, the 1938 Keith Rider R-4 Schoenfeldt Firecracker, the 1946 Volmer Jensen VJ-21 powered glider, and a replica of Roscoe Turner's LT-14 Meteor nearing completion in Colorado Springs. During the restorations, Tom became familiar with FlaBob airport in Riverside, Calif., and rescued it from the hands of real estate developers in 2000. FlaBob is one of five sites in the U.S. picked by the EAA to host Air Academy day camps. In August 2001, 122 fourth-graders got an introduction to airplane modeling and sheet-metal work, and capped the day with Young Eagle rides. Tom was anxious to show off the recent improvements to the airport, but FlaBob's annual fly-in, scheduled for September 22 and 23, was cancelled due to the ban on VFR flight. Earlier this year Tom went to Sun 'n Fun and heard that the remnants of Stoddard-Hamilton and Arlington Aircraft Developers were still available from the bankruptcy courts, and on April 16 he wrote a check and got into the airplane business. He hired Mikael Via as president of the New Glasair company and recently announced a policy to help Glasair and GlaStar builders who had made deposits to SHAI and AADI. Tom has logged about 3,500 hours in a variety of aircraft, served two years on an Aviation Safety Commission in the late '80s, and was appointed to the President's Council of the EAA in 1987. Tom is also a life member of the National Institute of Intellectual Property Law Institute.

You've spent your lifetime around military and private security and served on a previous Aviation Safety Committee. How should airport security change as a result of the tragedies on September 11th?

The commission existed from 1987 to 1989, and it was started at the behest of some white-knuckled Congresspersons. There had been some accidents that, frankly, I don't even remember anymore, but they were accidents due to weather and mechanical failures, not hijacking and criminal activity. I was appointed because I had a security background and an aviation background, but the thrust of our investigation had more to do with safety than security. I had just acquired the Pinkerton agency, so I was busy merging two companies, but I attended every meeting of the committee. We did touch on airport security, but it wasn't the focus of the commission. There were only two other pilots on the commission, and one of them was [Cessna CEO] Russ Meyer.

Why did the commission dissolve?

We submitted our report and, typically, nothing much was done about it. I do think it was worthwhile. It was certainly worthwhile for me, because as a commission member I got to ride in the jumpseat of a lot of airliners, and got a lot of information and input from the pilots about safety and lots of other topics — like the age 60 rule, for instance.

Should airport security be federalized?

I hope not. That isn't necessary. They just need to specify tighter security requirements and be willing to pay for it. People will have to be paid more, and be trained better, but that's doable without federalizing it. Northrup was the first of the defense contractors to contract with private security, and even General Motors got rid of its security division. It's not their core business. I hope it isn't federalized. Once you federalize it, it never goes away.

Let's go back to the beginning. Tell us about growing up and how you discovered aviation.

I was born and raised in Vincennes, Indiana which is right on the Illinois border. Just across the river from Vincennes was a grass field called O'Neal airport, which is still there. The little Catholic school I went to was almost directly across the river from the airport, and I was one of those kids who built model airplanes and when I got old enough — 12 or so — I rode my bicycle over to the airport to watch the airplanes. I pumped gas, washed planes and swept hangars, and they would put me on the floor to help stitch ribs. Most of the planes were Aeronca Champs and Piper Cubs — it was a small-town airport.

I could identify all the airplanes, and I was pretty good at drafting and drawing airplanes. My grandmother taught me how to embroider, and I embroidered a set of curtains, pillowcases and a sheet with red, white and blue B-17s on them.

It was great fun, until my mother found out that I was actually going flying. She put a temporary stop to that, but not to my interest in aviation and airplanes. I was a Boy Scout — just about everybody was in those days — and I joined the Civil Air Patrol Cadets after they built George Field, which is now the Lawrenceville/Vincennes Airport. George was an Air Training Command base and they had a lot of AT-10s, Waco gliders and C-47s to tow the gliders. They had some terrible accidents with the tow ropes snapping and taking out a flying surface or a windscreen.

Who taught you how to fly?

I don't remember my first instructor, he was one of the local instructors at O'Neal. But my logbook indicates a 30-minute flight in an Aeronca — probably a Champ. I was 15 or 16, but I didn't get my certificate until I was 28 and had graduated college and was a security investigator for the Air Force at Wright-Patterson. I bought an airplane before I knew how to fly. It was an Aeronca L-3B. I had an instructor named Oscar Brabson who carried an old sock filled with rags, forming a sort of blackjack, and he would sit behind me and teach me with that sock.

Was your goal to fly for the airlines?

  Marquart Charger
  Ed Marquart, Tom and Dave Davidson talk about the Marquart MA5 Charger.
I never wanted to fly for a living. I liked airplanes more than I like flying. I've accumulated 3,500 hours, but that's not very much when you spread it out over 43 years. I studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue for a year, but I was stymied by the math. Even long division and subtraction, much less algebra and calculus. So I wasn't destined to be an aeronautical engineer.

Your degree was in police administration. What was your syllabus?

They taught us the rudimentary investigative techniques that were around in those days, like fingerprint classification. It started as a training course for the state police, and when they turned it into a degree program, I was one of the first five graduates of the program. In 1951 we were the only five guys outside of California to have an education in criminology.

I couldn't get a job as a police officer in the state of Indiana. I tried, but to my everlasting benefit, I couldn't, and I got a job with the Air Force as a security investigator at Wright-Patterson AFB. My first boss was a full Colonel who had been called back to active duty during the Korean situation. He was made Provost Marshall at Wright-Patterson and he had been the Chief of Police in Sacramento.

I went early for my job interview at the Provost Marshall's office — I was at least an hour early — and in walks this big guy with eagles on his collar. I had been a Civil Air Patrol Cadet, so I knew what those eagles meant. I jumped to my feet and he said "Good morning, son. Why are you here?" I said "Well, sir, I'm here for an interview as a security investigator." He said "What makes you think you can do that job?" and I said "Well, sir, I just got a degree in police administration from Indiana University." He said "Come into my office!" and two and a half hours later he took me out to the guy I had missed the appointment with and told him to hire me.

What was Wright-Patterson like in the early '50s?

It was fun and a very exciting place to be. Because I had a security pass I could wander anywhere I wanted, so I took my brown paper bag and went over to the flight line every day for lunch. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I did vulnerability surveys, which meant I would try to penetrate the security that we had set up. I found where people had written the combinations to their safes and opened them and gave back their documents the next morning. One day I stole three mail trucks.

In October of '52 I was about to get drafted and sent to the Army, so I enlisted in the Air Force. I went on active duty with the OSI — Office of Special Investigations — became a second lieutenant, spent a year at Wright-Patterson and two years at the Pentagon. I like to say I went overseas every morning because I crossed the river from Bolling AFB to the Pentagon. I helped to write the first manual for industrial security. My wife worked for the Civil Air Patrol at Bolling.

In October of '54 I was a civilian again and I went back to Wright-Patterson to work for the Dayton Air Procurement District. We had "cognizance" over Air Force defense contractors over an eight-state area. That's when I bought the Aeronca and learned to fly, at New Carlisle airport outside Dayton.

I left the Air Force in '58 and became the project security officer on the B-70 — which we were building at Plant 42 in Palmdale — and the X-15, and the F-108 at North American Aircraft in El Segundo, California. The 108 was never built. I got to know Bob Hoover, Scott Crossfield. I was in the desert for the first flight of the X-15 and that was an exciting day.

When did you start restoring airplanes?

  Tom with Ray Stits
  Tom and Ray Stits, founder of Poly Fiber
Right about that time, in the late '50s, when I was at North American. I brought an Ercoupe out from Ohio — no radios, but that was easy in those days — which I based at Torrance, which was convenient because I lived in Manhattan Beach.

I started buying derelict Ercoupes that I'd find at little airports with the weeds growing up through them, and I'd cart them home, fix them up and sell them. I still think that Fred Weick's design was way advanced for its time — compared to the Champ and the Cub — because of all the innovative features. Even the new Citations are using the trailing-link gear that Weick popularized.

I started building replicas and restoring antiques in the late '70s. My first was the Piper PT1, which I found in Ron Ruprecht's hangar at Whiteman. It was a one-off and was Piper's first low-wing, retractable-gear airplane. I hired a New Zealander named Ian Benny to help me restore it. Ian was a whiz at welding, and woodwork and painting, and quite a character. I donated it to EAA in '81 and it's now at the Piper Museum undergoing another restoration.

The second airplane I found in Monroe, Louisiana. It was also a one-off, the VJ-21 motor glider. Ron and I flew there and talked to the guy that owned it. Our first problem was we found 40 pounds of mud daubber nests in the airplane. Ian Benny flew there and it took us about a week to take it apart and put it back together, then Ian flew it back to California. That airplane hangs at the Wings of History museum in San Martin. The DeHaviland Comet project took several years, and it's in beautiful condition except the engines had to be redone — again. We found the engines at EAA at Pioneer Airport, and I traded Paul Poberezny two rebuilt engines for his two older engines. His engines had the drilled crankshaft which would allow for a controllable-pitch prop. We wanted that in order to make the replica historically correct.

We've just completed the LT-14 Meteor. It's a full-scale replica of the airplane that Roscoe Turner flew to win the '38 and '39 National Air Races. Bill Turner has been working on it for four and a half years. Dave Morss is going to fly it.

Dave also flies the Comet, but General Pat Halloran has the most time in it. It's a tricky airplane to fly. Robin Reid — Amelia's son — is a Captain with Northwest and he and General Halloran can both fly it pretty well. The Comet is also at the Wings of History museum waiting for the engines to come back from England. They do great work, but they're sure expensive.

We've got one more replica nearing completion in Colorado Springs. That's the Schoenfeldt Firecracker that was originally known as the Keith Rider R-4 that Tony Le Vier flew. We're not planning to race it, but we will fly it at Reno and Oshkosh.

Speaking of Oshkosh, when did you get involved with EAA?

When I first went to work at North American a friend told me about a magazine called "The Experimenter." I joined right away. I wasn't really active in a particular chapter, but I enjoyed the magazine. I met Paul on my first trip to Oshkosh, and when I donated the Piper they invited me to join the President's Council, and I've been on it ever since. I've always been excited about the Air Academy and I helped raise funds for it, and we've had three of those academies at FlaBob, and it's the first time that the training has been held anywhere but Oshkosh. We can have them year-round, and not just once in the summer like the one in Oshkosh.

We don't have a beautiful lodge Jim Ray built for EAA at Oshkosh, but we are having great fun with the kids.

How did you wind up owning FlaBob airport?

  Vickers Vimy @ FlaBob
  The Vickers Vimy visits FlaBob on its jumbled journey to AirVenture 2001.
I got interested in FlaBob when I contracted with Bill Turner to build the DeHaviland Comet about ten years ago. I was still running my own business and what spare cash I had was going into the Comet. After my company got bought out, I formed a foundation whose primary purpose was education in science, math and technology — using aviation as the medium — and it seemed logical to put the Foundation at FlaBob. I was living in France at the time, but my son Doug and my friend and attorney John Lyon went out to visit the airport. They were told they were too late to buy it — it had already been sold to some developers. They wanted to keep it as an airport but nobody had come along to buy it. My son asked "Do you have a contract?" and they didn't. He asked "Do you have a down payment?" and they didn't. So he took out his checkbook and wrote a check that I covered. That's how close we came to losing FlaBob.

We've paved the areas that were gravel and chewed up props, and we've thrown away a lot of junk. We've torn down three buildings and we're tearing down six more. It's a lot cleaner and neater, and the restaurant is great.

And how did you wind up acquiring what was left of Stoddard-Hamilton and Arlington Aircraft?

I've always been an admirer of the Glasair. I had met Bob Herendeen and watched his airshows, and then I heard that Stoddard-Hamilton was in bankruptcy and somebody had made an offer and it was a done deal. Then I heard that one fell through but there was another offer and that was a done deal. Then I heard that one fell through, too. I had expressed some interest in it to some friends, but it looked like it was too late.

I went to the Masters Golf Tournament — Pinkerton provides the security for it every year — and got bored there because my heart was down at Sun 'N Fun, so I left early and went to Lakeland. That's where I heard that the latest deal had fallen through. I came home Friday — Good Friday — and called John Lyon and asked him to look into it. We discovered there was going to be a court hearing on the Monday after Easter, so on Easter Sunday my son, John, and my wife and I flew to Seattle. We met most of the morning with an attorney in Seattle drafting a contract and getting a cashier's check, and we walked into the court, presented our offer, and it was accepted. The whole deal took three minutes.

We started doing due diligence on the company and we quickly learned about a young attorney named Mikael Via. He had been attempting to assist the creditors — especially the builders, because he was a builder himself — to find a buyer for the company. John and I met with him about a week later and after a three-hour meeting we decided he was the guy we wanted to run the company. He had a thriving law practice, but he saw the Glasair opportunity as a labor of love, so after a talk with his family he decided to do it. He's doing a great job and they're making parts and shipping parts already.

Stoddard-Hamilton had done most of the work under subcontract, and most of it in the state of Washington. After a lot of discussions, we were able to acquire Arlington Aircraft Company, and fold it into the New Glasair company. It has only been four months, but we've made a lot of progress. We were received well at Oshkosh and got eight GlaStar orders, but no orders for Glasairs — not yet.

On July 23rd we announced a new policy for airplanes that builders had made deposits on. We didn't think that we could expect builders to support us unless they were able to consider buying a new airplane or some new parts. It wasn't just altruism or good public relations, it was a conscious business decision to try and be fair to people that had lost so much money. The previous people were using deposits on new orders to fund the parts for previous orders, because they were sorely undercapitalized.

Every order we take will be escrowed. If you send in money you'll get it back if we don't deliver.

Tell us about the Pinkerton company.

  Tom pumping gas
  Self-serve avgas.
Pinkerton is a venerable company, started in 1850 by Alan Pinkerton, who was Chicago's first detective. He also founded and led the first U.S. Secret Service. The company got its notoriety from its work on the railroads and train robbers, then it evolved into a very sophisticated organization specializing in investigative work. During the last 50 years the company shifted its focus from investigations to security guarding. The company had always been family-owned, but after the passing of the last male Pinkerton, the company went into public hands, and one of the earliest and biggest shareholders was Warren Buffett. He ultimately arranged to sell the company to American Brands. When they took over, they wanted it to become even larger, and they put it in the hands of some marketing people whose goal was market share, at the expense of running a profitable business. I was one of their competitors, so I knew they weren't making any money. American Brands was a consumer products company and had no idea how to run a service company.

In September, 1987 I was at a security convention and read in the Wall Street Journal that they were selling the company, and I bought it at an auction. I paid way too much for it, and I was already 57 years old, but we combined it with my business and made it work. We closed 120 offices but we were able to save everybody's job, except for those in New York City. We offered them a chance to move to sunny California, but only six out of 120 of them accepted the offer.

Did your companies handle airport security?

The airport security business — the screening of passengers and baggage — was among the lowest-paid of all the available security work. When those contracts would go out for bids, they would be awarded to the lowest bidder. That has probably changed over the years, but I used to brag about not having airport security or government work. Government work was usually set aside for minority-owned companies.

How much did we save by using the lowest bidder? How much higher was the bid to "do it right" and give us a reliable and efficient screening system?

It wasn't more than 15-20%, in my opinion. Keep in mind, however, that plastic knives STILL won't be found by passenger screening without a full body search. Federalizing this function won't be more efficient — only more costly.

I'm being critical of these low-paying companies, but private security did a pretty good job for the last 20 years or so until September 11th. Despite its many flaws, it was sufficient to keep the "ordinary" bad guy from hijacking an airplane.

You're a life member of the National Intellectual Property Law Institute. What issues do you deal with there?

"NIPLI," as it's called, was formed in Washington, and they're the people who were able to get the Intellectual Property and Industrial Espionage bill passed in 1996. There are statues now that protect your property and criminalize its theft, and that was as a result of NIPLI.

What's next on your restoration/replica list?

I'm working on a replica of Rene Caudron's M460. It's a long, sleek narrow racer. The M360 is a fixed-gear design, and the 460 is a retractable. Michel Detroyat raced it in the '30s and beat just about everything he ran against. I haven't carved a stick or put pen to paper yet. We don't have any models, but we do have the specifications, and there's a similar airplane at the museum at Le Bourget. Our replica will have to be engineered like the Comet and Meteor replicas.

If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.