America's Airports: Tale of a Gem

Tahoe's 'Lake in the Sky' airport turns 50

March 1, 2008

Lake Tahoe Airport (TVL), South Lake Tahoe, California, January 15, 2008

“Other airports may have ‘Tahoe’ in their name, but there’s only one airport on the lake,” declares Michael Golden, owner of Mountain West Aviation, the new FBO at Lake Tahoe Airport (TVL).

It is 9:45 a.m. on a chilly, brilliantly sunny day as Golden steps from the wing of his Mooney. He just flew in from Truckee, California, only 10 minutes by air. Behind him a gigantic snow blower pumps massive mounds of snow off the ramp after a major winter storm pounded the region days before. Golden enters the FBO where fresh coffee, pastry (baked by Golden himself), and Swiss chocolate truffles work their charm, and an attentive staff makes everyone feel welcome. The unicom crackles briefly when Bob Howell announces his arrival in an experimental Murphy SR-3500 Moose. Soon, Howell emerges in pursuit of the FBO’s coffee and baked goods. He has flown in from Carson City to escape the Democratic caucus in town.

The FBO parking lot is chockfull of cars covered by several feet of snow. FBO General Manager Joel Waddell explains: The cars belong to patrons who live elsewhere, but want their own transportation handy when returning to TVL. For Waddell and staff, this means the vehicle has to be located, cleaned off, and most likely jump-started. Today, it might take several hours to uncover any car.

A gem at the lake now and then

One glance around takes your breath away. TVL’s 8,544-foot long runway stretches north to south connecting the southern tip of Lake Tahoe with the Sierra Nevada ranges. The ramp gives way to the terminal building, which houses airport and town offices, and Chase’s Bar and Grill.

Airport Director Rick Jenkins is seated in his office on the first floor quietly overlooking his domain. Behind him hangs a dry-erase board depicting drawings of the various improvements the airport is destined to undergo. His conference table displays a massive collection of photo albums and newspaper clippings that trace the history of Lake Tahoe’s airport back to when it was built in 1958. The articles tell tales of an era when amphibian McKinnon Grumman Goose and Martin 404 aircraft used by Tahoe Airlines and Kilfoyle Air Travel Service disembarked tourists eager to stay and play—be it at local casinos, or enjoying boating, hiking, biking, and the winter sports.

If you go: Mountain flying
and noise abatement

Learn about the unique aspects of mountain flying and get hands-on instruction from a qualified instructor. Contact the airport for mountain-flying courses and take the AOPA Air Safety Foundation Mountain Flying course online. Please heed noise sensitive areas and local noise abatement guidelines. For detailed airport information, see AOPA’s Airport Directory and Lake Tahoe Airport’s Web site.

These frail pieces of paper also sharply underline the contrast between a bustling commercial-general aviation airport in its heyday during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s and the negative issues this airport has faced from the aftermath of airline deregulation and 9/11 to recent environmental battles. Scheduled airlines stopped service to TVL after 1992. The airport control tower ceased operation on October 1, 2004. Today, city offices have replaced the terminal’s ticket counters and baggage carousels.

Such setbacks have hurt the airport during the past decade, but Golden and Jenkins are determined to restore the airport to its former glory. TVL’s vision statement stresses public safety, green technology, and the best management practices for an environmentally progressive airport. Jenkins has involved community youth in a reforestation project planting willow trees along the banks of the Upper Truckee River, a lake tributary that flows along the east end of the airport. It’s a win-win project that supports the airport’s safety requirements while it protects its environment and natural habitat.

Golden has transformed the FBO into a welcome haven for airport tenants and transients: It has waived facility fees for light aircraft and lowered fuel prices. If you just want to stretch your legs or nestle near a warm fire, the small building has a comfortable lounge with fireplace to boot. Always on the lookout to make your stay pleasant and memorable, Mountain West Aviation has negotiated preferred lodging rates with local accommodations in South Lake Tahoe. The FBO plans on providing bicycles, concierge services, and transient hangar space.

Of Hawkers, LSAs, and ’copters

This morning, a weekday with not much traffic expected, the airport and FBO prepare for a Hawker inbound over the lake. The rental car is to meet the airplane on the ramp to whisk away the passengers. No sooner has the aircraft come to a stop than the soon-to-be skiers find ramp staff loading the downhill equipment into their SUV. No waste or chitchat: The passengers make a quick getaway in pursuit of the area’s nearby spectacular powder-covered mountains that flank the lake; the two Hawker pilots complete post-flight and shutdown before traipsing to one of the resorts within five miles of the airport.

Another call emerges on the frequency; this time from an inbound Evektor SportStar, piloted by Howell’s wife, Leslie. She’s also retreating from Carson, but his Murphy Moose departs just as she touches down. “We’re trying to avoid each other, whenever possible,” she quips. This his-and-her airplane scheme might have marital merit.

As the FBO staff and patrons exchange pleasantries and truffles are consumed, Michael Zwijacz fires up his LongEZ, avoids the snow blower’s snow plumes, and quickly escapes into the air, something he will repeat a couple more times this day. At the same time, a Robinson R44 Raven helicopter turns its rotor blades, and the crimson-colored aircraft ascends into the cobalt sky with instructor Claudio Walter Bellotto and student Steven Hamilton in preparation for Hamilton’s upcoming checkride. Bellotto, who owns and operates HeliTahoe, spent countless hours flying Hercules C-130s for the Italian Air Force many years ago. He now provides basic and advanced helicopter training, mountain flight training, sightseeing tours, and aerial photography. Plans to expand services include helicopter hunting and fishing trips.

Getting married? Try Heli-Wedding, an extremely popular hitch at altitude. A 20-minute flight with HeliTahoe and one of Simple Tahoe Weddings’ ministers clinches the deal. Looking ahead, Bellotto contemplates hiring a lawyer to celebrate divorces too; “Over the lake,” he jests.

Rescue work

The airport has been pivotal in staging rescue and firefighting efforts. South Lake Tahoe’s Civil Air Patrol Blackhawk Squadron’s search and rescue unit member Doug Wallace recalls search efforts for Steve Fossett; and then there was a mission that involved a murder trial. But no one can forget the day the squadron first opened its doors at TVL to emergency crews assembled to fight the Angora Fire, the worst in Lake Tahoe’s history. More than 200 homes and 3,000 acres of forest burned during the week of June 24, 2007. But TVL’s runways and ramps were ready and able to accommodate 27 fire-fighting aircraft that would save property and lives. Three months later, five agricultural aircraft flew 3,200 aerial hydro-mulch flights from the airport to stabilize soil in the Angora Fire site.

Lake Tahoe Airport also serves as one of Calstar’s (California Shock Trauma Air Rescue) eight bases. Program manager Tom Pandola praises the utility of the MD Explorer helicopter equipped with a Notar anti-torque system. Notar or “no tail rotor,” facilitates loading and unloading patients through the air ambulance’s rear door. The Explorer, with one pilot and two flight nurses, assures patients a safe and quiet ride onboard the mini intensive care unit while receiving urgent care en route to a medical facility.

The sunset

As the sun prepares to settle behind the peaks of nearby ski resorts, Bellotto’s R44 makes one last pass over the airport. The runway suspends like a beautiful pendant from the ribbon of road running along the shore of one of the deepest alpine lakes in the world (1,645 feet). “Spectacular” does not adequately describe the vista of the glorious lake and mountains aglow with warm sunrays. While the airport community settles in for the evening, Golden and his Mooney depart quietly over the lake. Airport Director Jenkins closes up for the day, the coffee pot at Mountain West Aviation is turned off, and the truffles are gone.

E-mail the author at machteld.smith@aopa.org.

Lake Tahoe Airport Timeline

1958

  • El Dorado County breaks ground for Lake Tahoe Airport.

1959

  • The airport opens with a 5,900-foot runway; 200 airplanes attend the ceremony.
  • During the opening dedication, Kilfoyle Air Travel Service (KATS) Airlines flies 42 passengers in a Martin 404, and Wells Products company of San Leandro delivers an emergency order of 10,000 rivets for Harrah’s slot machines, making it the first airfreight shipment at TVL.
  • Tahoe Air Lines Inc (TALI) introduces flights in a four-engine amphibian McKinnon Goose.
  • Air ambulance services start flying out of TVL.

1960

  • U.S. Forest Service and California Department of Forestry representatives discuss plans to locate an aerial fire fighting task force at TVL.
  • Lake Tahoe Airport facilitates the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley.
  • Golden Gate Airways, Harper Aviation, Silver Dollar Airlines, and Trans-Sierra Airways begin service.
  • A Pacific Southwest Airline (70-passenger) DC–4 lands at the airport—the first time an aircraft that size has landed at TVL.
  • A TWA constellation delivers 56 passengers for a golf tournament.
  • TWA plans to fly charter service with a Constellation carrying 80 passengers, and requests that TVL’s runway is lengthened.

1961

  • Commodore Air Service operates scheduled service with amphibian aircraft.
  • Futura Airlines plans service with Lockheed Constellations.

1962

  • The runway is extended to 8,544 feet.
  • Paradise Airlines initiates intra state service from TVL.

1963

  • A Pan-American Airways 707 lands at the airport—the first time a jet aircraft this large has landed at TVL.
  • On average, 132 flights per day operate from Lake Tahoe Airport during the summer.
  • Pacific Airlines initiates service with twin-engine F-27 aircraft carrying 44 passengers; it provides the first airmail service at TVL.

1964

  • The air traffic control tower opens.

1965

  • Holiday Airlines initiates service with an 11-passenger DeHavilland.
  • Boeing lands a 727 at the airport in a demonstration for Pacific Airlines.
  • Sierra Pacific Airlines initiates service.

1966

  • Cal-State Airlines initiates service.

1969

  • The airport terminal opens.

1974

  • More than 39,400 passengers fly out of Lake Tahoe Airport on scheduled airlines.

1975

  • Holiday Airlines stops service; Air California (AirCal) and Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) begin scheduled service.

1978

  • More than 294,000 passengers fly out of Lake Tahoe Airport on scheduled airlines.

1979

  • Aspen Airways provides scheduled service.
  • Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) contests PSA’s and AirCal’s request to use jet aircraft at Lake Tahoe Airport; PSA and AirCal terminate scheduled service.
  • Number of passengers flying out of Lake Tahoe Airport drops 45 percent to about 169,700.

1980

  • Number of passengers flying out of Lake Tahoe Airport drops 58 percent to about 68,700.

1981

  • Golden West Airlines provides scheduled service.

1982

  • Pacific Coast Airlines provides commuter service.
  • Number of passengers flying out of Lake Tahoe Airport drops to 37,553.

1983

  • The city purchases the airport from the county for $1.
  • AirCal reinstates scheduled service using jet aircraft.

1984

  • Number of passengers flying out of Lake Tahoe Airport increases to 91,422.

1986

  • Wings West/American Eagle begins scheduled service.

1991

  • American Airlines (formerly AirCal) terminates service; American Eagle continues.

1992

  • Concerns regarding the impact of aircraft operations result in a legal settlement agreement that establishes strict noise and access restrictions at TVL.
  • TRPA adopts the Master Plan Settlement Agreement.
  • The FAA adopts the Lake Tahoe Airport Commercial Airline Access Plan.
  • United Express and Alpha Air begin commuter service.

1994

  • Tahoe Airline Guarantee Corporation (TAG) provides a subsidy to Reno Air to re-establish scheduled jet service.
  • American Eagle and United Express terminate commuter service; Reno Air begins scheduled service.

1995

  • TAG ceases subsidy to Reno Air, which terminates scheduled service.
  • Alpha Air/Trans World Express ceases operations; Sierra Expressway begins scheduled commuter service.

1996

  • Sierra Expressway ceases operations.

1997 to 1998

  • There is no scheduled air service at TVL.

1999

  • Allegiant Air and Tahoe Air begin scheduled service; about 11,950 passengers fly out of TVL.

2001

  • Scheduled air service stops at Lake Tahoe Airport.

2004

  • The air traffic control tower closes.

2007

  • The city council approves the airport’s vision statement, which states that the airport will be a world-class general aviation facility, and that the city retains the right for commercial airline service.
  • Fire fighting aircraft operate from the airport during the Angora Fire; a joint Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is established in the airport terminal building.
  • Agricultural aircraft fly aerial hydromulch flight operations from the airport to stabilize soil in the Angora Fire site.
  • Benefits to the community during and after the fire point to the value of the airport during emergencies.
  • An economic impact study of the airport highlights its economic value.