Copeland, Bob

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    Bob Copeland
    Former Owner of San Tan Dusters
    Interview by Jean Reynolds
    Summary by Adiba Rehman

    When asked what he loved about flying, Bob Copeland answered, “Oh my, everything.” From crop dusting to aerobatics air shows and movie stunt flying, Bob has done it all. Interested in aviation from a very early age, Bob learned to fly at the age of fifteen. Born in 1928 in Lamar, Colorado, Bob grew up during the Depression and graduated from high school in Boise, Idaho in1945. He gained ground school experience by joining the Civil Air Patrol as a cadet. He had to hitch hike or ride his bike seven miles out of town to take flying lessons. He paid for the lessons from his weekly wages as a helper on a creamery truck. Along with his pilot’s license he also earned a mechanic’s license and ended up with a job maintaining Empire Airlines’ 247 planes. When the company ran out of money, Bob joined a crop dusting business as a mechanic, and helped build an airplane for his employer. In 1950, he took on his first flying job, dusting fields of sugar beets.
    In 1952, Crowley Dusting, which was operating from the Chandler Airport, offered Bob a job in central Arizona to fumigate cotton. A year later, Bob and his family settled in Chandler. In 1957 Bob started San Tan Dusters, together with three farmer friends, Gene Findley, Reid Riggs and Jake Neely. He brought three little planes from Arkansas to Chandler, took their wings off and rebuilt them in his backyard. The company first operated off the half mile strip on the Riggs’s farm, but all the accompanying noise and dust became a problem. So they leased twenty acres from the city on the northeast corner of Chandler Airport, which was mainly open land with no water rights. At the time, the airport only had one gravel airstrip that ran from northeast to southwest.
    For a couple of years, they kept their planes tied out in the open until they built a hangar. By 1976, due to growing residential areas and FAA restrictions on crop dusting near homes, they brought in helicopters to work the fields near houses. They also began using pesticide sprays rather than dust. However, by the 1980s, crop dusting in the Chandler area slowed dramatically. The urban growth took over the fields they had once sprayed. In addition, growers began to use cotton seeds that were genetically modified to repel insects. Demand for crop dusting dropped. By 1989, Bob sold his business and took a much awaited vacation after twenty nine years-- flying to Alaska and back with his wife in his little plane.
    But life was not all work. In 1966, Bob won sixth place in the Reno Air Race, a national aerobatics championship. He helped put on fundraising shows at the Chandler Airport, as well as bringing the 1978 “Cloud Dancer” film makers in to shoot scenes for at the airport for the movie.  He flew with two friends in clipped wing Cubs, calling themselves the Clipped Wing Air Force. Bob also performed stunt flying for the 1977 movie, “Kingdom of Spiders,” and flew in a helicopter in “Cannon Ball Run II.”
    When asked about the importance of the airport, Bob remarked, “Well…when Chandler was just a little cotton growers’ town with Williams Air Force Base, the airport wasn’t really important for the community.  Now it is very important for a growing community to have a facility like Chandler Airport, and have one that will grow with the growth. ”  Today, at 82, Bob Copeland has found the plane of his dreams. It is a Rearwing Cloudster, built in 1940 with three seats, and 120 horsepower engine. It is one of the two that is still flying in the country. When it is fully restored, he thinks, it will be “a fun plane to fly.”


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