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Original Issue


Mix nine parts caution and one part faith. The result is Donald Sheldon, an Alaskan bush pilot, who gets you there—and back

If all the frippery and fringe delights that airlines offer the public were necessary, the Talkeetna Air Service of Talkeetna, Alaska would have gone out of business in its first year. It is an unpretentious operation, strictly bush, in the fine sense of the word, and it has survived for 24 years by promising only to try to get its customers where they want to go. When you are flying the unfriendly skies of Alaska, that is promise enough.

If you expect haute cuisine or any other kind of pie in the sky, do not use the Talkeetna Air Service. If you can enjoy an honest slice of oldtime aviation without gloss, then Talkeetna is for you. The Talkeetna Air Service will pick you up in the middle of a lake and, if you wish, put you down on a glacier above 7,000 feet. Talkeetna will fly you from the Wrangell Mountains westward to the Kuskokwim flats, and from Ketchikan and Yakutat in the south to Barrow and Umiat on the north slope. Talkeetna will drop you off on any grassy bald or gravel bar, on water, snow or ice, provided its smallest plane, a Piper Super Cub, has room enough and air dense enough to put down and jump back into the sky like a scared mallard.

Alaskan weather, like the land, is heroic in scale. The Talkeetna Air Service has managed to hack it in a windy world of giants because 50-year-old Donald Sheldon, its founder, owner and senior pilot, is what engineers call a good stoichiometric mix for such a rude environment. Sheldon is nine parts caution and one part faith. He has faith in God and selected radio frequencies, but he filters every gallon of airplane gas five times. When low-pressure areas spiraling out of Bristol Bay and the Chukchi Sea foul up the Alaskan flyways, Sheldon bides his time. When he finds a good hole in the weather, he goes for it, day or night.

Because of the big winds aloft, the Talkeetna Air Service does not guarantee to take you anywhere on schedule. And how pleasantly you travel in any weather depends on the traffic Senior Pilot Sheldon and Junior Pilot Mike Fisher have that day. The seats in Talkeetna's three Cessnas are comfortable—but you do not always get one. On many flights the Cessna seats are left behind since they take space that can be used for cargo. Flying north out of Talkeetna, you sometimes sit on a tank of propane bound for a homesteader in the bush. Southbound you may be alongside a hunter, sitting on the hindquarters of his moose. On busy days the Talkeetna Air Service loads the bulky cargo on first, then loads you on, then piles more baggage on you, but nothing really burdensome. The most that Talkeetna ever expects a passenger to carry in his lap is maybe a bedroll, half a dozen crampons and ice axes, a pair of snowshoes, a gallon of ice cream and a carton of eggs. Odds and ends like that.

On a fine day when business is slow, Don Sheldon can usually fly a passenger on a beeline, but even then he does not always do so. Sheldon loves Alaska, every part of it, all the grandeur and agony of it. Thirty minutes outbound from Talkeetna across the spruce land and green balds, he is apt to bank around in the sky half a dozen times to point out the scars of old mines, the silver ribbons of water clogged with fish, or a cow moose browsing with her calf. He will suddenly stand the Cessna on one wing and shout, "Right down there in the spruce, a brown bear. According to the game commission, which thinks it knows everything, brown bears are not found more than 80 miles from salt water, but right there is a brown bear 130 miles from salt water."

Forty miles farther north, beyond iron-stained mountains that in midsummer still carry old yellow snow in their pockets, Sheldon enters his special heaven, the Alaska Range. Riding high over the blue ice of a glacier between scarps too sheer to hold new snow, he is in his glory. "Five ice ages have plastered this place," he exults. "This is the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier," he shouts. "Deeper than the Grand Canyon, but most people never heard of it."

After a spell of bad weather, with his commitments piling up, Sheldon still wanders, but this time not so casually. On a typical day he first heads northwest from Talkeetna to the Cache Creek area. Wingslipping a thousand feet, he levels off 20 feet over the deck, throttles back and skip-bombs a carton of dynamite to a mining camp that has been wanting it for a week. Then he strikes out for Mt. McKinley, the two-headed giant of North America. For half an hour, at altitudes between 10,000 and 14,000 feet, he buzzes the white flanks and buttresses like a gadfly, looking for mountain climbers or their tracks.

In the summer the Talkeetna Air Service flies 100 or more climbers—American, Canadian, Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish, French and Swiss—into the Alaska Range. Sheldon and Junior Pilot Fisher put the climbers down at 6,000 feet or higher on glaciers, then ferry them back out three or four weeks later when they have conquered their mountain or have had enough of it. Some of the climbers, suffering injury, frostbite, anoxia or pulmonary edema, must be hauled out on short notice, in a hurry. Some of them never come out; they fall off mountains and disappear in deep snow. Sheldon spends a lot of time looking for the lost ones and usually does not find them. In the terrible summer of 1960, in a matter of hours two mountaineering parties got in trouble high on McKinley. The first plane to the rescue was pressed by a downdraft into the mountain and burned. Sheldon landed 18 times on an untried 30-degree ice slope in the thin air at 14,300 feet, bringing out five of the distressed climbers and 13 members of a rescue party.

The Talkeetna Air Service is the abiding friend of the Alaskan climber, not only in this life but in the hereafter. Sheldon has brought dead climbers out, and also has scattered the cremated remains of a few in the mountains. (The first time he performed this rite, he misjudged the air burbling around the open plane window. A lot of the ashes flurried back inside, getting in his eyes and hair.) A mountain climber freshly dead is usually more of a problem than a cremated one. Last summer when a large dead climber was recovered from a crevasse 9,300 feet up on the Muldrow Glacier, Sheldon could not bend the streeked, frozen corpse enough to get it into his Super Cub. He flew it out of the mountains lashed to a timber on the outside of the plane.

On a typical day, after he has hunted for half a dozen climbing parties on McKinley—finding perhaps one and traces of another—Sheldon heads northward out of the Alaska Range into the dry blue sky of the Kantishna drainage. He comes in low over an outdoor camp and skip-bombs a gallon of peach ice cream to the proprietors. His aim is too good. The ice-cream bomb knocks down the camp's washline. He rises, then lands a few miles to the northwest on a gravel strip along Moose Creek, a tributary of the Kantishna River. There he temporarily off-loads a photographer who has been with him and takes aboard three Estonian mountain climbers who want to make an aerial reconnaissance. Sheldon advises the photographer he is leaving behind, "I'll be back in about an hour. Meanwhile you will be eaten alive by mosquitos." After buzzing around McKinley again with the Estonians, he returns to Moose Creek for the mosquito-bitten photographer. Then he flies northwest to Caribou Creek to advise some antimony miners how to fix the radio he left with them. (They should realign the aerial and dip the corroded battery clips in hot soda water.)

From the antimony mine Sheldon heads back over the Alaska Range for Talkeetna. He has completed his rounds, but his day is not done. Before he has taxied the plane around and cut the switch, his wife Roberta—who serves as business manager, booking agent and operations control—is on the edge of the strip with an urgent message. A longtime customer, a venerable, weaving pillar of the Talkeetna community, has just fallen off a bar stool at the Rainbow Lodge and is in a bad way. Without asking how or why Sheldon grabs an emergency mountaineering kit and dashes off in a car to give the bar-stool victim a blast of pure oxygen.

How many airlines ever offered as much as Talkeetna actually delivers in one day of erratic flying? Certainly there are airlines that will scatter your ashes on request. Possibly there are a few that will drop dynamite and peach ice cream at your feet for a price. But is there any airline other than Talkeetna that really cares enough to come running when you crash in a local bar?

In the 24 years since Sheldon went in business with a pair of secondhand wings, the Talkeetna Air Service has logged more than a million miles. In the process it has lost one pilot and five planes, but never a passenger. To appreciate the concern Sheldon has for his clients, one need only cross the street from the Talkeetna hangar and talk to Frank Moennikes, owner of the Fairview Inn. Many of Talkeetna Air Service's customers go through a lot, but Moennikes is the only one who have ever-been to the bottom of a lake with Sheldon.

In the early fall of 1950 Sheldon flew Moennikes in to a small lake near the Alaska Range to skin and quarter two moose that hunters had shot. By early afternoon when they headed out with one butchered moose aboard, the wind was tricky—"squirrelly" as Sheldon describes it—and the air was so warm it was robbing the plane of lift. Realizing he would not clear the rock rim guarding one end of the lake, but already committed to the air, Sheldon tried to ease the plane around, stalled and went into the water.

The impact injured Moennikes' neck so he could barely control his head. When the plane hit the lake bottom, both doors were jammed shut. Sheldon hauled Moennikes out through the broken windshield, got him to the surface and swam him to shore. He buried Moennikes beside the lake in caribou moss, with only his face exposed. While Moennikes lay there through the night listening to the bears—or wolves—that came to feed on the second moose, Sheldon covered more than 40 rough miles, walking, climbing and swimming, to reach a telephone on the Alaska Railroad. Three times in the night he had to swim down the edge of rapids through the canyons of a creek, and three times on gravel bars he bluffed bears out of his way by waving his coat. He reached the phone early in the morning, and by 9 o'clock the Air Force had picked up Moennikes.

"Sheldon is one good man," Moennikes says.

Sheldon has been in the Alaskan sky so long he cannot head anywhere today without a memory. Southbound from Talkeetna to Anchorage he usually flies in the same air rut where long ago a squaw gave birth in the rear seat. On the way to Anchorage he flies close by the spot where his former partner, Stub Morrison, lost his bearings in radiation fog and flew into the ground. Farther along the same track Sheldon passes over the tall cottonwoods that once caught his spinning plane and broke the fall after clear air turbulence had folded a wing back at 2,500 feet. (He sold the bent remains of that plane for $50.)

North from Talkeetna out the port window Sheldon looks across the hills where he saved three downed fliers. Out the other window he can see the Devil's Canyon of the Susitna River, where he rescued six Army men who were hanging on a rock face.

Sheldon often flies in and out of Cantwell, the strip where 10 years ago a crazy woman seized the controls during takeoff and put the plane over an embankment. When he takes hunters to and from the mountains, he is often on the same track where eight years ago he asked a Protestant minister to get out of the cabin in midair and use his weight to keep a damaged ski at the proper angle so the plane would not crash. The preacher had hired Sheldon to show him the country. Hanging on a strut, bearing down on the faulty ski for 60 miles, he got an unforgettable, frozen, bird's-eye view of it. Sheldon did not charge him for the flight. It is not unusual for his passengers to participate in the operation, trampling down runways in the snow and such as that, but hanging on a strut in 20-below-zero air to keep the plane flying is more than Talkeetna expects of a paying customer.

Don Sheldon is an average-size, rock-hard man who sometimes walks as if he were carrying the world. After 30 years of exposure in Alaska he is weathered, for sure, but he has the face and grin of a kid. He is an accomplished worrier who bounces around like a boy. The harsh ups and downs of his business would drive most money-minded men up a wall. He pays about $7,000 a year to cover his passengers, but insurance for his planes is too much. The annual premium that even smart gambling concerns like Lloyds of London ask is roughly a third the cost of the aircraft. Rather than spend $85,000 in four years for a $35,000 plane, Sheldon prefers to take his chances. Some years he has been a loser, but the loss barely shows on him. Flying over the Talkeetna Mountains, he casually points out a small nameless lake that he calls "27-G" in memory of the $27,000 plane that he lost—totally totalled, one might say—shortly after takeoff in warm and fluky air. After tearing off both its floats on rock, the staggering 27-G plane plowed between two outcroppings, leaving its wings behind and sending its engine on ahead. Most of the fuselage, containing Sheldon and a sheep hunter named Wally Grubbs, fell into a 60-foot crevasse. "Like the proverbial straw going through the oak tree," Sheldon remembers, "we hit so hard we never got a scratch." Finding wreckage strung out for 300 yards but no sign of life, a search plane wrote them off. Sheldon and Grubbs got out of the bush aboard the helicopter that came to look for their bodies.

For the past six months Sheldon's most expensive plane, a $45,000 special Cessna conversion, has been lying upside down at 8,750 feet on the Susitna Glacier of Mt. Hayes. Late last June Sheldon had safely landed the Cessna with a Japanese climber aboard and was finishing his run-out when a squirrelly blast of wind flipped the plane onto its back. The next day, as if he had only dropped a few dollars at bingo, he went about his business, ferrying customers here and there in another plane. In Alaska it pays to keep cool.

In 1938, at the age of 17, Sheldon left his parents and went to Alaska, looking for some greater challenge than his home state, Wyoming, could offer. He got his first job in an Anchorage dairy, working, as he recalls, 25 hours a day, nine days a week. Despairing of that, he headed north on the Alaska Railroad as far as his cash would take him—to Talkeetna. In the next two years he nearly starved or froze as a woodcutter, gold miner, construction worker and trapper, but by the time the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor he was making good money on a surveying crew in the frantic airport building boom. Since any man who could both think and work in subzero weather was invaluable, he got several military deferments at his boss' request and could have had more, but he wanted to get into the war as a forward observer in the sort of small craft he had learned to fly in his spare time. He was accepted for the Civilian Pi lot Training program, but like many others he got caught in the whimsical workings of the military and ended up as tail gunner on a B-17 in Europe. He flew 26 missions, surviving one terrible crash when his bomber, limping back, hit an English oak tree square on and failed to go through it like the proverbial straw.

After the war Sheldon hoped to buy a plane with his accrued pay and become a bush pilot, but he was nearly two years getting to it. When he first applied for one of their craft, the Piper Aircraft Corporation had a book of back orders the size of a Montgomery Ward catalog. He finally got a war-surplus machine and flew it to Alaska, settling in Fairbanks, a far busier hub than Talkeetna. He flew across the Alaska Range to Talkeetna one day simply to visit and has been there ever since. At the time Talkeetna had a good strip but no resident bush pilot. In the land around Talkeetna there were still trappers futilely trapping despite the declining market. There were still miners full of hope. There were sportsmen after game and fish. There were homesteaders, geologists, surveyors, road gangs and mountaineers—all needing air service.

Although, thanks to the return of Sheldon, Talkeetna can boast of the most versatile bush-pilot operation in all Alaska, the town itself is not much more than it ever was. Forty years ago about 150 people and 200 dogs lived within the informal limits of Talkeetna. There are still about 150 people around, but the number of resident dogs is way down. The slant eye of the husky still shows in the mongrels wandering on the main street, but the great sled teams are gone. Today the growl of the snowmobile is heard in the land. Vintage Detroit cars now rot in the weeds, abandoned like the dog huts and notched-log cabins whose roofs have held the weight of 40 winters. The new highway being built between Anchorage and Fairbanks bypasses Talkeetna, sparing it the embarrassment of becoming needlessly involved in the present. The town has no mayor, no taxes, no government. Its one parking meter in front of Frank Moennikes' Fairview Inn does not work. Some of the hippies who have gone into the bush around Talkeetna to escape the trammels of modern living do not get their welfare checks until two weeks after they are posted.

Although Talkeetna, by choice, is only loosely connected to the red-hot present, it has a cosmopolitan flair. Emery Kunkel, the postmaster, once served as a railroad troubleshooter in Europe. Frank Moennikes packs up and goes back to his native Westphalia every now and again. Ray Genet, one of the finest Swiss mountain guides, now headquarters in Talkeetna. "Evil Alice" Powell, proprietress of the excellent Talkeetna Motel, drove her own Stutz Bearcat at the age of 14 and made her debut at the Waldorf in New York a few years later.

Sheldon's hangar just off the main street is called the Sheldon Sheraton because in the busy weeks of summer mountain climbers of five countries are often encamped in it, waiting their turn to be flown onto a glacier. One stretch of the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, 60 miles from town, is known as the Talkeetna International Airport because Sheldon and Mike Fisher land so many foreign Alpinists there. Seven miles west of this so-called International Airport, on the opposite flank of Mt. McKinley, there is now a small chalet known as the Sheldon International Hotel. When the state of Alaska recently opened up acreage for recreational and commercial development, many of its citizens grabbed up five acres of moose and mosquito land. Sheldon is the only one who asked for five acres of a glacier. In his hangar in Talkeetna he built an octagonal chalet 36 feet across, then disassembled it and flew it piece by piece to its present site in a vast amphitheater of the Ruth Glacier at 5,850 feet. When you rent Sheldon's glacier estate for a day or a week, you are miles from the madding crowd, but not necessarily alone. In the middle of the night a gang of mountaineers who have finished an assault on Mt. McKinley may pile into the mountain house with you.

Over the years Sheldon has been offered aviation jobs where the flying is easier, the hours regular and the pay good. "In a year," he says, "I fly for a thousand different bosses and enjoy it more than I ever would flying for one boss by the clock. Flying out of Talkeetna, I think I have something special to offer. Why should I go somewhere else to become what everybody already is?"