Still up in the air – 100 years later |

Still up in the air – 100 years later

Tahoe Daily Tribune Staff Reports

Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune Private pilot Doug Gayner checks the fuel level of his 1960 Piper Comanche in his hanger at the South Lake Tahoe airport.

By Susan Wood

Tribune staff writer

Gene Collins’ approach to home decoration leaves no doubt about his passion in life.

A sign reading “Luscombe lover” shows his fondness for the 1940s sports car of planes. A license plate rim reading “I’d rather be flying” is in the window of the Meyers home. Almost two dozen coffee mugs relative to flying line the cabinets and a pictorial collage mounted on poster board rests against the wall. Upstairs in his den, Collins’ first pilot’s license from 1948 hangs in an 81Ú2 x 11 frame.

He learned to fly 44 years after Wilbur Wright took the inaugural, 120-foot leap into space at Kitty Hawk, N.C., 100 years ago on Dec. 17.

Since 1903, the evolution of flight has soared – bringing with it many commercial flyers, wannabes and hobbyists.

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“There’s nothing more pleasing than going up to 5,000 feet, pulling the throttle back to cruise and drifting along like you don’t have a care in the world,” Collins said, throwing back in the lounge chair.

Collins passed his exhilaration on to his family – including his three children who all live on the South Shore – Jeanie Pearson, Robert and Roger Collins. The latter is a local flight instructor, who is said to be able to perform spins and loopty-loops at the drop of a hat.

Roger Collins taught his mother, Ardys, how to fly in case his father passes out at the controls. If Gene Collins lunged forward, Roger Collins said he warned his mother the plane would go into a spin. If he falls backward, the son cautioned the plane would ascend and consequently kill the engine.

She may have needed her son’s advice before he was even conceived. When the couple dated, Gene Collins took his teen date on a wild ride.

“We had to get a thrill somehow,” he said. She was barely 16.

Gene Collins took his boys for their inaugural ride out of the airport in Watsonville – the family’s hometown – when they were 12 and 13.

“They told (Ardys) they never believed we’d get off the ground,” Gene Collins said.

From that day forward, the son knew he was hooked. His father understands. He admits that flying curled his toes as early as age 3.

“Any chance I had to sneak out to airports, I would,” Gene Collins said. “I remember being perched next to our 1922 Buick with the chickens under it and seeing the headline in the (Miami) Herald – Lindbergh makes transatlantic trip.

“From that day on, I’ve wanted to fly,” said the Collins patriarch. He joined the Air Force during World War II. He was assigned to a ground crew.

The father-and-son duo agreed the romance of flying climaxed in the early days. When planes lost their propellers, Gene Collins said he lost interest.

He theorizes the Wright brothers were successful at defying gravity because they leveled their plane to a 2-degree angle, something other would-be pilots had failed to do.

“That’s why they call the thing a plane – it planes,” he said.

Longtime South Lake Tahoe pilot Doug Gayner knows the charm all too well.

“It’s hard to believe all the progress in the last 100 years – from the Wright brothers to the space program,” he said, shaking his head in amazement. “It seems like a short period of time. I’ve been flying for half that.”

His uncle, another pilot, planted the seed with him at age 7. A decade later, he took his first flying lessons.

“Once you get the bug, it becomes a passion,” Gayner, 65, said, glancing over at the mountain view from his hangar at Lake Tahoe Airport.

His 1960 Piper that seats four passengers sat safe and sound in the hangar. He flies it about once a week. A marine contractor by trade, Gayner bought it in 1990 for $25,000 – blowing the misconception that pilots and plane owners are rolling in dough.

“People pay twice that for a new car,” he said, adding, “You start small and work your way up.”

After going out on several flights out of the Minden Airport and the former Sky Harbor Airport off Kahle Drive, Gayner made his inaugural flight at the Lake Tahoe Airport the day it opened in 1959.

The Stateline airport had operated for about 40 years before closing in 1955. The South Shore was without air service for four years. Gayner recalls how excited the community was about the unveiling of the airport. Gayner estimates a few hundred pilots live at the lake.

“The main reason I fly is there’s never a bad view,” American Airlines Capt. Don McKracken said. He still considers himself lucky to be in this line of work. At play, he parks a private plane at the Lake Tahoe Airport.

South Shore pilots have become a tight-knit tribe, much like surfers. They socialize with each other, becoming more connected as threats of yearly budget cuts, increased environmental regulations and loss of commercial service have prompted them to try to remain advocates for continued operation of the airport.

The city, which subsidizes the airport every year, must do battle with the Federal Aviation Administration to keep costs down.

Challenges are a way of life in the aviation field. More than two years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, business flights are on the upswing and passenger counts at the Reno/Tahoe International Airport have shown a 2.8 percent increase from a year ago.

Female pilots have made inroads, too. Thirty years ago, Maureen Motola of Truckee joined the Ninety-Nines – a club formed in November 1929 to provide moral support for women taking up the hobby.

At first she sneered at the thought of joining the gender-specific club, but she changed her mind as she learned the advantages of the kinship. There still exists a certain amount of sexism and a misunderstanding from the public.

“I wear an airplane pin and people ask me: ‘Oh, does your husband fly?’ That makes me mad,” she said. “When women get into flying, they absolutely love it.”

To commemorate the 100th year of aviation, she plans to attend a ceremony at the Truckee Tahoe Airport on Dec. 17 at 7 p.m. sponsored by the Ninety-Nines.

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at