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:
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.
Here’s the report of Archbold’s visit in the Truckee paper:
…and Archbold’s plane:
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:
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.
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.
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:
A month later, Captain Whittell had reconsidered the prospect of flying at Tahoe. Here’s how the Tahoe City paper reported it:
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.
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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