What’s A Flying Particle?

A Short History by Pete Eltgroth
The University of California “Radiation” Laboratory was founded in 1952 on the site of a Navy Airman’s Training Center on the East side of the town of Livermore, California. That site had been used prior to World War II for one of the original Airmail Postal airports on the East-West route leading through the Salt Lake City area. Even by the 1920’s, it had been realized that the eastern end of the Livermore Valley had the best weather and provided the most reliable terminus for flights into and out of the often foggy San Francisco Bay area.

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Flying Particles member Peter Eltgroth once set a land speed record from San Francisco to Denver

The earliest beginnings of the Flying Particles go back to 1957, when the Livermore Airport was located at the site of a present day trailer park at the Portola Avenue exit from Highway 580. The club was founded by five lab employees who wished to share the costs of airplane ownership. The first airplane was a Piper Cub, which rented for $3.00 per hour (fuel included!) Flight instruction was $2.00 per hour. The club expanded over the next few years, with the next major acquisition being a Piper Tri-Pacer (4 seats – the “Queen of the Fleet”.) At some point, a Luscombe was added to the collection. The airplanes were effectively bought by the club, although it is unclear how title was held. In the very early 1960’s, the Flying Particles, Inc. (FPI) was incorporated as a not-for-profit California corporation. This allowed a clear avenue for joint ownership, as well as the usual limitation of liability for club members.

The Flying Particles never had an official flight instructor. In the beginning, the husband of Edward Teller’s secretary (Ray Chinn, I believe) served as flight instructor for most if not all of those FPI members needing instruction. I never met him – he died of cancer sometime in the mid 1960’s – but he had a fine reputation as an instructor using World War II techniques: a loud voice and judicious use of the cane to correct problems up front. On the ground, he was said to be quite a gentleman.

In 1965, the City of Livermore commissioned its new airport in the present location (safely far away from population!) and gave the old site over to development. The airport had one runway 7-25, just under 4000 feet in length. The chief characteristic of Fixed Base Operators at Livermore has been their evanescence – so I believe that it is true to say that the Flying Particles is the longest lived operator at Livermore airport.

I joined the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory and FPI in 1967, so from this point on, most of the accounts will be from my own memory, subject to the usual errors of time and ability. At that time, the only Flight Instructor available to the club was Bill Shirley, a lab military associate, whose term expired shortly after I joined. The club had by this time experienced enough problems with landings in taildraggers that only tricycle gear airplanes were on the line. A Cessna 150, a Cessna 172, and a Piper Cherokee were available. Flight charges ranged from the teens to the low twenties dollars per hour. There was a minimum number of hours required for a long reservation – no unit charge. Flight instruction was on the order of $10.00 per hour.

A majority of pilots at Livermore were members or ex-members of the Flying Particles. Many early members had something to do with the politics of the new airport. The most usual path for club members was to join the club long enough to get comfortable with flying, and then, finances and spouses willing, quit the club for either sole ownership or a small number of partners in a more high performance airplane.

When I joined the club in 1967, it was about to enter upon a period of expansion. There was an unofficial ratio of 15 members per airplane (thus, membership was about 50 people.) The club was determinedly focused on simple airplanes and the cheapest means of flight. I was a new CFII in the club (the only CFI in the club) and found myself without an airplane in which to fly instruments out of my home base. There were no other instrument rated pilots in the club at that time. A sizable number of members looked upon instrument flight in a single engine aircraft as an invitation to disaster. So, my first action in the club was somewhat devious – I offered to loan it the money to buy a second radio for the Cherokee. This was promptly accepted. I set about training instrument pilots as fast as I could. In addition, several new CFI’s got their certificates flying FPI aircraft.

In 1969, the airport control tower was built and commissioned. The first instrument approach followed in the 1970’s – a VOR approach based on the VOR at Stockton. The ILS was commissioned in the 1980’s.

In the 1970’s, the club expanded, eventually reaching a peak population of about 150. There were long contentious club meetings throughout this time, concerned with the issues of relations with the University of California and new airplanes. The basic U. C. context was that the club was originally run as a Laboratory affiliated organization, restricted to lab employees (and relatives), and received some funding ($100 – $200 per year) from the University. The somewhat artificial membership qualification limited the number of people who could join and thus negated the economies of scale which could make flying even cheaper. So, the ratio of lab members was reduced to 90%, then 75%, 50%, and eventually eliminated. At about the time of the 50% level, the lab management, after prolonged thrashing about, decided to limit its perceived liability by severing all ties with the club, and the club became a totally autonomous operation.

With respect to airplanes, the first major battle was over the issue of a “high performance” airplane – a Cessna 182. There were many who argued that this would be too complex for most club members. Eventually, after about a year of wrangling, a C-182 was located on the East Coast and bought. Admittedly, the club has had a lot of overheated C-182 problems since that time, so perhaps the critics were correct.

The next major development was the association of the club with an American Airline pilot, Erv Rodemsky, who leased a Bonanza to the club. This definitely moved the club into the high performance arena and kept pace with the FAA, which (late 1973), had stipulated that retractable gear aircraft be used for commercial and flight instructor flight tests. Eventually Erv leased two Bonanzas to the club. At the same time, Ron and Anne White took over the club finances, which had gotten somewhat chaotic, and put a sound bookkeeping system in place. The unit charge billing system dates from this time.

The longest trip in FPI airplanes of which I am aware was made in this time period by David Brenner and Norb Ludkey. They flew a C- 182 out to the Antilles Islands in the Caribbean and returned via Jamaica and Mexico. A lot of over-water flying.

In the late stages of the club’s expansion, it became clear that further growth could only be sustained if the club moved toward some kind of professional management and maintenance arrangements. After a series of more long and involved meetings, a type of stare decisis was arrived at, and the club continued as basically a volunteer operation.

At about the time of peak membership, the club experimented with six passenger aircraft, including a C-206 and C-210. There was difficulty in the allocation of funds between aircraft of quite different capitalizations. In addition, there was the question of how to support owned aircraft versus leased. The club was split between a group which wanted high performance aircraft (typically flying more than average) and a group which wanted simple cheap aircraft (typically flying less than average.) Finally, increased fuel costs and general economic uncertainties lead to a loss of membership and contraction of the fleet.

From the mid 1980’s up to present, FPI membership has remained relatively steady, partly due to the maturing of the Tri-Valley population, and partly due to the emergence of other stable flying clubs at Livermore.