By Clayton Moore
The deeply intertwined aviation and business communities of Southern California ended the year grieving over the loss of one of their own, Barbara Cesar, who passed away on Nov. 10, 2007, due to complications from minor surgery. Inspired by her late husband Ed Cesar, she became one of the Van Nuys Airport business community’s most outspoken and tenacious supporters, as well as a guiding light for young people with dreams of working in aviation or aerospace fields.
She will most commonly be remembered as the co-founder and chief executive of Syncro Aircraft Interiors, a successful aviation interiors business that counted dozens of movie stars among its clients. Cesar was also a passionate artist, loving spouse, daring traveler and generous supporter of unique film projects, student internships and other entrepreneurial endeavors.
A perfect match
The future CEO was born Barbara Foster in Washington, D.C., on March 15, 1951, the second of four children born to John Samuel and Vera Foster. Her beauty was recognized from an early age, when she was first runner-up in the Falls Church High School Beauty Pageant at age 16.
She attended Richmond Polytechnic University for a few years, pouring her heart into a burgeoning interest in art by studying abroad in Italy and Greece.
She then went to work as a flight attendant. In 1977, she met a handsome courier named Ed Cesar, whose hobbies were more interesting than his resume. The charming Cesar was a savvy flight instructor and an international hang-gliding champion, in addition to his day job as a pilot. The two enjoyed each other’s company, often hang gliding off the famous dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. They soon decided to go into business together.
Foster earned her own pilot’s license in 1980 and the couple purchased a Mooney. They began to embark on long trips, not to destinations only within the United States, but also to more exotic locales including Haiti, Jamaica and the Yucatan Peninsula. She later learned to fly helicopters as well.
While in Baja on one of their many adventures, they were offered the opportunity to lease a hangar at Compton Airport. Cesar and Foster decided to form Syncro Aircraft Interiors, a venture that would combine her interest in art and their common interest in airplanes. They began renovating and designing aircraft interiors during their off hours. They began by fixing up their own 1967 Mooney and then formed their own company with just $200 and a borrowed sewing machine.
The company opened as a full-time business in 1983. The next year, they had their first taste of filmmaking experience when Cesar was asked to perform his soaring hang-gliding maneuvers for a short film simply titled, “Up,” directed by Mike Hoover and Tim Huntley.
“He won an Academy Award for the film in 1985,” his wife recalled during a company-sponsored event last year. “He used to say that Syncro was the only aircraft ‘refurb center’ to ever win an Oscar.”
In 1984, Foster and Cesar decided to set up shop at Van Nuys, one of the busiest general aviation facilities in the country. At the same time they were bonding over business, the couple decided it was time to sanctify their own relationship. A decade after they first met, Barbara Foster and Ed Cesar were married at the picturesque but remote Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Valle de Bravo, Mexico.
Her family recalled that the wedding party had to hike up precarious mountain trails to get to the site. Fearing the traditional warning that seeing the bride’s dress prior to the wedding is bad luck, Foster wore her dress under a burlap sack throughout the miles-long trek.
Growing a business
Over time, the company grew to fill a 128,000- square-foot hangar and employ more than 30 people. Ed Cesar called Syncro’s craftsmanship “a dying art,” even as the company’s employees were busy hand stitching leather seats, crafting cabinetry and wiring aircraft. Just one of the company’s custom interiors sometimes took up to 10,000 man-hours.
Barbara also grew into one of the country’s most recognized aircraft interior designers, creating specially designed interiors and selecting all the fabric.
“Anything to do with art has always been a passion to me,” she told Airport Journals in 2002.
The Cesar’s company still occupies a historic hangar built during 1940s. It was used by the military during World War II and was later occupied by Lockheed’s famous “Skunk Works,” the top-secret military facility that built aircraft like the U-2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane.
Cesar was as surprised as anyone when Hollywood stars became regular clients.
“Over time, we found that we had created a niche industry that attracted major leaders in the aviation and aerospace industry, as well as heads of state, A-list celebrities and other aircraft owners,” Cesar recalled.
She also remembered being startled when John Travolta called and asked her to meet with him to redesign his Gulfstream G-II. Syncro eventually became the interior design house of choice for Kevin Costner, Frank Sinatra, director and actor Sydney Pollack and family friend Ernest Borgnine, who appeared in Syncro’s advertisements.
The Cesars also participated directly in filmmaking via a sister company, EPS Aviation Stages, which built mock-ups for the entertainment industry and rented hangar space for film sequences. The company created ersatz aircraft for “Jurassic Park,” “Face/Off” and “Seinfeld,” and its hangar can be seen in films like “Patriot Games,” “True Lies,” “Batman and Robin” and “Air Force One.” Although Hollywood clients were always interesting, they could also prove challenging from time to time.
“It’s a tough business,” said Cesar. “The hard thing is the time limits, because an airplane can’t make money when it’s sitting on the ground. They want it flying, and they want it done as fast as possible. In the entertainment industry, they’ll build a movie set in a couple of days and take it down in half a day. They can’t understand why you can’t just put an aircraft interior together in a couple of days.”
Although the company achieved great success, legal troubles and health problems nearly put Syncro Aircraft Interiors asunder. In 1992, Syncro came into conflict with the leaseholder on its Van Nuys property, kicking off a decade-long legal battle. In 1997, Los Angeles World Airports attempted to evict Syncro from Van Nuys Airport, leading to a countersuit in Los Angeles Superior Court.
In May 2002, the couple learned that their hangar was due to be demolished. Two days later, Ed suffered a brain aneurysm and died.
Grief-stricken, Barbara Cesar vowed to keep the business going. She took over as CEO and shepherded the company through some of its darkest days. In 2005, Syncro triumphed and was able to negotiate a resolution to its legal struggle and retain its lease at Van Nuys.
“My husband was a very proud man, and we did what we felt needed to be done for justice,” she told the San Fernando Valley Business Journal following the settlement. “I don’t want to finger point, but we had to fight for what we worked so hard to build. We invested a huge amount of time and effort and had our employees and their families to think about. I wish I hadn’t had to go through with it. The hardest part is knowing that we worked so hard in developing a business. We created jobs and provided a beautiful product, yet we were labeled as if we did something wrong. It’s painful.”
A beacon for others
During the course of their airport challenges, the Cesars became devoted advocates of start-up companies like their own. Both often campaigned on behalf of other small businesses and leased office space in their hangar to other companies.
“Small businesses are the future of our country,” Cesar said. “We believe very strongly in protecting that. It’s part of America, and it’s vital.”
She adeptly stepped into the role vacated by her late husband and guided the company forward, building strong bonds within the aviation industry and her community. In 2006, the San Fernando Valley Business Journal honored her achievements, bestowing her with the CEO of the Year Award, given at its Women Who Mean Business event.
Cesar was also devoted to helping others. She recalled how she and “Captain Eddie” would sometimes use an abandoned Caravelle jet on their property as an improvised classroom to help Boy Scouts earn their aviation merit badges. In that spirit, she established the Ed Cesar Foundation in 2003, which each year provides the cost of earning a private pilot’s license for a deserving teenager in the Van Nuys community.
To further honor her husband’s memory and augment her own charitable efforts, she helped organize an aviation career day at Van Nuys Airport in 2006, to offer area youth an opportunity to learn about job opportunities within aviation and aerospace industries. More than 60 local and regional aviation-related firms showcased exhibits and many offered young people opportunities to pursue summer jobs or internships. More than 2,500 visitors attended the event, most of them children.
“Granting them access to an experience many of them have never known is a thrill for me,” she said during the event. “It will broaden their horizons, definitely, and give them a reason for soaring to new heights.”
While the first event was open to the public, this year’s event on April 20 was by invitation only, given to 25 Los Angeles area high schools. The second “The Sky’s The Limit” Aviation Career Day drew 1,800 young men and women from the area’s schools, who were able to meet aviation legends like Bob Hoover and Clay Lacy and enjoy the entertaining emcee, television and film star John Ratzenberger.
Cesar also worked on the San Fernando Valley Aviation Aerospace Collaborative, a program which provides internships to 500 students and also organizes a speakers bureau, tours of aviation-related companies and collaborative projects between schools and aviation companies. It’s the first regional collaborative of its nature in the nation to collaborate with public high schools.
Although she didn’t live to see it completed, Cesar also planned to launch an aviation and aerospace museum for children.
“Aviation and hang gliding were Ed’s passions, as was his desire to offer to young people the same ‘gift of flight’ that he had enjoyed as a youth,” Cesar said. “Aviation Career Day is the second step I’m taking to make Ed’s dreams a reality. The next is to establish an aviation and aerospace museum for children, to let them know that in the aviation industry, the sky really is the limit.”
Another of her projects became a reality in 2005; Cesar was one of the original supporters and financial contributors to the film, “One Six Right,” a critically acclaimed documentary by filmmaker Brian J. Terwilliger. The film told the history of the airport that Ed and Barbara Cesar called home.
Cesar’s legacy continues even after her death; the week after she died, a group of Monroe High School students started internships at Syncro.
Cesar was also a fervent supporter of the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, as well as the international organization of women pilots known as the Ninety-Nines, the Wildlife Images Rehabilitation and Education Center in Oregon and numerous local and national charities.
“Her greatest joy was helping others to be the best they could,” said Glen Foster, Cesar’s brother.
More than 300 people joined family, friends and colleagues at Van Nuys Airport for a Nov. 16 memorial service. Helicopters and planes from the airport flew over the Syncro hangar to mark her passing.
Cesar indicated in her will that she wished for Pierre-Louis Moroni, a longtime employee of Syncro and its former head of sales, to become CEO of the company. Moroni pledged to continue Cesar’s mission and maintain her artistic integrity. He recalled the demanding days around Ed Cesar’s death and acknowledged the loss of Barbara Cesar as an equally difficult blow.
“It’s like we lost our mom and dad,” Moroni said.