The best kept secret in the Sierras: Pine Mountain Lake Airpark (PML), located in the Sierra Nevada foothills in the town of Groveland, California, is known for its temperate climate and statistically averages 300 days of sunshine a year. Having built a home on the runway in the 80’s and resided there for 8 1/2 years, I can confirm those statistics are accurate. Since then it has grown and is now home to aviation legends and airshow pilots whose names include Clay Lacy, Wayne Handley, Melissa and Rex Pemberton and the owners of the log cabin home featured in this article, airshow performer Vicky Benzing and her husband Jeff.
Pine Mountain Lake (PML) is a gated resort community only 20 miles from the main gate of Yosemite National Park. Located at the perfect elevation of 2900 feet, Pine Mountain Lake Airport’s 3600 foot runway is above the Tule fog that often socks in the central valley, yet below the snowline. What that means is that on rare occasion, you can enjoy the beauty of a random snowfall, but rarely have to shovel it since the average temperature in the winter is in the 60’s. Spring and fall temperatures are in the 70’s with summer temperatures reaching the 80’s.
Spanning over 3300 acres, PML includes amenities well beyond the average airpark. Residents enjoy a private lake which is well-stocked with trout, large-mouth bass and catfish. Three beaches and a marina with rental boats can be enjoyed with water-skiing allowed during specific hours.
A large beautiful country club, perfect for entertaining or hosting events, overlooks a 150-acre 18-Hole Par 70 PGA Championship golf course noted as being one of the top “15 BEST Courses to Play in Northern California.” A putting green, driving range, pro shop and golf lessons are available to residents and guests. Sports enthusiast can enjoy six-lighted tennis courts, a pool and an equestrian center with rental horses and a riding arena. Twenty-four hour security patrols the area and is available for fast response.
While a portion of the residents are retired, some pilots commute daily in their aircraft to the Bay area or other cities to conduct their business and then fly home each evening or for dinner. The general atmosphere is relaxed with the small town friendliness of country living. Airport residents regularly take walks along the taxiway among the beautiful scrub oaks and visit with their neighbors…a custom that has been lost in many larger city environments.
Two of the residents who were weekenders prior to retiring from their professional careers are Jeff and Vicky Benzing whose log cabin home is featured in this article. One of my first questions to the couple was asking why they picked PML out of the many options available for airport communities. They instantly responded that it was the country-style friendliness and closeness of the community that sold them.
On a scale of 1-10, the Benzing’s passion for aviation is a 12. Vicky is a native of California and an accomplished 7000+ hour pilot, skydiver with over 1200 jumps, aerobatic competitor and Reno racer. With an uncle who was a Reno air racer and owned one of the first Pitts Specials ever built, she was born with aviation in her veins. Vicky was introduced to flight with a ride in her uncle’s airplane. Inspired by the experience and family ties to aviation, Vicky decided to become a pilot. She learned to fly while in college and soloed in a friend’s antique Taylorcraft in her hometown of Watsonville, California. With an adventurous spirit, Vicky gravitated toward the thrill of aerobatics and later took aerobatic instruction from the legendary pilot Amelia Reid. Thirty years later, Vicky holds an Airline Transport Pilot rating as well as a commercial rating in helicopters and seaplanes.
Jeff and Vicky met at work while both were employed in the Silicon Valley high tech industry. Vicky, who has a PhD in physical chemistry, was a key member of their company’s technical staff. Jeff is an engineer and focused on product development and business strategy. Jeff had always been a car guy but appreciated Vicky’s passion for flight and shared in her enthusiasm, but was not a pilot. That all changed when Jeff’s company called and told Vicky that they were about to purchase for him a watch as a retirement gift. Vicky said “Instead of a watch, why don’t you give him flying lessons?” They did just that and the rest is history. Jeff went on to get his private pilot license and today, they equally share the passion of flight.
Moving from the city to the country, the Benzing’s decided to build a log cabin style home. Working with a local California company, Sierra Log Homes™, the Benzing’s chose a milled log construction because they require less maintenance than a custom log home and being precut they are uniform in diameter and are less susceptible to the contraction and expansion that is associated with a traditional log home. They fit together with precision cuts which allow them to stack tightly together resulting in a larger log overlap to minimize heat loss. The log’s joints are then sealed using a process called chinking which is the same principle as grout between tiles. Today’s “elastomeric” chinking materials are flexible, so the potential for cracking and heat loss is greatly reduced from years past.
Building their 5200 square foot home required over 6000 lineal feet of logs which, if laid end to end, would stretch for over a mile. Being an engineer, Jeff quickly realized that the preplanning process was going to be triple that of normal stick frame wood and stucco construction. Why? Because the luxury of hiding last minute additions or oversights behind the walls was simply not possible and would result in unsightly conduit running on the surface of the logs for electrical, phones, intercom systems or anything else that required wiring. Intense preplanning meant that every log that required an electrical run and cutouts for electrical boxes had to be thought out in advance and predrilled to accommodate the utility.
A Warmboard™ radiant floor heating system was installed and the Benzing’s confirmed that it does a fantastic job of helping to maintain a comfortable temperature. With high ceilings and an elevation of 3000 feet where temperatures are cold enough to produce snow on occasion, heating bills can run high unless an efficient temperature control system is utilized. Jeff noted: “The logs act as an excellent insulator, far superior to standard construction. However, you need to maintain a consistent temperature within the home and not let the logs get too hot or cold. The logs are very dense and thick, so once they change temperature, it can take a long time to change it back to the desired temperature”. Preplanning included a built-in vacuum system that was installed into the interior walls to allow for ease of cleaning.
Not one opportunity was missed with regard to enjoying the view of the landscape and/or runway from every room. A combination of high ceilings with floor to ceiling Anderson™ thermal pane windows allowed for maximum visual impact without neglecting energy efficiency.
The great room was designed to give one a feeling of sitting in one of the great lodges of the West. Seating was planned to offer intimate conversation with friends while enjoying soothing sounds of soft music playing through the surround-sound entertainment center. High windows provide commanding views of the Tuolumne River canyon to the north. Add to that the country ambiance of a crackling fire emanating from a 26 foot tall wood-burning fireplace constructed from local Sierra Nevada Mountain granite, and the stage was set for pure relaxation.
Accenting their beautiful hearth is a trophy from the Reno Air Races that Vicky was awarded after finishing with the fastest Glasair while racing in the Sport Class.
A large pentagonal dining alcove surrounds a classic wood table which can be expanded to seat 12 for those large dinner parties with family or fellow pilots. An elegant chandelier sitting overhead combines with spot table lighting to create the perfect mood. Cross ventilation can be enjoyed with the latched windows that open individually.
Surveying your fleet or watching your friend’s taxi by in their aircraft is easy since the kitchen windows look out to the hanger and ramp with views of the taxiway and runway.
The interior walls of the home are of a conventional construction, but the Benzing’s incorporated rich wood trim and log accents in keeping with a Craftsman style. A structural post had to be placed in the middle of the master bedroom. So the Benzing’s designed it in as a log post with a custom log half wall to provide both separation and to preserve the large open feeling.
Each of the three spare bedrooms has a different theme with all sharing a warm and cozy ambiance. Simple country elegance and the Benzing’s fondness for one-of-a-kind Tiffany lamps is evident throughout the home.
As in the case of the Polar Bear room, the artwork reflected the theme.
Thinking ahead, they acquired the property across the street from their home to insure their magnificent view of the foothills would never be compromised. Similar to beachfront property, airport taxiway lots are limited in number. Larry and Nina Jobe of Yosemite Area Real Estate, the pilots who originally introduced me to the area, said that airport lots are becoming scarce and their values have increased exponentially over the years.
With the perfect climate for summer entertaining, the Benzing’s made sure to include a large patio area for socializing and barbecuing while watching aircraft take off and land. The patio has a fire pit with circular seating that has been the place to enjoy hangar flying and telling many stories late into the summer nights.
When you have a stable of aircraft like the Benzing’s, you need at least two hangars and as the photo shows, you couldn’t squeeze one more aircraft into hangar number one if you tried!
Two of the aircraft housed in this hangar have been used by Vicky in various competitions. In 2005, Vicky began training in aerobatics with one her famous neighbors, legendary airshow pilot Wayne Handley. Within one year, Vicky was competing in International Aerobatic Club competitions throughout the US. In 2006 she won first place in the Intermediate Category in both the Northwest and Southwest Regional Championships. She later won third place in the 2008 and 2009 Northwest Regional Championships, placed in the top 10 finishers at the US National Aerobatic Championships in 2008.
Many of Vicky’s aerobatic records were acquired flying her beautiful Extra 300S with its stunning purple paint job. In between flying in IAC aerobatic competitions Vicky began performing at local air shows. Today she focuses her energies on her air show performances where she continues to thrill and inspire audiences up and down the West Coast.
Vicky began competing in the National Championship Air Races in Reno in 2010. She won her very first race at the competing in the Sport Class and was chosen the 2010 “Rookie of the Year” by her fellow Sport Class racers. In 2013 she also began competing with a friend’s L-39C Albatross in the Jet Class at Reno and last year took home two first place trophies, Sport Class Silver and Jet Class Bronze.
Vicky’s Lancair Legacy, fondly named “Lucky Girl”, has seen 296 MPH while racing in the Sport Class.
Vicky’s pride and joy is the first airplane she ever owner and still owns today, her little grey Luscombe, which is as pristine as the day it came from the factory.
His and hers Carbon Cub EX’s are among their favorite airplanes for fun weekend flying in the beautiful Sierra mountains around Pine Mountain Lake and having adventures in places such as Idaho’s back-country. They are planning an air-journey this spring where they will each fly their own Cub while exploring the Moab Canyonlands area airstrips.
Jeff says there is no greater joy than hand flying a Cub through the Sierra foothills and canyons but being a techie he also loves his new G3X Touch glass panel with its G700 autopilot in his Cub and laughs “I can shoot a coupled V-Nav approach in this Cub! All I have to do is load the approach and sit back and watch it fly me to the runway threshold!”
One of the most important aspects of building a hangar is the size of the door. Jeff designed the second hangar with a 16 foot clear height door which would fit the tail of most business turboprops and small jets. When asked why they chose Schweiss bi-fold doors, Jeff replied. “Schweiss was able to customize their door to take a continuous span of windows which I was looking for to let natural lighting in the hangar. They also offer a remote control option “we wanted to be able to press the remote control button as we landed and taxi up in the King Air having the doors open for our arrival.” Jeff was concerned that someone might erroneously hit the close button when a plane was in the way and potentially damage the aircraft. Although Schweiss provides a control which senses if something is in the way of the door, Jeff preferred to use his engineering skills to modify the remote control logic so that it required physically pushing a button from inside the hangar to close. So now the remote is used for up and stop, but not down. Jeff likes his Schweiss doors and says they operate quickly, quietly, and effortlessly. He had the doors equipped with lift straps which are quieter, more durable, and require less maintenance than steel cables.
Not shown in the hangars is one of my favorite aircraft, Vicky’s spectacular 1940 Boeing Stearman which was off having its annual condition inspection.
The guest house adjacent to the second hangar is fondly named the “Waywards Pilots Quarters”. Even the guest house has a view of the runway from the living room and upstairs bedroom. Window shades are easily controlled with a remote so that guest can lazily view the windsock before deciding if it’s time to get out of bed. There’s even a fireplace for those cozy chilly nights and a coffee table book titled “You Are Now Entering a Stress Free Zone”.
This small, yet classy space, has all of the details of the main house including granite counter tops, elegant fixtures and even a built-in washer and dryer for their pilot guests.
The property being on a slope required the second hanger floor to be built up off the ground. Below the floor is a garage and toy storage area filled with an assortment of motorcycles, a boat, and the mandatory toy for “city farmers” — a backhoe. The ceiling of the garage, which is also the hangar floor, was designed with extra steel beams to handle a 10,000 pound wheel load which means aircraft the size of a larger King Air, Pilatus, or Citation could be stored overhead in the hangar with no problem. Jeff pointed out that anytime one is building a hangar, it’s a good idea to build well beyond the aircraft owner’s current needs because “you never know what you might buy next!” and it greatly increases the resale opportunities should the need ever arise in the future.
With a passion for nature, the Benzing’s built their hangars around the existing trees in order to maintain the beauty of the natural landscape and utilize the cooling benefits the trees can provide on those warm summer days.
For those who enjoy a good airshow, Vicky performs across the country and her airshow schedule can be viewed HERE.
If you have further questions regarding residing at Pine Mountain Lake Airpark, you’re welcome to contact me via EMAIL or for real estate related questions, contact Larry Jobe via EMAIL or phone (209) 962-5501.