Jack Gotcher has been a driving force at Meadows Field airport for nearly a decade -- first as deputy director, and for the past five and a half years, as director of Kern County's airports.

But soon his work will come to an end.

Gotcher, 66, told The Californian he will retire at the end of March.

"Someone needs to take the airport to the next level," the former Air Force combat pilot and Vietnam War veteran said Wednesday evening.

"It's time for me to pass the baton to the next runner."

When he arrived in 2003, Meadows Field was a relic of an earlier era, with an outdated terminal and runways that were too short and poorly lighted.

Gotcher, along with former airports director Ray Bishop, helped oversee the transition of Bakersfield's hub from a 1950s-era facility to a modern airport poised for growth and change.

But that vision was interrupted by a severe economic downturn that reduced travel volume from a peak of 345,129 passengers in 2006 to about 208,000 in 2009.

By 2011, the volume had partially rebounded to about 253,000 -- and Gotcher estimated that it has increased by another 10 percent in 2012. But during the deep economic slump, Bakersfield lost its international service to Mexico and service to other destinations as well.

Kern County 4th District Supervisor Ray Watson, who is also retiring after years of service, said Gotcher has been critical in guiding Kern's airports through a difficult period.

"In my district, he helped secure funding for a study to look at the possibility of moving the airport in Taft," Watson said.

That airstrip, which is too close to city development, was built on a slight incline, Watson said, a flaw that makes significant investment in the facility unwise and virtually impossible.

The next step is to determine where to relocate, a process that Gotcher has been involved in as well.

Of Meadows Field, Watson said he's encouraged that passenger service to Houston, and additional service to Denver, was added last year. Things are headed in the right direction, he said.

No one could have forseen the depth of the recession the airport -- and the entire county -- faced in 2008 and the years following. But like it or not, it's a part of the administrator's legacy.

"He served during a time that prevented him from fully realizing the full potential," Watson said.

Gotcher, who has been married to his wife, Sharon, for 46 years, said he will continue to volunteer his time with Honor Flight Kern County, and possibly other charitable endeavors.

The couple will remain in Bakersfield.

"We like Bakersfield," he said. "It's a great town."