Tricky winds, altitude give pilots landing into Tahoe second thoughts

At 6,264 feet above sea level, Lake Tahoe Airport is neither for the ignorant nor faint of heart.

Thin air, tricky winds that come off the mountains and dramatic climate changes make flying difficult at times.

Since 1994, 12 people have died in small planes that have not gained required altitude and as a result crashed within a six-mile radius of the airport.

"The biggest problem because of the high altitude is the combination of weather we get, the wrong type of aircraft for the altitude and lack of experience," said Larry Levi, an Emerald Bay Aviation flight instructor who has flown at the airport for the past 11 years.

"Planes used to flying at sea level are right on the edge up here ... it's just that much different."

First off, a powerful engine is needed to take flight at high altitude. Most basin pilots recommend at least 150 horsepower. When it's hot, usually above 65 degrees, the thin air gets even thinner and the plane thinks it's higher than it really is. This is called "density altitude" a phenomenon that reduces an airplane engine's performance which in turn makes a higher true airspeed a requirement for a safe flight.

Mix high altitude with the turbulence, updrafts and down drafts prevalent because the runway is surrounded by mountains - the tallest being Freel Peak at nearly 11,000 feet - and that sometimes creates dangerous conditions.

Levi said the only solution to problems presented by wind or weather at the airport is to stay on the ground and wait until conditions subside. Also pilots need to be trained for high-altitude flying.

"The problem is education," Levi said. "The facility is outstanding - great runway, great towers, great approaches."

Thursday around noon, pilots coming and going from the airport experienced minor to moderate turbulence with five to eight knot winds from the south. One pilot aborted plans to land because of a downdraft the tower manager, Charles "Chig" Horner, reported.

Horner said most pilots like to land going south (toward Meyers) and takeoff going north (toward the lake).

But, he said, sometimes pilot preferences go out the window because of aircraft traffic or prevailing winds. Most pilots take off into the wind. If the wind's coming out of the south, planes take off runway 18 and that heads south directly into three mountains.

That's when a powerful engine becomes essential. Pilots have less time than they would at sea level to climb above the pine trees that encircle the airport.

"People come up here and everything happens a little faster," said Mindy Johnke, operations manager for Oasis Aviation, a company based next to the runway. "It's a fact of life and you just have to plan for it."

On Sept. 1, four people died about a half mile east of the runway. Jeff Needam, 43, his wife Maria Needham, 30, Mark Michelsen, 48, and Todd Johnson, 27, all perished when the six-seat Piper Malibu they were in clipped a pine tree, hit several more pine trees and exploded into flames. Needham, the pilot, was reportedly headed to Las Vegas where he planned to drop Michelsen and Johnson off to connect with a commercial flight. The National Transportation and Safety Board is still investigating the accident. Right now they're in the process of figuring out if Needham was carrying too much weight in fuel, passengers and luggage to make the sharp banked turn witnesses say he made prior to the plane's crashing.

Dr. Lawrence Foster, a friend of Needham and pilot of a Piper Malibu for many years, said he believes Needham's plane went down because of a combination of circumstances.

"The wind was strong enough to make it impossible to take off to the north and there was a cloud at the south end of the runway," he said. "He turned left then to avoid the cloud at the south end of the runway and was up close to maximum weight limit, which means it climbs a little slower and not the performance he was used to."

With reports of gusting winds that day, Foster said he believes a strong gust hit Needham as he was making a bank turn causing the plane to stall or stop flying and drop from the sky. Density altitude may not have been a factor for Needham that day because the high temperature at the airport that day was 50 degrees.

"In my opinion it was a stall spin caused by a tail wind gust," Foster said. "That then allowed a wing to hit the tree. It wasn't, in my opinion, really pilot error. It was unfortunate timing that caused the accident."

Before Needham's plane went down, there hadn't been a fatality at the airport since February 1994 when a male pilot flying a Piper collided with trees in El Dorado National Forest in the Carson Range six miles south of the airport. Air traffic control that day reported "numerous reports of downdrafts and turbulence in the basin." Investigators also found cocaine in the man's system.

In July 1994, three people died in a Piper that collided with terrain about 200 yards east of the runway. Witnesses reported seeing a left bank turn prior to its reaching the south end of the runway. It was 77 degrees when the plane made a steep turn and the airplane's bank angle increased while altitude decreased.

In August 1994, four people died in a Cessna 177 when it collided with trees about a half mile south of the end of runway 18. The temperature was 72 degrees when the plane hit a tree 52 feet off the ground.


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