1997 to 1998
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected].