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Mention bush pilots and people automatically think of Alaska. True, there are bush pilots in other parts of the world, but the connection is valid ...

1 Nov


Mention bush pilots and people automatically think of Alaska. True, there are bush pilots in other parts of the world, but the connection is valid, because nowhere have this intrepid band of aviators been more responsible for opening up vast areas of wilderness country than Alaska.

Up there in our 50th state, express package delivery, light-freight hauling, and a great deal of passenger travel are still in the hands of 700 or so bush pilots. Bush pilots will go anywhere, land anywhere, in weather that would ground even seagulls in other parts of the country. The modern bush pilot has radar and various radio devices to help him, but weather, distances, and the terrain still take their toll. Alaska has the highest use of light planes in the western hemisphere-- and the highest accident rate.

Now and again certain members of this fraternity will become well known, even famous, by dint of pure personality, special feats of airmanship--or longevity. Don Sheldon is all of these, and he qualifies on all counts. In addition he is often called Alaska's most famous glacier pilot.

Sheldon has been flying in Alaska for 23 years, in which time he's run through 45 aircraft. Now, at 50, with hundreds of landings on snowy slopes and glaciers to his credit, plus a considerable amount of IFR time (blind flying on instruments), with Mt. McKinley area as his working territory, he's one of the most experienced pilots in the state. He has never lost a passenger, and has always been able to walk away from his landings, although some of them were a little on the exciting side.

The glacier pilot has been challenging some of the world's worst weather and most forbidding terrain since WW II.

He began flying visitors to Mt. McKinley when mountaineering became increasingly popular. His specialty of ferrying and supplying climbing parties involves him in landing on glaciers, plateaus, and uneven slopes all summer long. He often has 15 to 20 different parties to watch over during the season, with emergency trips cropping up from time to time as trouble strikes one group or another.

In season, a bush pilot is often in the air dawn till dusk, and Sheldon is no exception. He's got to have good mechanical ability, be able to navigate through blinding snowstorms in the complete absence of visible landmarks, and must not be above doing his own oil changes and refueling. If he is forced down he must know how to survive--and he's got to be tough enough to lick the weather and the wilderness.

This calls for a special kind of pilot. Not all pilots-- even good ones--can handle this kind of flying.

Pilots like Sheldon survive by skill, experience, and pure instinct, and occasionally become local legends. He is based in the rustic village of Talkeetna, which is the jumping- off point for his two-hour sightseeing trips around 20,320- foot Mt. McKinley. These flights are available on clear days during the summer, and are one of Alaska's more spectacular attractions.

Although Sheldon is willing to fly to Anchorage to pick up sightseeing parties of four or five people, he recommends that visitors drive out to Talkeetna via the new 125-mile highway instead. The village lies north of the city, and the drive gives visitors a better chance to see this old log settlement that once supplied the surrounding gold camps, and perhaps have dinner at a noted local restaurant.

Sheldon's Talkeetna Air Service is headquartered in his home, which fairly bristles with radio antennas. His small fleet of bush planes is parked outside--one for every task--and he has a floatplane bobbing on the Susitna River nearby.

With several hours of daylight left after dinner, McKinley will probably be glistening in sunshine as the plane lifts from the strip beside the Sheldon home. Along the 75-mile route the pilot will fly over scores of moose in swampy pastures, going down low for passengers who want a closer look, and simultaneously regaling them with a running narrative on the history and folklore of the country below.

Following the Susitna River to when it is formed from a dozen or more glacial streams, Sheldon will point the plane towards the terminal moraine of Ruth Glacier. Starting from near sea level, this might river of ice rises to around 6,000 feet within a few miles. It half fills Ruth Gorge, whose craggy walls continue another 5,000 feet above it. Sheldon rates the gorge as being twice as deep as the Grand Canyon--if the ice were removed.

Near the base of McKinley, Sheldon will draw attention to a small structure on a rocky outcrop. This is his mountain cabin, which he flew in (14 trips) and constructed on a site bought from the state. It makes an ideal picnic spot in summer, and accommodates ski parties and others through- out the season.

A clear area at the 7,000-foot level between Mts. Hunter and McKinley has become a popular jumping-off point for climbing parties. All summer long, brightly colored tents can be seen from there right along the trail toward McKinley's south peak. This soars two miles above the plane and makes for great photography during the evening flight.

Flying low over the glaciers on the way home, blue ice-water lakes flash into view, reflecting the clear sky overhead. Sheldon always likes to check on his mountaineering parties, so a visitor to McKinley may get a close look at a roped group making its way up the west buttress. The groups use radios supplied by Sheldon so he can talk to them on their climbs. He is also in constant contact with his home base at Talkeetna, where his wife Roberta monitors the radios. If he's overtaken by bad weather, or decides to land for other reasons, he always reports to her first in case of trouble. His planes are all equipped with sleeping bags and emergency rations, and no visitor has yet been stranded.

A two-hour trip by Talkeetna Air Service will cost $130--$65 an hour for pilot and plane. With three or four in the group, it's a tourist bargain, attracting many visitors from the lower states. They usually follow up with a tour of Mt. McKinley National Park from the ground. Oddly enough, they often don't see the mountain this time, although it lies within the park. The local overcast conditions frequently obscure the peak.

Every flight with Sheldon is full of interest and local color. He stops at various camps checking on miners or trappers, or at homesteads to deliver groceries. The time is not wasted (it's also not charged for). It gives the visitor an insight into what Alaska and its people are all about.

During the summer months, Sheldon is up at 5 a.m. He will make a trip to a high camp on the mountain before breakfast, then take out a fishing party in his floatplane, then switch to his wheeled plan for a trip to a mining camp with supplies, and so on all day. He runs the flying side of his airline single-handedly, with Roberta taking care of communications. It is hard work; he'll never be rich, but he considers himself a lucky man. He is doing what he loves, and he loves where he is doing it.