The Pilots of Mount McKinley

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

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)
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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.


Cliff Hudson arrived on the scene in 1948 to join his brother, who had established Hudson Air Service two years earlier. Where Sheldon was gregarious and regaled passengers with a running commentary on features of Alaskan terrain and wildlife, Hudson was circumspect and almost silent. Retired Air Force pilot Jim Okonek flew for Hudson before he bought his own Talkeetna flying business and recalls hearing a story from one of Hudson’s passengers about a sightseeing trip: “He said he had flown with Cliff years ago, and they had gone out for a very nice flight. And Cliff hadn’t said a word. They didn’t have the intercom. Cliff was the very last one to ever get an intercom. They had come back over Curry Ridge, and the black bear were out. And there at that point Cliff hollered at them ‘They’re eating berries now.’ That was all he said, the whole goddamn flight.”

Nor did Hudson value publicity. According to Doug Geeting, who also flew for Hudson’s company before he started his own, Hudson didn’t even list a phone number for the air service in the local phone book. The number was listed under “Cliff Hudson.” If you wanted to book a flight with him, you had to know him, or at least know of him. Yet Hudson established a reputation for supporting the locals that is still honored. In addition to landing climbing expeditions on the Denali glaciers, Hudson carried people, mail, and supplies to remote homesteads. Each year in May, the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce holds a fly-in in his honor.

In the 1950s, even when nearby mining operations were hiring pilots to airlift supplies, small-town Talkeetna wasn’t big enough for two flying businesses headed by equally talented pilots. According to local lore, the rivalry became intensely personal. Adventure writer David Roberts offered a glimpse of it in the Reader’s Digest article: “After an incident in which Hudson alleged that Sheldon had buzzed his airplane in mid-air, the two pilots ended up in court on opposite sides of a nasty lawsuit. And once, when ‘the Rat,’ as Sheldon called [Hudson], refused to move his truck, which was blocking Sheldon’s airplane, the antipathy escalated into a fistfight at the local grocery store. Neither man ‘won’ the fight, say witnesses, but the store lost its candy case.”

At least once, the adversaries united against a common enemy: Alaska’s merciless weather. In February 1954, when severe turbulence ripped apart a U.S. Air Force C-47 flying over south central Alaska, both pilots helped with locating survivors. After Hudson spotted the crash site, he climbed into the back of Sheldon’s Super Cub, and the pair set out under a lowering overcast to rescue the crew. Sheldon dropped Hudson off and returned to base to alert the Air Force and mobilize an extraction. Hudson hiked in supplies to the survivors, built a fire, and stayed with them through the night. In Sheldon’s biography, the account of the rescue makes no mention of Hudson. Both pilots eventually received citations for exceptional service from the U.S. Air Force for their help; Sheldon, in 1959; Hudson, only after the efforts of two of the survivors, in 2000.


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