TryGliding Just Go membership Classifieds

Minden has always been a special place for glider pilots. Many North American and world records have been flown out of Minden. I have wanted to visit this spot for many years to fly along the Sierra Nevada, over Lake Tahoe and the edge of the dry high desert of Nevada. In April 2024 I finally had my chance.

 Minden SY Lake Tahoe

Minden-Tahoe airport in Carson Valley. To the right, the Sierra Nevada rise up from the valley floor. Just beyond the first peaks is Lake Tahoe at 6,200ft.

By Sean Young

I was visiting the San Francisco Bay area and had some spare time. So I rented a car from SFO and made the four hour drive to the city of South Lake Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is a large, clear, cold mountain lake nestled in the middle of the Sierra Nevada (Snowy Mountains) straddling the borders of California and Nevada. The lake surface is 6,225ft amsl surrounded by mountains rising to over 10,000ft. After a record snowfall last winter, the area was still covered in snow and the numerous ski runs were open when I arrived.

The lake and mountains are a magnificent sight. The lake is very deep, much of it over 1,600ft and a piercing blue colour. Until the 1840s it was unknown to European-Americans and its waters were pristine fresh and clear. Today despite 170 years of increasing urbanisation on the lake shores, the water is still some of the purest and clearest water in any lake.

Minden SY Jim Payne front Ready to launch

World Altitude record holder Jim Payne, ready to launch in his Arcus.

Driving east from South Lake Tahoe, the road rises a further 1,500ft to the edge of the Sierras and then drops dramatically to the floor of the Carson Valley at 4,700ft.

From the top you can see Minden-Tahoe airport close by in the valley. After only a 20 minute drive I was walking into the Taildragger Cafe on the airport and was soon directed to the hangar I was trying to find. I had been invited to attend a general meeting of the Minden Soaring Club (MSC) by the club’s president Jim Lee.

Minden Soaring Club
As the meeting began, everyone introduced themselves. I soon realised I was in special company. Many famous names in gliding were called out including the world soaring altitude holder and Chief Pilot of the Perlan 2 Project, Jim Payne.

Among the many members of MSC at the meeting was Bruce Campbell who flew 3,143.7 km with Gordon Boetgger in a jet powered Arcus from Minden in November 2023. Wearing night vision glasses (NVG) during the night time phases of the flight, they used the ‘monster wave’ to fly the length of the Sierra Nevada several times. After more than 18 hours they landed at Hawthorn Airport Nevada not far from Minden. Gordon, flying with Bruce and various other pilots has now racked up numerous 1,000km plus flights in his Arcus.

Minden SY Lake Tahoe From the North

The Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe.

Jim Lee asked if anyone wanted a passenger to fly with them the next day. Brian Neff kindly offered to take me for a flight in his ASG 32. So after many years of waiting, I was now all set to fly from Minden.

The soaring weather in April in the Minden region can vary from big wave days and strong thermal conditions, to not very good at all. The weather this day was forecast to be thermals up to 11,500ft. For Minden, this is a very low cloudbase.

The airport is at 4700ft. During the hotter months the density altitude can be closer to 7,000ft or more. This makes it difficult for self launching. Some gliders us their engines for take off, but most pilots opt to use the larger engines of the tow planes - except for Dennis Tito’s jet powered Arcus, but more on that later.

Minden SY Frozen Lake in mountains above Lake Tahoe

Looking down at a frozen lake nestled near the top of the peaks above Carson Valley and Lake Tahoe.

Flying Minden
Several pilots including Jim Payne, Jim Lee and Brian were going to fly a short speed task. We aero-towed to the hills to the east of the airport and were soon tracking south. In the distance I could see the White Mountains over 100 miles away to the south.

The ‘Whites’ are a mountain range on the borders of California and Nevada, facing the Sierra Nevada across the upper Owens Valley. Soaring to the Whites is a typical flight from Minden but on this particular day, we wouldn’t be able to go that far.

I asked Brian if they used the ridges to climb up. The Sierras are directly west of the airport and the Carson Valley is on the lee side of the prevailing winds, so ridge soaring is generally not possible. He said that typically, they use thermals to climb and stay above the top of the mountains. However, just in the lee of the mountains is where wave formations will typically set up. In fact when I had arrived at the airport the day before, a beautiful long, white lenticular formation was hovering right above the airport in the middle of the valley.

Minden SY A dry lake east of Minden

The dramatic landscape east of the Sierra Nevada.

After an enjoyable flight of about 250km over low mountains and dry lakes to the southwest of Minden, we headed over to the Sierras to have a look at Lake Tahoe. We could see wave clouds forming over the mountains and the valley.

Near Genoa Peak, on the rim of the mountains, is an area where Minden pilots are typically able to climb into the wave. You can climb up to 18,000ft outside controlled airspace. To go higher you would have to ask ATC to open the wave window – except for the fact that the wave window is currently cancelled. The FAA is currently rationalising existing airspace and so, at least for now, the window is suspended.

Jim Lee explained that although the situation creates a problem for pilots who come to Minden to achieve their Diamond Height, most pilots are trying to fly cross country, and wave up to 18,000 ft is plenty for that.

As we arrived at the position where the wave is typically found, the wind was coming from the northwest rather than west, which meant the wave was not forming very well and was probably intermittent. In any case, we didn’t connect with it. But we did fly along the mountains above the lake and it was a beautiful sight.

After we put the glider back in its hangar I drove back up the mountain to my accommodation. While there are plenty of places to stay in the Carson Valley, either at Minden itself or in other towns nearby, the drive to and from South Lake Tahoe to the airport is stunningly beautiful. On the eastern side, the vegetation is drier and as you descend down to the valley, sage and desert plants dominate until you reach the fertile valley floor. On the western side, tall forests cover the mountains right down to the lake shore.

The next morning I drove back down to the airport. Jim Lee had offered to go flying with me in the club Duo Discus.

The weather was similar to the day before with a 12,000ft cloudbase forecast. Jim and I pulled off tow near the airport so that Jim Payne, who was on the grid behind us, could get in the air quickly. We were going to fly north together.

Minden SY Reno Airport

Flying past Reno International Airport.

Carson Sink
We soared under nice cu to the Carson Sink northeast of Minden. This dry lake bed is famous for the Carson Sink UFO incident, when two pilots of a B25 saw a formation of what looked like flying delta wings speeding in front of their aircraft in 1952. The objects they saw were never identified. The sink is now a military restricted area and we skirted around the edges of it as far north as we dared.

The view across the sink to the mountain ridges on the other side is dramatic. Carson Sink was used by early American settlers on the California trail. They had to cross the barren, hot landscape to get to the first watering point on the other side. Once there, near the state of Nevada’s modern capital, Carson City, they had the mighty Sierras to cross before they reached the ‘promised land’.

With Jim Payne nearby, we found a climb under the next cu and turned west. We flew just south of Reno listening to the RPT traffic on the way into Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Minden is less than 70km south of Reno. If you are flying in to visit Minden you can rent a car either from Reno or SFO. Both are very convenient.

Minden SY Lake Tahoe

Looking west across Lake Tahoe.

On the western side of Reno, we flew over the mountains and the shore of Lake Tahoe. From the northern shore of the lake we could see Truckee Airport. The town of Truckee is on the highway from San Francisco or Sacramento to Reno. The Truckee Tahoe Soaring Association is based there and it also makes an excellent airport to explore the area from.

We flew south above the mountains admiring the view of Lake Tahoe, and eventually turned east and back to Minden.

My two flights were fascinating, beautiful experiences, never to be forgotten. They gave me a tantalising glimpse of the soaring opportunities from Minden. I am very grateful to Jim Lee and all the members of Minden Soaring Club for the warm and friendly welcome they gave me. Thanks also to Brian Neff for generously letting me fly in his glider. It was an honour to meet Bruce Campbell and Jim Payne, who are both very friendly.

Now that I know the way, I certainly hope to find my way back to Minden Soaring Club soon.

Minden Soaring Club

Minden SY MSC President Jim Lee right

MSC President Jim Lee (right)

MSC was formed primarily to represent the interests of the many private glider owners at Minden-Tahoe airport. The club also funds flying scholarships for young people to learn to glide. The club recently purchased a Duo Discus which can be hired by club members and visiting pilots. MSC has a growing and enthusiastic membership. Find out more about MSC at

Photo by Gordon Boettger Bruce Campbell Minden Monster Wave

Photo by Gordon Boetgger and Bruce Campbell flying over the Sierra Nevdada.

Monster Wave
Brian Neff told me that there are two kinds of wave at Minden. The ‘gentleman’s wave’ and the ‘monster wave’. Gordon Boetgger and Bruce Campbell rode the monster on 5 November 2023 for 3,143 km along the length of the Sierra Nevada. They made their epic flight in Gordon’s jet-fitted Arcus. The glider is one of four that Perlan Project sponsor Dennis Tito commissioned with TJ-100 engines jets made by PBS Aerospace installed.

GordonBoettger BruceCampbel Flight Trace 5Nov23GordonBoettger BruceCampbel Flight Trace 5Nov23

Minden SY Bruce Campbell Brian Neff 2310340

Bruce Campbell and Brian Neff

Minden SY Jim Payne 2

Jim Payne in his hangar at Minden-Tahoe airport.

Jim Payne
Jim and the Perlan 2 are based at Minden-Tahoe Airport. I met with Jim in his hangar and talked to him about his flying and current projects including Blue Condor. You can watch the interview below.

Jim is the World Altitude Record holder in a sailplane and Chief Pilot of the Perlan Project. Jim has beaten his own numerous records several times flying the Perlan 2. Jim was a US Air force pilot, test pilot and test pilot instructor. He was a consultant to NASA and managed Northrop’s Global Hawk flight test program.

On his most recent record flight, Jim flew from El Calafate, Argentina with Perlan 2 team member Tim Gardner to an FAI ratified GPS altitude of 74,334ft (76,124ft pressure altitude) on 2 September 2018. This altitude surpassed the previous highest ever subsonic flight to 73,737ft by a Lockheed U-2 in 1989.

This flight also far exceed his previous record flights flown with Morgan Sandercock of 60,669ft on 26 August 2018 and 63,776ft flying with Miguel Iturmendi on 28August 2018.


Modified Arcus
This Arcus is one of four Arcus commissioned by Dennis Tito. Owned by Perlan, it is fitted with a PBS Aerospace TJ-100 jet engine. Dennis, a major sponsor of Perlan 2, studied astro and aeronautics and worked as a scientist NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was the first space tourist and spent eight days in the International Space Station.

Hydrogen Cylinders
The Arcus right lower had the TJ-100 removed and is now fitted with an Aero Design Works A800 jet. The back seat has been removed and two hydrogen cylinders are installed as the fuel. The glider is the centrepiece of the Blue Condor program by Perlan sponsor Airbus. The aim of the program is to characterize the contrail produced when using hydrogen as fuel. Burning hydrogen produces 2 1/2 times the water vapor of an equivalent amount of kerosene based jet fuel but does not emit any soot and promises to mitigate one of jet aviation's greenhouse effects.