Eyes in the sky look over the lake | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Eyes in the sky look over the lake

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Glenn Smith doesn’t use the binoculars often.

He eyes them with disregard since they shake from the vibrations caused by the small plane where he rides shotgun looking for distressed boaters.

Smith, 74, is one of a handful of people who volunteer their time and resources to assist the U.S. Coast Guard in finding helpless Lake Tahoe boaters and spotting missing persons in search-and-rescue missions.

“For what they do for search and rescues, they are irreplaceable,” said Jim Devane, officer in charge for the Lake Tahoe U.S. Coast Guard station.

Devane acknowledged the Coast Guard faced problems from “m ayday” calls in which the problem, boat description and boat location are not provided by the caller.

“Now if we have an aircraft, they could do the whole lake in a couple of hours,” Devane said. “In a boat, it could take 12 to 15 hours for the same search.”

The Coast Guard Auxiliary aircraft team makes random weekend sweeps of Lake Tahoe, Walker and Pyramid Lakes and Lahontan Reservoir.

The crafts also fall under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard stations at Sacramento and San Francisco.

A recent trip along the Pacific Coast to search for troubled boats and abalone poachers was called off because the pilot was sick, Smith said.

A member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary for 27 years, Smith revived the volunteer aircraft program in February 2001 after he approached longtime pilot Bill Kirschner with the idea.

Kirschner, an ex-Navy fighter pilot and retired 36-year employee for Trans World Airlines, flies several monthly missions and random weekend sweeps for the Coast Guard.

Last summer, Kirschner helped save a family from being washed up to the entrance of Emerald Bay.

The following week, Smith and Kirschner sent help to two people hanging on the edge of an overturned sailboat.

“We make our last sweep around Lake Tahoe right before sundown,” Kirschner said. “We don’t want someone spending the night on Lake Tahoe if it’s not necessary. It could be a cold, dark lake.”

Smith said the easiest way for him to spot troubled boaters is a reflection from a mirror. Other ways are smoke flares or when boaters wave a large flag or life jackets.

Kirschner and pilot John Guthrie house their single-engine planes at the Minden-Tahoe Airport while Ted Gallas keeps his twin-engine plane in Truckee.

Smith and fellow observers Elaine Guthrie and Mike Neitling dress in sage- green flight suits and matching pull-cord life vests for their trips in the loud, shaky and warm airplanes.

Smith doesn’t seem to mind.

“You take what you get and you hope you don’t have anybody out there, but if there is, you hope that you find them,” Smith said. “We try to do as much as we can.”

— William Ferchland can be reached at (530) 542-8014 or


Support Local Journalism

Your support means a better informed community. Donate today.


See more