Historical Badass: Glacier Pilot Don Sheldon

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historical badass don sheldon 470In 1950, bush pilot Don Sheldon and his friend Frank Moennikes tried to take off from a lake in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains with Sheldon’s Aeronca Sedan floatplane packed full of moose meat. The winds were “squirrely,” Sheldon said, and as the plane neared the end of the lake, he realized it wouldn’t have enough lift to clear the rock wall at the end of the lake.

To avoid crashing into the wall, Sheldon spun the plane around, and the engine stalled. The plane lawn-darted into the water, nose-first. Moennikes slammed forward, wedged under the instrument panel, and Sheldon, still conscious, watched the cabin fill up with water through where the windshield had been. He grabbed Moennikes’ leg and pulled him out of the plane, swimming 50 yards to a small island.

Sheldon covered Moennikes in a sleeping bag, then buried him in moss, before he took off to find help, covering roughly 50 miles in about 14 hours, with only a knife, a wool shirt, a raincoat, and some moose jerky, as he told biographer James Greiner in the book Wager with the Wind: The Don Sheldon Story. He walked, swam the Susitna River, had three grizzly encounters, and finally made it to the Gold Creek section house on the Alaska Railroad to call for help. Moennikes told Sports Illustrated in 1972, “Sheldon is a good man.”

historical badass don sheldon 02Don Sheldon was a legend of aviation and of Alaska, a man who started his own scrappy airline, based in the tiny Talkeetna, and took on all the work and risk himself. Insuring his planes was more expensive than buying new ones, so he didn’t buy it (although he insured his passengers). And he never lost a client, although he crashed a couple planes.

Born in 1921 in Colorado and raised in Wyoming, Sheldon moved to Seattle when he was 17, and then headed up to Alaska, working 16-hour shifts at a dairy with no days off for $40 a month, then driving a dairy truck until he and his friend Jim Cook took their savings and bought two train tickets to Talkeetna. He learned to fly planes in Alaska and after Pearl Harbor was accepted into the military’s Civilian Pilot Training program. He served during World War II, flying 26 missions in Europe as a tail gunner on a B-17, and upon his return bought a military surplus plane and flew it to Fairbanks, then Talkeetna, to stay. In 1947, he formed the Talkeetna Air Service with a business partner, Stub Morrison.

The early years of the business were touch-and-go, and besides financial insecurity, Sheldon crashed a plane (the one with Frank Moennikes in it), and Morrison was killed in a crash. Still, in 1949, Sheldon had gotten a contract with the Alaska Road Commission and he flew road-building supplies back and forth from Talkeetna to the west end of Denali National Park.

From the 1940s to the early 1970s, Sheldon was the man when it came to flying in the Alaska Range. In 1955, he met Bradford Washburn, then the head of the surveying team from the Boston Museum of Science (and famous for summiting Denali three times). The team was mapping the area surrounding the massive 20,320-foot Denali. Washburn needed someone to land planes on high glaciers in the area, and Sheldon had recently installed the second-ever set of retractable skis on the bottom of one of his planes. The men worked together for 15 years, as Washburn and his team mapped the region and Sheldon became an ace at glacier landings.

In 1959, Sheldon received the U.S. Air Force’s Exceptional Service Award for his role in numerous rescues in the Alaska Range. He snapped up opportunities to help in any weather, at any time, and many owed their lives to his bold — but calculated — landings in niches all over the mountains. He became a prodigy at spotting landing areas, and as he told James Greiner in Wager with the Wind, “It doesn’t do a guy any good to land 200 miles from nowhere and then find out that he doesn’t have enough runway to take off on. The tundra is decorated with the remains of planes whose pilots made this mistake.”

Over the years, Sheldon became a legend for being able to do almost anything in the mountains — dropping fuel and supplies to prospectors, hauling out hunters’ kills, landing in improbable places during mountain rescues, and strapping cargo to his plane. During one body retrieval on the Muldrow Glacier, Sheldon strapped a climber’s corpse to a timber and lashed it to the plane — he couldn’t bend the frozen body enough to get it in the cabin.

Over several flights, strapping lumber to his planes, Sheldon carried enough materials to build a 14-foot-diameter hexagonal hut on a rock and ice outcrop in the Ruth Gorge, intended to be a shelter for the climbers, photographers and skiers who visited the area. Now known as the Don Sheldon Mountain House, the hut is available for rent to Denali National Park visitors for 10 weeks at the end of spring — access, fittingly, is only by ski-equipped plane, and then a 300-yard hike or ski up a glacier.

Sheldon died in 1974 at age 52 after a battle with colon cancer, leaving behind hundreds of stories. In 1972, Sheldon had told Coles Phinizy from Sports Illustrated why he had never wanted to fly anywhere else, for better pay and a regular schedule: “In a year, 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?”

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