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Living Dangerously

With a raucous whine, the single-engine ski-equipped plane pierces the moonless night. Nearly 40 minutes and 90 miles of wilderness away from Anchorage...

17 Mar

Living Dangerously


With a raucous whine, the single-engine ski-equipped plane pierces the moonless night. Nearly 40 minutes and 90 miles of wilderness away from Anchorage, the runway lights of an airstrip clearly emerge in the blackness.

"We'll take the other runway--for convenience sake, "casually comments the pilot, Don Sheldon. He veers away from the inviting lights and noses the small plane down in a dark void. "Hope there's no moose," he chuckles. The plane's skis gently touch down on what turns out to be another snowy runway amid a cluster of cabins. "We missed the big ones," the pilot advises, referring to potholes rather than moose, who have kept their distance. He taxis the plane to the door of a yellow and brown house located smack in the middle of "Beautiful Down-town Talkeetna," as a nearby sign informs.

Donald Edward Sheldon, one of Alaska's most celebrated bush pilots is home. It has been a routine run--not like the time the left wing of his plane folded back at 1,500 feet. "They don't fly well with one wing," he explains. The plane spun groundward and crashed--fortunately, in a clump of trees. The impact, though, destroyed the craft, knocking off the engine and folding the other wing. "I was upside down, drowning in gas", Don recalls. "So I kicked open the door and jumped. But I didn't realize I was so high." He tumbled 40 feet to the ground and walked away.

Or the time he helped deliver a baby on a flight to Anchorage, one of the few births ever recorded in a single-engine plane. The problems were more mechanical than physical. A radio operator was relaying advice from a physician, but at times the transmissions were so garbled so Don didn't always get the directions straight. Eventually, though the detail were clarified, and mother and child did fine.

Or the time Don hit a stump and broke a ski on a takeoff with three ministers as passengers. To land again, the ministers had to hang out the door in human-chain fashion in order that one of them could hold the damaged ski in place.

Lithe and wiry, 49-year-old Don Sheldon belongs to a brash breed who challenge, in flimsy flying machines, some of the world's most volatile weather and desolate terrain. Since the early 1920's, Alaska's bush pilots--they number about 700 now--have tenuously linked together this far-flung land mass where 300,000 people are scattered over 586,000 square miles.

Even today, roads and trails in Alaska total a mere 6,800 square miles. Hence, it's up to the pilots to service homesteaders, miners, trappers, hunters, fishermen, mountain climbers and others with essentials and luxuries, ranging from dogsleds and dynamite to tobacco and tomatoes. Bush pilots will land almost anywhere -- on sand bars, glaciers, ice floes, beaches, lakes, pastures, graveyards or ball fields. They face the constant danger that each landing may be their last.

In a retrospective book about bush pilots, Harmon Helmericks, himself a part-time Alaskan bush pilot, writes that "none of the pilots ever got rich, most of them went broke eventually, a very few made it all the way through and were able to retire modestly, some drifted into other fields -- but most of them died trying." Any exaggeration is slight. Two historians recently compiled a list of the top 100 bush pilots from Alaska's past; at least 25 had been killed in air crashes.

Bush pilots like Don Sheldon, naturally are better off than their predecessors. Planes have been improved. Powerful radios and radar help. Mr. Sheldon can even phone 24 hours a day and hear a continually updated weather report based on data from a Tiros satellite. But the untamed combination of climate and country still exacts its toll here in the nation's flyingest state.

About one Alaskan in 40 is a licensed pilot, compared with about one in 300 for the nation as a whole. Ten percent of all Federal Aviation Agency flight service stations are in Alaska. This is also the only place where the FAA had to erect a flight tower alongside a lake solely for floatplanes.

The state, with less than 0.25% of the nation's population, accounted for about 4% of the 1,270 deaths in small-plane accidents investigated in 1970 by the National Transport Safety Board. It isn't unusual for military and Civil Air Patrol planes to be searching for four or five missing planes at one time. In fact, one FAA official, only half kidding, wonders whether that isn't the military's main mission in Alaska. "They seem to spend all their time doing it," he says.

Don Sheldon, who has been on both sides of rescue missions, hasn't escaped injuries. In more than 22 years of bush flying, he had had 44 planes, three of which were "totaled" in accidents. He sustained his most serious injuries, however, on a steep glacier in Alaska's rugged Wrangell Mountains, some 16 miles from where he had landed. He was on foot guiding two wealthy bankers through the mountains, when he spotted a sheep traversing a possible shortcut over the glacier, a six-inch wide shale ridge. "If sheep could cross it, I could, too," he says. But halfway across he was caught in a rock-and-snow slide and swept 400 feet down the glacier before "I collided with a rock outcropping that I managed to hang onto."

With rope, the banker pulled him to safety, and he began his most painful journey, 16 miles back to the plane with a broken right shoulder and a body covered with cuts, abrasions and bruises. To avoid blacking out, he had to rest every three to four steps. "It seemed like 1,600 miles," he grimaces. One of the bankers, a licensed pilot, then flew the plane out.


Don is an exuberant soul whose conversations turn into far-ranging monologues. In one long breath, he may skip from an unsolved 30 -year old murder in Talkeetna to the Japanese method of making green tea to a dissertation on Alaskan game management. "He's crazy like Casey Stengel," says another highly talkative bush pilot who remembers he couldn't say a single word during a flight with Don. "He's always got five ideas working at once."

Don Sheldon was born in Colorado, drifted as a Depression-reared teen-ager from a logging camp in Wyoming to peach-picking in Washington to driving a milk wagon in Anchorage and, in August 1938 at the age of 17, to Talkeetna, in the bush north of Anchorage. "With gold in the summer and fur in the winter, it was a booming town," he reminisces. "Everyone burned wood, and the town smelled like a big bonfire mixed with booze fumes."

For a living, he tried his hand a chopping firewood, gold mining (50 cents an hour for a 10-hour shift, seven days a week) and skinning beavers (his first took him two days to skin--"They're hard to skin if you don't know how"). Subsequently, he attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks for a semester and joined a survey team traveling around Alaska (in his first big job, he laid out some sewer lines backwards). All the while, he was rubbing elbows with the folk heroes of the day -- daredevil bush pilots who barnstormed the territory in ancient planes almost literally stuck together with baling wire and spit. He was permanently inflicted with a mania to fly.

"I looked at them like something from Mars," Don says. "I could also tell at a glance that it was the way to get around the country." The results were flying lessons in late 1941, a hitch in the Air Corps as a tail gunner during World War II, a postwar course in a mechanics' school and the decision in the spring of 1948 to return to Alaska. "My mind must have been paralyzed with frost, and when spring came, it thawed," he figures.

Back to Talkeetna

He linked up with a businessman-flyer named Stub Morrison, and they went into the bush-pilot business. (In 1951, Mr. Morrison was killed in one of Alaska's most treacherous weather conditions, radiation fog. That's when a slight drop in the temperature causes a blanket of fog to fall in a matter of seconds. "He just flew into the ground," Don says.)

Don settled in Talkeetna (population about 100) when old friends threw him some business. Even so, he was reduced to shooting wolves from his plane to collect bounties of $50 apiece to make ends meet. But the Talkeetna location proved propitious.

Looming some 75 miles from the town, a short hop in this country, is the majestic Alaska range, crowned by 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America During the 1950s, Don handled the flying for a survey of the rugged range by Bradford Washburn, an explorer and director of the Boston Museum of Science. The survey not only opened the range to mountain climbers but produced increasingly lucrative business for Don, who had his own intimate knowledge of the range and Mt. McKinley. He staked out an almost exclusive franchise to Mt. McKinley. This past year, he serviced 18 separate climbing expeditions, a personal record.

A Stern Test

"I don't claim McKinley as my own, but I did get in on the ground floor," he says. "I can negotiate the winds, the snow and the geography." He's being uncharacteristically modest. A close friend avers that "he truly believes it's his mountain." And a one-time passenger remembers his spotting the wreckage of a plane on the mountain's slopes and quipping, "He tried to outbid me."

Don's expertise was put to a stern test in 1960. Two separate expeditions climbing Mt. McKinley ran into trouble. In one, a woman was near death in a coma, while four climbers in the other were injured in a fall. Relying on thermal drafts to force his plane to altitudes it couldn't reach on its own, Don made repeated airdrops of supplies at 17,000 feet. But getting the climbers off the mountain was another matter.

Mr. Washburn, calling from Boston, conferred with his old friend and mentioned a possible landing site at 14,200 feet, higher than any plane had ever set down on the mountain. Don found the spot--a steep, hidden plateau--and negotiated a tricky, dangerous landing as well as a rendezvous with the sick woman. For the next four days and nights, he was in the air almost constantly, making landing after landing. In the end, he plucked 18 people off the slopes.

His rescues are almost legendary hereabouts. One involved eight Army scout who were to explore a stretch of wild river rushing through appropriately named Devil's Canyon. Don happened to be in the neighborhood, so he thought he'd check them out. What he found was six of the eight clinging to the sheer wall of the canyon. "They were almost through when a whirlpool smashed their boat against the wall," he relates.

Drifting Backwards

Landing upstream, he let his float-equipped plane, under full power, drift backwards down the river. The idea: to pick them off the wall. With waves as high as his wings, "it took me about five passes before I got the first guy," he says. One by one, he pulled them into the plane, then backed down the river a mile and a half through white water until he could turn around and take off. He also rescued the other two scouts. One was washed up on an island while the other was floating down the river on a piece of wreckage.

On another occasion, he joined a search in a blinding snowstorm for a missing Air Force C47 with 16 men aboard. From the air, he spotted what he thought were bloody moose tracks and, despite the storm, he managed to follow the tracks. Instead of moose, he came upon three of the plane's six survivors. "The plane had broken up in the air at 10,000 feet, and unbelievably, the six had lived to tell about it," he says.

Officially, Don Sheldon operates the Talkeetna Air Service. Except for a part-time pilot during the busy summer season, the concern consists of Don and his young wife, Roberta. "If we were a government agency, we'd have 10 people here," laughs Mrs. Sheldon. While her husband functions as a pilot, as mechanic and even as clerk filling grocery orders for bush customers, Mrs. Sheldon is the bookkeeper, secretary, radio operator and "a good trouble shooter". She used to fly, but gave it up when they married.

Mrs. Sheldon is the daughter of Robert Reeve, one of Alaska's most famous bush pilots. The 68-year-old Mr. Reeve, who doesn't fly any longer, operates Reeve Aleutian Airways, Inc., a 12-plane scheduled carrier serving the Aleutian Islands. During his courtship, Don plied Roberta's father with pungent moose sausage and caribou meat, prompting the old flier to crack that he wasn't losing a daughter but saving a liver. The Sheldons were married in May 1964, and their honeymoon featured one of Don Sheldon's rare plane mishaps.

A Dangerous Tilt

In a plane decorated with pink toilet paper they flew to a frozen lake in the bush and a cabin borrowed from a friend. The next morning, they discovered the ice thawing and the plane's right ski at a dangerous tilt. "If it thawed more, it could plunge right through," Mrs. Sheldon says. That's precisely what happened when Don tried to move it. He had to radio two friends, who flew out and helped him pull the plane out of the water with a block and tackle.

"Don was real embarrassed," Mrs. Sheldon confides. "He had kept preaching never to go near the outlets of a lake during the spring thaw. They never let him forget it."

Today, the ruddy bush pilot flies five single-engine planes--three six-seat Cessna 180s, a Cessna 185 specially equipped for shorter takeoffs and landings, and a two-seat Piper Supercub. (Many bush pilots shun multiengine craft. "It's hard enough to keep one engine warm and going," Don huffs.) The Supercub is for tight, marginal landings, while each of the Cessnas is equipped with different landing gears--wheels, skis and floats--to handle any job.

In 1965, Don committed himself to paying $100,000 plus interest for four of the planes. (He just bought the Cessna 185 the other day.) "Roberta said if I ever did it again, she'd leave me," he says. At the same time, offered $50,000 to buy out the company's interest held by the widow of his former partner. "We just got it all paid off," he says proudly. "I didn't know if I could do it, but I did" by grossing $340,000 during the five-year period. "That's a lot of dough for a one-horse outfit like ours."

"Pushes Himself Too Hard"

This past year, he grossed about $70,000, charging $60 an hour for flying the Cessnas and $40 an hour for the Supercub. "If I don't fly at least 1,000 hours a year, we haven't had much of a season," he say. His flying is heavily concentrated in the summer, when the Alaskan sun not only warms the chilly clime, but stays out for much of the day. "He has tremendous endurance," says Roberta Sheldon. "He'll worm from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. and only get three or four hours sleep. In this business, you've got to make a living in the summer season. And if you have a week of bad weather and traffic piles up, you have to really fly to get that revenue in." To a close friend, known as "Evil" Alice Powell, "Don's a fine pilot and he works hard. In fact, I think he pushes himself too hard. But that's why he makes money and many others don't." Mrs. Powell, who got her nickname from the shady ladies in the brothels she inspected as a sanitation officer during the territory days, runs a motel-restaurant in Talkeetna, and arranges bush trips. "Don's dependable, too," she says. "If I have someone, I don't have to pull Don off a bar stool somewhere. He never touches a drop."

Radios and Insurance

With the cutthroat competition, the economics of bush flying can be as tricky as the flying itself. Along with the costs of planes and maintenance, for example, Don had to shell out $1,800 for a base radio as well as nearly $400 apiece for eight mobile units he sets up at the camps of mountain climbers. "We also keep a lot of sleeping bags, coats and other gear for people who show up at the door unprepared," Mrs. Sheldon says. More important, though, is insurance.

Like most bush pilots, Don can't even afford to insure his planes. In three years, he grumbles, premiums for the so-called hull insurance would equal the price of the plane. He must carry passenger liability insurance, but its price has been soaring. In 1970, he paid $7,000 in premiums to Lloyds of London, which covers Alaskan aviation, up from $5,300 in 1969 and $2,500 in 1968.

Mrs. Sheldon, who handles the books, blames crashes by heavy aircraft on the oil-rich, remote North Slope for the steep increases. "I wrote them myself, pointing out that he never had a fatality," she laments. "He knows his limitations in marginal weather, and he overhauls his engines before their due. I brought up all these things, but it didn't do any good. It's another case of the little man paying the brunt because of the big guys. You can cry about it but you can't change it."

(Attesting to the perilous nature of the job, bush pilots must also pay 35% to 74% extra merely to insure themselves, according to a major insurance company. Commercial jet pilots, on the other hand, pay the same as a stockbroker or any ordinary businessman.)

A Bump and Some Booze

The most serious injury suffered by a Talkeetna Air Service passenger, Don says, occurred 20 years ago when a tricky wind presented him with the choice of riding his plane into a cliff or flipping it into a lake. The passenger, he says, emerged from the crash with "a big bump on his head. He figured this was it. But after a couple shots of booze, he was on his feet again."

The plane, however, was lost. To this day Don forlornly calls that lake "8G lake," short for eight grand, of $8,000, the price of the lost plane.

Don doesn't like to talk about the dangers of bush flying. "I'm still around after 28 years of flying, so it must be relatively safe," he says. Everyone faces dangers, he says. "You could be struck by a garbage truck in Anchorage." But he admits that few of the buddies he had when he began flying are still around. The job, he says, permits him to sate his desire to fly, make hundreds of friends all over Alaska and "to produce a memory" that will linger after he's gone. He disdainfully dismisses commercial jet pilots with two words: "taxi drivers."

His wife, having grown up in a bush pilot's family, says the bush pilots "take the consequences of the danger to do what they like to do. It's just something in their blood. It's a drive in itself. Both Dad and Don have it. And if your husband is going to be happy, it's most important that he better be doing what he likes." Don, she says, "is such a competent fellow that every time I get frightened, a little voice says, 'Don't worry'." Yet she notes how he continually "risks his life to protect those kooky climbers" and adds somewhat wistfully, "Why, when he has so much here, would he do things like that?"

"How Lucky We Are"

With their two young daughters, the Sheldons live quietly in Talkeetna, now a way station along the federally owned Alaska Railroad. Mrs. Sheldon is pregnant and, remembering the birth he husband handled in the air, she plans to go to Anchorage a week early. "All we talk about is how lucky we are to live here, with the peace and solitude," she says. "We're only 35 or 40 minutes from the city, too. Some people drive that long to work every day."

When Don isn't catching up on his sleep ("He hibernates a lot in the winter," Mrs. Sheldon says), his rare spare time may be spent collecting driftwood, picking berries with his daughters, dabbling in watercolors, making furniture or preparing some moose jerky in a smokehouse he recently built.

Though he used to shot wolves for their bounty, Don now limits his hunting to a very occasional moose for the larder. The years of flying have transformed him into an ardent conservationist, even to the point where he will only rarely take out a hunter. With his mood shifting between outrage and sadness he talks about the vast stretches of vacant bush that once teemed with wildlife, and about spotting piles of white fox and other animals who died from eating poison ostensibly left for wolves. At present, he's campaigning against a State Fish and Game Department proposal to expand the hunting season on antlerless moose. "It's subversive," he charges. "They don't want to be control agents. The want to destroy what we pay them to protect."

Getting Giddy

In the pioneer days of bush flying, the wives often went days without a word from their husbands. But Roberta Sheldon stays in constant radio contact with Don, an arrangement that isn't always a comfort. Not long ago, Don flew to rescue a dying climber at 15,000 feet in the Alaska Range. Back at home, his wife received word the climber had died and to call off the mission. "But I couldn't get hold of him, though I could hear him," she says. "For some reason, he hadn't taken his oxygen and I could tell he was getting giddy. I was really scared." Fortunately for Don, turbulent winds forced him to return without attempting a landing.

Don has had closer shaves. Flying near the town of Wainwright, above the Arctic Circle, he was engulfed by a whiteout, a feared condition peculiar to the region. He likens it to flying in a bowl of milk. Light filtering through a cloud cover becomes equal to the light reflected off the snow, blotting out the horizon as well as the pilot's ability to discern land from air. Only dark objects can be seen.

"I was good and disgusted until I caught sight of a friendly shoreline," he says. It was a ridge of ice more than 100 feet high. He followed it and , just a suddenly, lost sight of it. "I was really sweating it," he allows. Then his passenger, a fur buyer, caught sight of a red fox. "It looked like it was going up our right wing."

A Eskimo and His Dogs

They were actually flying below and precariously close to the ridge. Don gained altitude and began searching for a caribou herd. During whiteouts, caribou give pilots some perspective and also an indication that the land probably is flat and landable. He did spy what he took to be grazing caribou. "I just landed," he laughs, "and nearly ran over an old Eskimo and his 10 dogs."

On another flight, he became lost in a surprise storm with his fuel running low. He landed on a steep, snowy incline of a peak 170 miles southwest of Mt. McKinley, it turned out, and immediately a widespread air search was launched for him. He had to tip up the tail of his plane to drain the last drops of gas forward to keep his radio sending a signal ("It was a helluva job") and he had to continually beat down 2,000 feet of snow for a takeoff. "The snow, you wouldn't believe it," he says. "Eight feet of new snow fell. Flakes were bigger than $200 bills. I was there five days, but it seemed like a month. There's a lot of planes lost and never recovered."

He staked wood in three piles for signal fires, to be lit with the fluid in his engine heater. Just before his radio died, he heard the whir of a plane in the sky. "I rushed to those three tremendous piles of scrub timber, but they didn't burn like any timber I had seen. They just went poof, with little puffs of smoke. There were my three tremendous bonfires."

Unfazed by Scrapes

In desperation, he took off his engine cover and frantically began waving it. It worked. Air drops of gas then permitted him to finish his flight. These scrapes don't faze him, and they don't prompt any talk about retiring. "I don't care to quit," he vows. "I'd rather wear out than rust."

But some Alaskans think the whole bush pilot fraternity is a dying one. Scheduled jets now connect point that once were the private domain of the bush pilot. People are increasingly clustering in the larger towns. New highways are opening bush country once accessible only by plane. Homesteaders, miners and trappers are themselves vanishing. Even noisy snowmobiles, a proliferating phenomenon in Alaska, are allowing people to get off the beaten path.

However, as Roberta Sheldon puts it: "We'll always have Mt. McKinley. You can't build a highway up that mountain. We figure that's his ace in the hole."