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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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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.

Banner and her partner sold K2 to Jim Okonek, and in the revolving-door nature of the trade, Banner went to work flying for him. Her last flying job in Alaska was for Doug Geeting at Geeting Aviation.

Geeting brought a new kind of experience to Alaska glacier flying. In the early 1970s, he worked with the flight test community at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he ferried workers to remote dirt strips. Geeting says he was influenced by the test pilots’ dedication to methodology and their careful exploration of an airplane’s performance at all points in its envelope.

“Every glacier pilot ought to be able to tell you, within several knots, what the minimum maneuvering speed is of this airplane, at this altitude, at this weight, without thinking about it,” he says. Minimum maneuvering speed is the speed at which the airplane can bank 60 degrees for a 180-degree turn without loss of altitude—useful when poking around the narrow canyons and cul-de-sacs of the Alaska Range.

Geeting says the most important part of glacier flying technique is psychological. “You have a point on the approach phase I like to call the commitment point,” he says. “There is no go-around possibility, so get it out of your mind. That’s the key. Having it in your mindset that if you are going to do this, you have to commit yourself to do it and you have to stick to your plan.” To remind himself of the importance of that moment of judgment, Geeting maintained in most of his airplanes a little hand-lettered placard on the control yoke that said, “When in Doubt, Don’t.”

Today, K2 is run by Rust’s Flying Service, based at Lake Hood near Anchorage, and Geeting flies for them (see “Water World,” p. 54). In an irony lost on no one in Talkeetna, Don Sheldon’s daughter Holly purchased Cliff Hudson’s hangar and ramp space. With a National Park Service concession for flights to Denali, she and her husband, David Lee, opened Sheldon Air Service in 2010.

***

In any story about the mountains, the chief antagonist is the weather. Because of weather, David Lee postponed the delivery of his German clients to the glacier, and later in the season, he may have to postpone picking up Danish climbers Thomas and Anders Beckett. The brothers made the climb faster than they thought, and Lee got a call asking for a pick up days before he expected it, but he knows that supporting mountain climbers means you have to be ready to go when they call. Anyone arriving at base camp after climbing Denali will be at the limits of human endurance and badly want a shower and a bed.

In 1975, Cliff Hudson established a base camp manager on the Kahiltna Glacier to report the weather to pilots in Talkeetna and to organize the climbers for flights back to town. Today, the four Talkeetna air services share the expenses. Paul Roderick says that getting climbers off the mountain sometimes feels like the evacuation of Saigon. “If you didn’t have organization,” he says, “people would mob the airplane.” When camp manager Lisa Roderick (Paul’s sister) calls Lee’s cell phone to tell him that the Beckett brothers have arrived, exhausted, Lee is at a party celebrating his 50th birthday. When Roderick reports conditions at the camp, Lee determines that it’s open for flights but not by much and likely not for long.

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