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 4 of 6)
Doug Geeting, one of the most respected among Talkeetna glacier pilots, says that pilots also listen when they land:
“When you settle in to ground effect, you can hear—there is a sound difference.” Ground effect is the decrease in drag acting on an airplane’s wings when they are close to a surface. The difference in sound, says Geeting, is subtle, just noticeable if you know to listen for it, created by a change in airflow and amplified by the sound’s reflection off the surface on which the aircraft is about to land. In featureless terrain and flat light conditions, this sound, along with a slight reduction in the rate of descent, becomes an invaluable clue that the top of the glacier is near the bottom of the skis. Says Geeting: “You have to have faith in your ability to notice a rate- of-descent change [and] that you are going to notice a little sound difference when you get within 10 to 15 feet of the ground.”
In 1964, a Life magazine reporter described flying with Sheldon to the Kahiltna Glacier: “The winds are worse now, bouncing us all over the air. All around are somber rotten-looking cliffs that soar above us, and sharp, cleaverlike peaks that rise and rise. Soon Sheldon begins to pump a lever between our seats, lowering the retractable skis. The engine pounds and I see that our air speed has fallen from 140 miles per hour to 100. In front of us a wall of rock and ice suddenly fills the windshield. For a moment I think that we will surely bore right into it. Sheldon, using one hand and his teeth, is peeling an orange.”
It took several decades for Denali air support to evolve from the flights of two adventurers into an orderly industry. In January 1975, Don Sheldon died of cancer, at 53. That year, the Alaska Visitors Association formed its first marketing council, and by 1977 the total number of visitors to Alaska topped half a million a year. The number of climbers on Denali also surged, from 300 in 1975 to 900 in 1977. Today, the number is fairly steady at 1,200. Meanwhile, the glacier flying business got a new group of pilots.
One of the first of the new generation, Kitty Banner arrived in 1976 to find what she calls an odd group of characters. She compares Talkeetna to the 1966 movie King of Hearts, in which inmates escape from an insane asylum, take over the town, and “make a beautiful crazy sense of it all.” Working for pilot Jim Sharp, who had purchased Sheldon’s concession from his widow Roberta and renamed it Talkeetna Air Taxi, Banner began by flying fishermen on floatplane sorties to lakes near Talkeetna. In 1980, she bought her own air service concession with partner Kimble Forrest and named it K2 Aviation, branding the business for mountain climbers by its association with the famous peak in the Himalayas. Banner was a skilled marketer, and thanks to an intense off-season promotion effort, her firm gathered a plentiful clientele of European climbers, making K2 Aviation one of the most successful air taxi companies in Talkeetna.
In 1982, she described a typical day in the life of an Alaskan glacier pilot to a reporter at the Chicago Tribune: “You can start in the morning, just after dawn, and head off to Mt. McKinley carrying mountain climbers. ….Then you fly back to town, find you have another flight, hop into a float plane and fly out into the boonies to some old trapper’s cabin in the woolly north woods to deliver something he needs. You land on a lake near his cabin and there he is waiting for you. Then you come back, jump into a Super Cub, and fly off to a gravel bar in the middle of a river taking fishermen or hunters going out on an expedition.”
Today, pilots would add another activity to that lineup: Flightseeing has grown far more popular than ferrying climbers to base camp. When the weather is clear and “the mountain is out,” as the locals put it, Talkeetna Air Taxi and K2 Aviation run the big 1,000-horsepower turbine Otters on a half-dozen flights a day carrying cruise-ship tourists, who arrive at Talkeetna by the busload.