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Don Sheldon's Review Today

The Air Force is hoping for a break in the weather today, to pay tribute to a civilian bush pilot who has in the past years risked bodily injury to aid ...

24 Jul

Don Sheldon's Review Today

The Air Force is hoping for a break in the weather today, to pay tribute to a civilian bush pilot who has in the past years risked bodily injury to aid the AF in numerous air search and rescue missions.

He is Don Sheldon, skilled glacier bush pilot to receive the highest peacetime award given by the Department of the Air Force to a civilian.

Formal ceremonies and review were washed out last week at Elmendorf AFB, and the Air Force officials are hoping for clear skies this afternoon during which Sheldon will receive the Exceptional Service Award.

Maj. Gen. C. F. Necrason, Commander, Alaskan Air Command will make the presentation and will also review officers and airmen of the 10th Air Division (Defense) and a unit from the Alaskan Air Command.

Residents of the surrounding area and military dependents have been invited to attend the review which will officially start a 4 p.m. Ceremonies will be held at the West Ramp at Elmendorf. Air Police will give directions to guests who plan to attend.

On Dec. 25, Christmas morning, Lt. Col. Maurise S. Speer, then commanding the 71st Air Rescue Sq., contacted Sheldon and asked him if he would assist in making positive identification of the C-54 wreckage located on top Mt. Iliamna, 130 miles south-southwest of Anchorage.

Disregarding the danger after helicopters of the 71st had been unable to penetrate the crash site because of swirling, winter winds, Sheldon replied, "I'll be off in 10 minutes."

The missing C-54 had been the object of an intense three-day search after the plane had plunged into the 10,116 mountain to claim the lives of 15 Air Force crew members and passengers. Bad weather had prevented search aircraft from penetrating the Mount Illiamna area where the crash was believed to be located.

The C-54 flying a routine supply mission to Shemya, disappeared off the radar scope at approximately 7:59 a.m. Dec. 22. The 71st, under the direction of Col. Speer, took over operational control of their air hunt.

Poor visibility coupled with bad weather, however postponed operations at the volcanic Mt. Illiamna location until Dec. 24.

Capt. Bob Strange, 5040th Operations Sq., piloting a C-54, assisting the 71st, spotted what he believed to be the wreckage. He saw no sign of life and reported his findings to the 71st Control Center. Officials were reasonably sure that this was the wreckage because of the location. But positive identification had not been made.

Capt. Strange circled the area and got close as possible, but not close enough to read the numbers off the portion of the tail, which now was the only part of the smashed plane visible because of snow storms.

That same day planes of the 71st went into the area but were unable to reach the crash because of extreme turbulence at that altitude and inaccessible terrain.

It was Christmas morning when Col. Speer requested the aid of Sheldon, one of the most skilled bush pilots in this new state.

Flying his aircraft very low through treacherous air currents and rugged mountainous area, Sheldon had to make six passes before he could get close enough to read the aircraft numbers off the tail section. It was all the evidence the 71st need to confirm the wreckage.

The veteran pilot has been flying in Alaska for many years and has distinguished himself in search and rescue missions throughout the state. In 1954 he participated in a rescue and flew out three surviving members of an AF C-47 crash.

The citation which will accompany the award reads in part: "Mr. Donald E. Sheldon distinguished himself by heroism involving voluntary risk of life on 25 December 1958, near Mount Iliamna, Alaska. Despite severely restricted visibility and extreme turbulence, Mr. Sheldon flew six steep, diving turns in a light plane over a sheer mountainside, each time approaching closer until he was successful in identifying the number of the tail section of the wreckage."