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At 80, Santa Rosa's Bob Archibald hangs up his flight-instructor wings

Bob Archibald of Santa Rosa at the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, Friday Nov. 24, 2012. For many years, Archibald taught students to fly planes at Dragonfly Aviation which he recently shut down.

Kent Porter/ THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 6:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 6:18 p.m.

If there's anything more rewarding than to buckle into a sleek machine with wings and power up to bank and glide and revel in a bird's-eye view of the neighborhood or the coast or the Earth, it may be to teach another person to fly.

Bob Archibald has taught many through the 31 years the former Air Force pilot ran the now-grounded Dragonfly Aviation flight school at the Sonoma County-Charles M. Schulz Airport.

"After many years, I look back at the dozens of former students now sitting in the front seat of major airlines," said Archibald, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars who sports a white handlebar moustache and doesn't look his 80 years.

He savors replays of a favorite moment for someone in his line of work: standing on the tarmac and flashing a thumbs-up to a student about to take off on his or her first solo flight.

But Dragonfly has trained its last pilot. Archibald has closed the flight service, having run out of money and been evicted from the county airport.

He's regretful and also a bit bitter. He said he believes that though his business has struggled, it might have survived had airport management not thwarted his efforts to expand his services, most notably to restore a former aspect of his business and once again sell fuel at the airport.

"There were ways we could have been supported by the airport, which we were not," Archibald said. "There were opportunities we weren't allowed to carry out."

Airport manager Jon Stout views the demise of the landmark flight service differently.

"I don't think we dealt with him in an unfair manner," Stout said. In fact, he added, "we felt we bent over backwards" to accommodate those proposed expansions of Dragonfly's services that met airport standards.

Ultimately, Stout said, the problem with Dragonfly was that Archibald too often failed to pay his rent.

"I like Bob as a person. He's a nice guy," Stout said. "It came down to business."

Despite his grievances with airport management, Archibald said he will not contest the eviction. He foresees his bumpy ride continuing, saying he hasn't the money to pay his vendors or refund down-payments from some new students.

"So I'm going to have to see a bankruptcy attorney and take care of it that way," he said.

The involuntary shuttering of Dragonfly, which leaves one helicopter flight school and one fixed-wing school at the airport between Santa Rosa and Windsor, is not the way Archibald hoped to conclude his career in aviation.

He has loved to fly since a family friend took him up over the Central Valley in a two-seat Piper J-3 Cub. It was August 1941, shortly before the U.S. would enter World War II, and Archi-bald was 9 years old.

He enrolled in Air Force ROTC as a student at Oregon State University, and in 1954 -- with the Korean conflict still on -- enlisted and commenced flight training. That war ended before he was ready to fly in combat.

"Vietnam was my war," he said. He flew the RF-101 fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft.

Early on in his war service, he expected to fulfill his commitment to the Air Force and then resume his studies in pursuit of a doctorate in geography.

"But I loved my job as a fighter pilot and chose to stay for a career," he said.

Archibald left the service in 1976 and a short while later brought his family to Santa Rosa. He flew commuter planes out of the county airport for STOL Air before launching Dragonfly Aviation in 1981.

He and his instructors staffed the operation every day of the year except Christmas and shared with a great many people the thrill of flight.

"The most enjoyment in teaching folks to fly is when all the training comes together and clicks," Archibald said. "When they go up solo for the first time, that really is satisfying."

Thirty-six years after he retired from his Air Force career, he regrets losing his school to bankruptcy and eviction. But the old bird said with an accepting shrug, "Maybe this is all a sign that it's long enough."

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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