Soaring to give Douglas County tourism a lift

After more than a decade-long absence of the event, Minden-Tahoe Airport will host a national soaring competition this summer and airport officials says they are aggressively pursuing more soaring competitions as a means to boost tourism to the Carson Valley.

The 2012 U.S. Open Class Nationals will be held over a 12-day span beginning June 10. The event features 15 glider pilots and an international field taking advantage of the world-renowned winds rolling off the Sierra Nevada.

More than 100 pilots, crew, race officials and fans are expected to attend and stay in Douglas County throughout the event, says Minden-Tahoe Airport General Manager Bobbi Thompson.

"It creates international awareness," Thompson says. "Three of the contestants are from other countries. It gets the Carson Valley known to others, which historically has resulted in people having vacation homes here, relocating in here in retirement, or having businesses here."

Pilots hail from throughout the United States, Thompson says, as well as from Canada, Poland and Sweden. The last time a national glider competition was held at the airport was in the 1999, but Thompson is out to change that by trying to lure more national and international glider competitions and the Minden-Tahoe Airport has a trump card over similar small airports.

The Minden-Tahoe Airport is strategically positioned to land such events, says event organizer Rick Walters, because of the way winds flow off the Sierra Nevada range. The conditions make the region one of the top three soaring sites in the world, he says.

"We have great soaring here 11 months out of the year. Summers are better for cross-country soaring."

In warmer months, glider pilots using hot thermal winds can soar as far as Winnemucca, Bishop or Tonopah and return. Pilots typically fly about 300 miles each day. In colder months, pilots riding wind waves can soar as far as the Mojave Desert and as high as 50,000 feet.

Thompson says a goal of the airport is to increasing its presence in soaring competitions and other niche flying sports.

"We really see the mission of our airport as being a recreational and sport airport," she says. "We want to fulfill that mission in very active way by hosting these kind of events. They bring a lot of tourists to the area. There are not many of these events in the U.S., so it does bring a lot of folks to our community.

"We are very fortunate with the Sierra range that we have wave conditions for soaring, and we want to capitalize on that."

During the event, gliders will launch to altitudes of 2,000 feet and compete in a cross-country race format. Soaring NV will provide four tow planes that will launch all the sailplanes within a 40-minute time frame.

The last time a national event was held at Minden-Tahoe Airport was in 1999, but the airport has hosted numerous regional events over the years, says Walters, who also is a sailplane pilot.

The upcoming soaring competition will feature the largest class of gliders, whose wingspans stretch 86 feet. The field is limited because the sailplanes are the most costly type of glider, and flying them requires more adept pilots, Walters says.

Walters says he reached out to nearly everyone in the national gliding community about attending the upcoming race.

"Gliding is a small community there are about 500 people that race in the country. I know pretty much all 500, so I knew who would be coming," he says.

The event isn't expected to impact regular operations at Minden-Tahoe Airport, he adds. Businesses at the airport should see rise in fuel sales and sailplane tows.

"The biggest challenge is getting an airport interested in doing it, but we don't close out operations. We do change things the days we are there, and they have to be accommodating. Another challenge is getting volunteers interested and getting the community behind it, and I think we have that."


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