Jerry Blackwill: The history of aviation in Truckee and Donner Summit
Claire Vance was fighting the control stick as a strong downdraft forced his DeHavilland DH-4 biplane thousands of feet downward towards Donner Lake. Finally, he regained control just a few hundred feet above the frozen surface. It was 1922 and he was flying the United States Air Mail between San Francisco and Reno.
Vance’s navigational aids were a compass, an altimeter, and the Southern Pacific railroad. Two years later, his navigation improved with an air beacon and large yellow arrow at the top of Donner Pass. The arrow was over fifty feet long and the lettering SF-SL indicated directions to San Francisco or Salt Lake. The 5,000-candlepower light of the beacon helped pilots avoid a nighttime crash into Donner Pass. This combination of beacon and arrow were placed approximately every ten miles along the flight path.
Claire Vance was among a number of daring pilots who flew the air mail from New York to San Francisco. By flying night and day these pilots were able to get the mail across the United States in as little as two days. Many – including Vance – lost their lives in this dangerous occupation.
In 1927 the U.S. Post Office got out of the flying business and contracted with airlines to fly the mail. A Boeing airline subsidiary took over the U.S. Air Mail contract in 1927. Boeing built a single engine biplane — the model 40A for the mail routes. The aircraft company owned a number of airline subsidiaries and merged these passenger/air mail airlines into its United Airline subsidiary in 1931. Antitrust laws forced Boeing to spin off United in 1934.
To increase safety, in 1933 Boeing built an emergency landing runway about three miles northeast of downtown Truckee near the present Overland Trail Road. Originally, the road was the Old Airport Road. A shed had “16B SF-SL” painted on its roof. The sign meant it was the Department of Commerce’s Site 16B along the San Francisco – Salt Lake Airway. The field was said to have three runways in an “L” shape with the longest being the 3,400-foot northeast/southwest strip.
A Douglas C-47 was flown into the airport in 1953 and John Wayne filmed much of the movie “Island In the Sky” at the airport. The film was about an Air Force transport forced down in Labrador and the efforts to locate the plane. The film co-starred Lloyd Nolan and Ward Bond. More than 100 actors and technicians were in Truckee during the filming. After the filming, the airport continued in general aviation use until 1954.
The present Truckee airport was started later with Chamber of Commerce business owners organizing support for a new airport. Through their efforts, voters in 1958 established the Truckee Tahoe Airport District. The first board was able to obtain state and federal funding to acquire land, build a runway, and build support structures. It has since expanded into two runways with extensive hanger and support facilities.
While the Truckee area has a rich aviation history, there’s not much aerospace history. The most significant aerospace event was not in Truckee, but at sea. The connection to aerospace was through the navy ship “USS Donner” named after Donner Pass. It was a dock landing ship used in 1961 to retrieve the Mercury capsule and the chimpanzee astronaut Ham after it returned from space. Ham’s flight was a successful test to see if a hominid could use a control lever in space. Ham lived out the rest of his life at the North Carolina Zoo, where he died at age 25.
If you’re interested, you can still see a red airplane beacon and the concrete arrow’s remains on top of the hill of Donner Ski Ranch. However, all evidence of the old Truckee airport is gone.
Jerry Blackwill is president of the Museum of Truckee History. Thanks to Heidi Sproat and the Truckee-Donner Historical society for their assistance
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