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With Mount Hunter looming over his right wing, Paul Roderick, director of flight operations for Talkeetna Air Taxi, flies over his favorite place to ski. (Courtesy Talkeetna Air Taxi / Cameron Lawson)

The Pilots of Mount McKinley

For 50 years, the world has reached the mountain on airplanes from one small town

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The man responsible for the direction that the air taxi services of Talkeetna would follow earned his living not as a pilot, but as a cartographer and mountaineer. Bradford Washburn had begun mapping Denali in the 1930s; in 1951, he resumed the effort. That year Washburn, who died in 2007, at 96, after 41 years at the helm of the Boston Museum of Science, pioneered the route to the summit followed by most climbers today.

Years earlier, Washburn had established the value of airplanes to Alaskan mountaineering. He heard about skiplane pioneer Bob Reeve, who had developed a method for landing on glaciers with flights to support the gold mines near Valdez. Washburn hired Reeve and his Fairchild 51 for a 1937 ascent of Mount Luciana, in the Canadian Yukon. When Washburn asked Reeve 15 years later to recommend a pilot who could fly him to glaciers in the Alaska Range, Reeve replied that he knew of “that kid [Sheldon], and he’s either crazy and is going to kill himself, or he’ll turn out to be one hell of a good pilot.” (In 1964, Sheldon married Reeve’s daughter Roberta.)

The collaboration with Washburn made Sheldon’s career. From the climber he learned the topography of the mountains, features that today’s glacier pilots know as well as they know the streets of Talkeetna: One Shot Pass, a V-shaped notch named by Sheldon that is a gateway to the Kahiltna Glacier; the West Buttress, Washburn’s route to the summit; Mount Hunter and to its south, a cluster of peaks climbers call Little Switzerland; the Root Canal, a tiny patch of level snow perched among escarpments known as Moose’s Tooth, Broken Tooth, and Bear Tooth.

The collaboration also forced Sheldon to develop techniques of glacier landing still in use today. First, overfly the landing area to look for crevasses or for drifts that could grab a ski. Second, as you approach, hold more power on than you would for a runway landing so that once you make contact with the snow, as the incline slows the aircraft, you’ll have enough momentum to turn to a downhill position for takeoff. Simple rules that take years of experience and highly developed senses to execute properly. Every landing is different, says Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi, who has flown to the mountains more than 10,000 times since he began in 1991. “You can have a hundred different kinds of snow,” he says. “A lot of times, you can’t read it by air,” but only by what it feels like when the skis drag through it.

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.

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