The Pilots of Mount McKinley
For 50 years, the world has reached the mountain on airplanes from one small town.
- By Larry Lowe
- Air & Space magazine, June 2013
(Courtesy Talkeetna Air Taxi / Cameron Lawson)
(Page 2 of 6)
Most air taxi services flying tourists to the mountain and supporting its climbers are based in Talkeetna. In few places is aviation as interwoven with local culture as it is in this small town. A small dirt airstrip, once Talkeetna’s only runway, begins one block below Main Street (though most air traffic today uses Talkeetna State Airport, on the town’s southeastern edge). In the historic Fairview Inn, built in 1923 and topped by a windsock, the walls are covered by photos of climbers and pilots in equal proportion. On one wall, a plaque carries the motto that has told the story of transportation in Alaska since the 1930s: “Fly an hour or walk a week.”
A short walk from the weather-worn Fairview, a community theater occupies what once was the hangar of the town’s most famous pilot. In the mythic history of Talkeetna, the late Don Sheldon is the Chuck Yeager of glacier flying. When he and partner Stub Morrison established Talkeetna Air Service in 1947, Denali had not yet become the international tourist magnet it is today. An inscription painted on the hangar wall facing the town, still barely legible, reflects the partnership’s original customer base: “Morrison & Sheldon, Registered Big Game Guides.”
Sheldon was a natural pilot, one of those rare beings who fly more by instinct and touch than by intellect. In 1982, fellow Talkeetna Air Service pilot Mike Fischer described Sheldon’s style in Reader’s Digest:
“He was a classic seat of the pants flier. But he was an atrocious theoretician. He had these outrageous theories on how an airplane worked. I often said ‘If he actually flew the way he talked about flying, he wouldn’t be able to talk about flying, because he wouldn’t be here.’ Still, he was an intuitive expert at extracting the last possible ounce of performance out of an airplane. He knew from experience what wouldn’t work.”
A biography of Sheldon, Wager with the Wind by James Greiner, is crammed with entertaining accounts of daring rescues, duels with the weather, demolished airframes, babies born en route to the hospital, and climbers making mountaineering history. Greiner and others who have written about mountain climbing in Alaska secured Sheldon’s reputation: a colorful, talkative personality brimming with confidence, who became a legend despite an atrocious flight safety record.
From the bountiful publicity surrounding Sheldon’s career, one wouldn’t suspect that there was another glacier pilot, just as skilled, operating from Talkeetna at the same time—an arch-rival whose conservative approach and introverted personality may not have been the best qualities for public relations, but whose sterling safety record established him as a master pilot.