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Float-plane touches down at Obexer’s Photo Courtesy of Herbert P. Obexer

Float-plane touches down at Obexer’s
Photo Courtesy of Herbert P. Obexer

Tahoe’s rare air and characteristically calm waters are companion forces that have always been a challenge to float planes, the suction of a glassy surface making water takeoffs difficult and sometimes even impossible. In 1919, when flight itself was still something of a novelty, the operator of a seaplane from the Sacramento Valley tempted fate by landing on the big pond – the first pilot in recorded history to do so. Several days of dead calm later, after a number of attempts to take off under its own power, the aircraft had to be disassembled and trucked out of the Basin.

In 1933, Varney Airlines brought an amphibious plane to the Lake to determine the feasibility of high-altitude aviation, as described in the Sierra Sun & Truckee Republican:

Courtesy of Sierra Sun

Courtesy of Sierra Sun

In May 1938, some local aerophiles were on hand when international adventurer Richard Archbold landed a flying boat on the Lake in order to perform tests in preparation for a trip to New Guinea.

Richard Archbold and his seaplane C.W. Vernon Photo

Richard Archbold and his seaplane
C.W. Vernon Photo

Here’s the report of Archbold’s visit in the Truckee paper:

Courtesy of Sierra Sun

Courtesy of Sierra Sun

…and Archbold’s plane:

C.W. Vernon Photo

C.W. Vernon Photo

As advances in aeronautics continued and the general public’s love affair with flying got ever more serious, the possibility of commercial air service connecting Tahoe with San Francisco and points in between came closer to reality. In 1945, Wes Stetson pioneered a for-hire seaplane service that he called simply Seaplane Service, headquartered in Emerald Bay. Here’s a photo and news item about the service:

Lillian Vernon Farr Collection

Lillian Vernon Farr Collection

1946-9:16 Stetson news item

The Trimmer Amphibian apparently failed to meet expectations, for nothing more was heard of it in print.

However, Stetson’s business was a solid success, and about 1964-65 Mike and Lois Brown bought him out, calling their new venture Cal-Vada Aircraft. Mike Brown recalled that Stetson later replaced his TaylorCraft with a Republic SeaBee. The Browns acquired a DeHavilland Beaver, and took up where Stetson had left off, continuing in business for something like three decades.

from the 1977 Yellow Pages

from the 1977 Yellow Pages

For several seasons beginning in 1954, bandleader Del Courtney’s Commodore Airlines provided another Tahoe-San Francisco seaplane connection. Fares for scheduled flights out of Chambers Lodge were $19.50 one-way and $36.50 round-trip.

In addition to these commercial ventures, there were several notable private float planes in use at Tahoe prior to 1950:

Howard Hughes owned one of unremembered make and model, in which he used it to pay an occasional visit to his friend “Benny” Benadum at Meeks Bay.

Frank Fuller, Jr., who for many years leased Walter S. Hobart, Jr.’s old Sand Harbor digs from George Whittell, owned both a Grumman Mallard and a PBY (World War II military amphibian). Following Whittell’s death in 1969, one of Fuller’s planes could occasionally be seen bobbing on a mooring along Rubicon Bay’s “Gold Coast,” where he spent several subsequent summers.

Postcard photo showing one of Frank Fuller's sea planes at Sand Harbor Author's Collection

Postcard photo showing one of Frank Fuller’s sea planes at Sand Harbor
Author’s Collection

Of course George Whittell had float planes of his own, though their use on Tahoe was marred by several incidents that were embarrassing and expensive, though fortunately not the cause of serious bodily harm:

Courtesy of Sierra Sun

from the Tahoe Tattler

A month later, Captain Whittell had reconsidered the prospect of flying at Tahoe. Here’s how the Tahoe City paper reported it:

from the Tahoe Tattler

from the Tahoe Tattler

As for Swoose, the Ventnor hydroplane described in the newspaper item above, she went on to win the Lake Championship race in 1941. However, it was another boat with which Whittell became far more enamored. In fact, there is good evidence for the contention that Thunderbird, the lovely cruiser designed for him by celebrated Marine Architect John L. Hacker, owes her very existence to the Captain’s bad luck with float planes.

blog.1940 TBIRD launch in TT

On that note we will end this brief overview, leaving more recent developments in this realm to the descriptive talents of others.


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5 thoughts on “Lifting Off From Tahoe

  • Kris Tengberg

    I truly love stories about flying and aviation; my father was a pilot before he got his driver’s license, and flew me around the skies in a little Piper. Thank you for unveiling this facet of Lake Tahoe history~

    • Sierra

      I truly love these stories too because I lived it! My father was Wes Stetson and my childhood was bliss! my dads republic SeaBee was like part of the family. He was the only act in town for many years at Lake Tahoe. I used to be his swamper at the pier in Emerald Bay resort….those wereTRULY the good old days! The plane ride was about 15 min and we collected many a silver $. some days the plane would go all day long!

      • Deborah DeVito

        I happened across this article attempting a search for Wes Stetson’s kids as I too spent many summers at Emerald Bay as a child. Many fond memories of the Sea Bee and Emerald Bay! My dad Ted Schroder flew with Wes and just recently past away at 94 the last of that generation I believe.

  • Rosalee Smith

    Hi Sierra,
    This is Rosie that worked the last three years of Emerald Bay Resort. I loved your dad who would take me up if he had room and I was hanging around the pier. Your Mom Sal taught me to waterski.
    My daughter is Sierra ( I loved that name).

  • Carol Van Etten

    Hi Rosie, I think you have me mixed up with Wes and Sal Stetson, who ran the Seaplane Service in Emerald Bay. I’m glad you enjoyed my article.