Ode to Don Sheldon

man smiling with a knit cap
Don Sheldon of Alaska Bush Pilot fame shown here in the 1960s.
Sheldon built the original Sheldon Mountain House on the Ruth Glacier. Famous for flying climbers on and off of then called Mt. McKinley used Piper Cub and a Cessna 180 on skis.

Donald “Don” Edward Sheldon is a famous Alaskan bush pilot who pioneered the technique of glacier landings on Denali (Mt. McKinley) and throughout the Alaska Range from 1947 until his passing in 1975.

Born in Mt. Morrison, Colorado in 1921, Don Sheldon lived at time of American innocence, when the American West still held onto some of its mysteries. Bush flying, such as it was, had only began the year before in Canada and Alaska (an American Territory purchased from the Russians) and it was only a few years into the great Gold Rush of the Yukon and Nome. Though born in Colorado, Don Sheldon grew up in the wilds of Wyoming, on a ranch near the small town of Lander.

At the age of 17, Don made his way out to Seattle, and then up to Anchorage by way of the inland passage on a passenger ship. Don’s first job in Anchorage was at the Step and a Half Dairy where he worked 16 hour a day shifts, 7 days a week, for which he earned a flat $40 per month. After six weeks of this, Don was driving a dairy delivery truck down an Anchorage street one morning when he spotted a sailor friend, Jim Cook, that he had met in Juneau on his boat trip up to Anchorage.

Don and his re-found friend decided to pool their money and see how far north they could get. The $12 they had between them paid for 2 one-way train tickets to Talkeetna, AK, where 10 years later, Don Sheldon, with partner Stub Morrison would form Talkeetna Air Service.

Talkeetna Air Service struggled for several years to earn profits, but it seemed that Don and his partner Stub would succeed where many others had failed. It was the years of 1950 and 1951 that would really test the young Sheldon, for he would crash and destroy an aircraft in 1950 and then his partner, Stub Morrison, would be killed in a crash in radiation fog in 1951.

Don’s business sense was good and he would soon have a paying flight or two each day. It wasn’t only Don’s flying skills that became apart of legend, but it was his strong sense of knowing which jobs to take and which to turn down that led him to a success in this very demanding business, where four out of five people failed.

It was in 1955 when Don met the head of a surveying team from the Boston Museum of Science, Bradford Washburn. Washburn was looking for a suitable pilot (with plane) to assist at the museum’s long term survey and mapping of the area surrounding Mt. McKinley and the mountain itself. Don had just recently installed only the second set of retractable skis ever built on one of his Super Cubs, and this intrigued Washburn, because their survey/mapping work would require landing at very high altitudes on the upper glaciers of Mt. McKinley and its neighboring peaks. (Brad Washburn admitted later that after he had inquired, both in Fairbanks and Anchorage, on hiring a bush pilot for the work they needed to do, the name Don Sheldon came up almost every time.) When Washburn offered Don the fee of $100 for each glacier landing, Don jumped at the offer, but on the second day and after Don had made eight separate landings on one glacier (moving equipment and men), Brad Washburn suggested that maybe paying $100 for each landing would soon run the Museum out of money. They settled on the normal Talkeetna Air Service charter fee of $25 per hour, plus a $50 bonus for each new area landing.

This relationship between Don and Brad Washburn would continue for the next 15 years and Don Sheldon would become one of the world’s most proficient pilots at landing on glaciers. Bob Reeve (founder of Reeve Aleutian Airways) was the first to attempt and perfect the art of glacier landing (in the early 1930s), with his Fairchild 71, which was outfitted with a pair of homemade skis. Because Bob’s homemade skies were non-retractable, he couldn’t land his Fairchild on any hard surface, so Bob landed on the mud bogs near his base in Valdez.

Over the years, Bob had relayed what he learned glacier landing to Don, and Don improved on the necessary techniques even further during the 15 years he flew for Brad Washburn (Don and Bob Reeve’s relationship went beyond friends, as Don’s wife was Bob Reeve’s oldest daughter, Roberta).

Before you can attempt to land on a glacier, you must first make a low pass to look for depressions in the soft snow, as these depressions can be masking a crevasse which could easily swallow up a freight train, not to mention a little Piper Super Cub. Another problem often encountered is when there is a slight cloud cover that blends in with the surface of the soft snow in daylight. The human eye cannot distinguish where the surface of the glacier is and landings are all but impossible in these conditions. Don Sheldon carried several small Spruce tree limbs that he would throw out in a line, which would provide a noticeable dark line of points to mark the glacier surface elevation.

During the later part of the 1950s and into the ’60s Don flew countless trips, most often moving supplies, equipment, and people. Don also performed rescues of mountain climbers or hikers in trouble along with searches for military and downed aircraft. Don’s first experience at assisting the military came on particularly bad weather day in 1953 (February 4th), when the Tenth Rescue US Air Force in Anchorage had received an urgent radio call from a C-47, inbound to Anchorage, that was in extremely bad turbulence and was receiving structural damage and icing. The last radio contact the with C-47 put them about 70 miles north of Talkeena, so Don volunteered to fly up and take a look. Because a strong winter weather front was moving through, Don experienced very poor visibility, freezing rain, and extremely severe turbulence. Because of the poor visibility, Don flew low up the Susitna River and twice he had to land on a sand bar to wait for a moment of clearing to continue. About 60 miles up the Susitna, Don got a momentary break in the clouds that allowed him to fly up to 5,000 feet and along the side of a mountain slope that Don calculated would be the most likely place for a downed aircraft working its way south.

Don’s fuel status was getting serious, then the weather closed back in, so Don had to go back to Talkeena. The weather got very severe, so he waited it out, back home, all that day and into the next, when finally at about noon on the 5th, he took another shot at it and this time he hit pay dirt. He found tracks, and soon after found two survivors dragging an injured third. Don wrote a note on a brown paper bag, tossed a couple rocks into the bag (Don carried small rocks for this exact purpose) and tied a red ribbon to the bag. He flew over the survivors and tossed the bag down to them, explaining that he was going back to Talkeetna to pick up a USAF Flight Surgeon and some supplies (warm blankets, hot coffee, food, etc.) and would return. Don had also spotted a small clearing about 1,500 feet down slope from these guys (where he felt he could land), so he told them to head for it.

Returning from Talkeetna with a load of supplies and the Flight Surgeon, Don learned that these three crew members had been sucked out of the back of the C-47 when its tail broke off. Two of them got their chutes open in time, but the third crew member’s chute opened just as he hit the ground and he had suffered a serious laceration from his neck all the way down his back to the top of his ankle.

The C-47 had completely broken up in midair at 12,000 feet, so when the wreckage of the aircraft was finally located, a couple of days later, three more survivors were found. Ten of the sixteen man crew had perished. Among those that had died was one British Colonel that was a director of the Canadian Cold Weather Test program and was an extreme weather survival specialist. The Colonel had safely parachuted down, but had died from exposure in the cold Alaska winter. Don received what would be the first of many a citation from the US Air Force for his efforts in this search and ultimate rescue of the survivors of this downed C-47.

Most often though, Don’s flights were less extreme, like the times when Don delivered supplies (from a case of dynamite to a case of Jack Daniels) and there were no places to set his Super Cub down, so Don would fly very low and throw the items out and more times than not Don’s aim was very good. Though there were one or who miner’s cabins with a hole in the roof throughout the territory.

Over the years, Don Sheldon distinguished himself for his uncanny skills at flying his bush planes and the stories of his lifesaving flights are too numerous to list here, but Don maintained an extraordinary understanding of aerodynamics and this combined with a complete understanding of meteorology and the topography of Denali and the surrounding areas made for a unique individual among many unique individuals. Many trapped mountain climbers, hikers, or survivors of downed aircraft released a sigh of relief when they heard the putter of Don Sheldon’s Super Cub overhead. Just when everyone said no one could get through, that’s when Don Sheldon would appear in his Piper Super Cub.

Don Sheldon never thought of himself as a hero, as he felt that he merely understood how to profit at operating a charter air service in the wilderness of the Alaska. Considering all of the near death close calls and crashes he survived, it seems unfitting a man, such as Don Sheldon passed on from cancer at the age of 53 in 1975. Don Sheldon was a father and husband and he was truly an American hero, but above all he was a bush pilot’s pilot!

Reprinted with permission fromĀ AVSIM.com