More than 30 years after the death of a legendary Alaska bush pilot, the family of Don Sheldon has unearthed documents that may place Sheldon's name on the local airport.
The small town of Talkeetna is well-known for its air proximity to Mount McKinley and for the bush pilots who fly climbers to the mountain's base camp and sightseeing tourists above its ridges.
Much of that history has been recorded in books, on film and even on the walls of local taverns. Sheldon, credited for being one of the first pilots to do glacier landings on McKinley, is one of Talkeetna's claims to fame.
Sheldon's daughter, Holly, is working to complete a process that began almost 30 years ago, after her father died. In 1975, the Alaska Legislature created a proclamation to change the name of the village airstrip to the Don Sheldon Memorial Airport, she said. She's pleased with the idea, she said, saying it's a fitting honor for a man who made a huge impact on the history of flight in the area.
"It's coming 30 years later," Holly said, "but what an awesome tribute to what he gave to all the people of Talkeetna, to the climbers of Denali, the miners and trappers and everyone ... he did some pretty incredible stuff."
Four copies of the proclamation were given to her mother, Roberta, and those copies went into a box and then ended up in storage. When Roberta recently moved, Holly said, they discovered the proclamation and she contacted government agencies to find out how to finish the process.Sheldon's career in Talkeetna was as long as his absence has been. He founded Talkeetna Air Taxi in 1947. In the years that followed, he helped pioneer McKinley flights and glacier landings in the Alaska Range, becoming famous for his daring rescue missions on the mountain.
"I am so excited about this," Holly said Friday. "My dad was a very interesting man. He had a lot more to him than being an expert airplane pilot ... He was in love with our territory and the land, and he knew it probably better than anyone I've ever come across."
When a military C-47 crashed north of Talkeetna in 1954, Sheldon took off in search of survivors. Through bad weather and poor visibility he was able to note tracks in the snow, returning the next day to see two survivors dragging an injured third. He dropped them a message in a weighted paper bag saying he would return with help, and took note of a nearby clearing where he would later land with a flight surgeon and supplies. For his efforts he received a citation from the U.S. Air Force. It was only one of many, less-noted rescues Sheldon would carry out through the years.
In 1955, Sheldon teamed up with Bradford Washburn, a mountain climber, photographer and cartographer from the Boston Museum of Science, and together they put Mount McKinley on the map -- literally -- and highlighted Talkeetna as the step-off point to the mountain.
Sheldon outfitted his Super Cub with a set of retractable skis that allowed him to make extraordinary landings on mountain glaciers, which proved pivotal to the Sheldon/Washburn expedition.
In 1982, Keith Spencer, writing about Olympic Mountain Rescue, wrote about one of Sheldon's lesser-known rescues, in 1960:
"Don Sheldon in his 'SuperCub' actually landed on the side of the mountain to pick up a very ill second party. Sheldon landed up-hill and kept the brakes and power on while the victim was loaded. He then spun the plane around and gunned it downhill off the edge of a cliff."
He built a cabin, now known as the Mountain House, in McKinley's shadows in 1966, reportedly flying materials to the site on his plane at a time when few men dared to take their aircraft onto the glacier at all.
Sheldon died of cancer in 1973. Shortly after, the National Park Service renamed the valley surrounding the Mountain House, dubbing it the Don Sheldon Amphitheater.
"He was so aware of how the land was formed and how, after all his years up here, how the weather systems were in this area -- so he knew exactly what he could get away with," Holly said. "I spent a lot of time when I was young flying with him, it's where my love of flying was born.
"I remember as a child being in back of Dad's Super Cub -- the one I now fly -- and it was surrounded by the boxes," she said. "One person flies the plane and one has to open the door and drop the boxes, you needed a second hand. That was me. I just loved hanging out the plane and dropping the boxes to the climbers ... He was really popular because he was really good at what he did and he worked well with the people."