‘Ok Tim… looks like a good day. Let’s go fly.’ Those were the words that excited and terrified me. Then Gary added, deadpan: ‘Oh, and by the way, it’s a good idea to bring along a parka and a pair of boots. Just in case we have to land out in the snow somewhere and walk out.’ Did he really just say that?
Gary Anderson has been flying for decades and loves to soar above the Truckee/Tahoe region, taking in the sublime views that one can only find from a low-flying aircraft. He had offered to take me for a ride, and we had been waiting for the right conditions to go up in the air. One beautiful May morning, it was time. When I told my friend Kevin Murnane, who had been up in Gary’s plane, about my flying plans, he had just one question: ‘Do you get air sick?’
My first trip to the Truckee Tahoe Airport some 40 years earlier was a highlight of my childhood. One summer morning I jumped on a plane piloted by Mac McPherson, the father of my friend Dallas. In just a few hours, the three of us were in the Bay Area, walking into Candlestick Park. Growing up, I was a Giants fanatic, worshipping Willie Mays, Bobbie Bonds, Juan Marichal, and Willie McCovey. I’m not sure what was more thrilling, seeing my childhood heroes in the flesh for the first time on that wave of green grass, or flying over the Sierra in a small plane to get there.
I wasn’t really paying much attention to the airport when I boarded that plane in the early 1970s. If I had, perhaps I would have noticed that the airport was just a young sprite. The announcement in 1957 that the Olympics were coming to Squaw Valley led to a drive for an airport for Truckee and North Tahoe. A few years later, a special district was created to build the facilities, and the airport was dedicated in 1964. Former airport manager George Edmondson, who was also coincidentally co-owner of the plane I flew on to that Giants game, remembers that it was fairly common back then for Tahoe business people to share a plane with other locals. It was an age before computers and cell phones, when business was actually conducted face to face, and aviation fuel was cheap. Thus, you could inexpensively jump in a plane, fly to a meeting with Bay Area clients in the morning, and be back in Tahoe by the afternoon — a lot more fun than driving down the newly constructed I-80.
When Gary and I arrived at the airport it was a nearly perfect day for flying. Snow-covered mountains basked below the deep-blue sky, and valleys of green dotted with water shimmered in the sunlight. Back when I took my first flight, there were only about 30 planes in residence here, and they were sitting out in the open. Now, more than 150 planes are safely ensconced in a long line of dark-green, metal hangers. But with the current astronomical cost of aviation fuel and the state of the economy, many of those planes are not emerging from those hangers very often.
While in a commercial airport things are tightly controlled and planes must follow the instructions of the air traffic guys, in a small general aviation setup like Truckee’s, it’s the pilots’ communication with each other that keeps things safe. Once Gary had gone through all of his preflight checks, we put out the word that we were going to take off. A few minutes later, we were up in the air, smooth as silk, heading north toward the Sierra Buttes.
Once we were over the massive green expanse of the Sierra Valley, you could see dozens of small streams heading in every direction. Gary calmly told me that just in case he was incapacitated, it was important that I knew how to fly the plane. ‘It’s easier than driving a car,’ he assured me as he explained the basics of flying — the pedals to make the plane go left and right, the stick to make it go up and down. Within a few minutes, I was cautiously flying.
North of the Sierra Buttes we turned and followed the crest of the Sierra, passing wind-scraped Mt. Lola, then Castle Peak, seemingly close enough to touch on our left. Just a few more minutes brought us by Anderson Peak, Tinker Knob, then right over Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. I could see skiers negotiating the slopes of KT-22 below, then a turn gave me a clear view of Twin Peaks and Desolation Wilderness to the south, before floating out over Lake Tahoe and turning north toward the airport. Gary was willing to keep flying over the lake to check out the Flume Trail, but Kevin’s words were beginning to haunt me and kissing the ground upon landing did not seem out of the question.
In the end, it was an incredible experience. I have spent the bulk of my life exploring the beauty of the Sierra mountains, but only on foot, bike, or skis. I never truly appreciated the splendor that surrounds us until I was up in the air looking down on the stark profile of Twin Peaks, and a minute later floating quietly over our deep, blue piece of paradise.
~ Tim Hauserman lives in Tahoe City. He wrote ‘Cross-Country Skiing in the Sierra Nevada.’ Comment on this column below.