From the antimony mine Sheldon heads back over the Alaska Range for Talkeetna. He has completed his rounds, but his day is not done. Before he has taxied the plane around and cut the switch, his wife Roberta—who serves as business manager, booking agent and operations control—is on the edge of the strip with an urgent message. A longtime customer, a venerable, weaving pillar of the Talkeetna community, has just fallen off a bar stool at the Rainbow Lodge and is in a bad way. Without asking how or why Sheldon grabs an emergency mountaineering kit and dashes off in a car to give the bar-stool victim a blast of pure oxygen.
How many airlines ever offered as much as Talkeetna actually delivers in one day of erratic flying? Certainly there are airlines that will scatter your ashes on request. Possibly there are a few that will drop dynamite and peach ice cream at your feet for a price. But is there any airline other than Talkeetna that really cares enough to come running when you crash in a local bar?
In the 24 years since Sheldon went in business with a pair of secondhand wings, the Talkeetna Air Service has logged more than a million miles. In the process it has lost one pilot and five planes, but never a passenger. To appreciate the concern Sheldon has for his clients, one need only cross the street from the Talkeetna hangar and talk to Frank Moennikes, owner of the Fairview Inn. Many of Talkeetna Air Service's customers go through a lot, but Moennikes is the only one who have ever-been to the bottom of a lake with Sheldon.
In the early fall of 1950 Sheldon flew Moennikes in to a small lake near the Alaska Range to skin and quarter two moose that hunters had shot. By early afternoon when they headed out with one butchered moose aboard, the wind was tricky—"squirrelly" as Sheldon describes it—and the air was so warm it was robbing the plane of lift. Realizing he would not clear the rock rim guarding one end of the lake, but already committed to the air, Sheldon tried to ease the plane around, stalled and went into the water.
The impact injured Moennikes' neck so he could barely control his head. When the plane hit the lake bottom, both doors were jammed shut. Sheldon hauled Moennikes out through the broken windshield, got him to the surface and swam him to shore. He buried Moennikes beside the lake in caribou moss, with only his face exposed. While Moennikes lay there through the night listening to the bears—or wolves—that came to feed on the second moose, Sheldon covered more than 40 rough miles, walking, climbing and swimming, to reach a telephone on the Alaska Railroad. Three times in the night he had to swim down the edge of rapids through the canyons of a creek, and three times on gravel bars he bluffed bears out of his way by waving his coat. He reached the phone early in the morning, and by 9 o'clock the Air Force had picked up Moennikes.
"Sheldon is one good man," Moennikes says.
Sheldon has been in the Alaskan sky so long he cannot head anywhere today without a memory. Southbound from Talkeetna to Anchorage he usually flies in the same air rut where long ago a squaw gave birth in the rear seat. On the way to Anchorage he flies close by the spot where his former partner, Stub Morrison, lost his bearings in radiation fog and flew into the ground. Farther along the same track Sheldon passes over the tall cottonwoods that once caught his spinning plane and broke the fall after clear air turbulence had folded a wing back at 2,500 feet. (He sold the bent remains of that plane for $50.)
North from Talkeetna out the port window Sheldon looks across the hills where he saved three downed fliers. Out the other window he can see the Devil's Canyon of the Susitna River, where he rescued six Army men who were hanging on a rock face.
Sheldon often flies in and out of Cantwell, the strip where 10 years ago a crazy woman seized the controls during takeoff and put the plane over an embankment. When he takes hunters to and from the mountains, he is often on the same track where eight years ago he asked a Protestant minister to get out of the cabin in midair and use his weight to keep a damaged ski at the proper angle so the plane would not crash. The preacher had hired Sheldon to show him the country. Hanging on a strut, bearing down on the faulty ski for 60 miles, he got an unforgettable, frozen, bird's-eye view of it. Sheldon did not charge him for the flight. It is not unusual for his passengers to participate in the operation, trampling down runways in the snow and such as that, but hanging on a strut in 20-below-zero air to keep the plane flying is more than Talkeetna expects of a paying customer.
Don Sheldon is an average-size, rock-hard man who sometimes walks as if he were carrying the world. After 30 years of exposure in Alaska he is weathered, for sure, but he has the face and grin of a kid. He is an accomplished worrier who bounces around like a boy. The harsh ups and downs of his business would drive most money-minded men up a wall. He pays about $7,000 a year to cover his passengers, but insurance for his planes is too much. The annual premium that even smart gambling concerns like Lloyds of London ask is roughly a third the cost of the aircraft. Rather than spend $85,000 in four years for a $35,000 plane, Sheldon prefers to take his chances. Some years he has been a loser, but the loss barely shows on him. Flying over the Talkeetna Mountains, he casually points out a small nameless lake that he calls "27-G" in memory of the $27,000 plane that he lost—totally totalled, one might say—shortly after takeoff in warm and fluky air. After tearing off both its floats on rock, the staggering 27-G plane plowed between two outcroppings, leaving its wings behind and sending its engine on ahead. Most of the fuselage, containing Sheldon and a sheep hunter named Wally Grubbs, fell into a 60-foot crevasse. "Like the proverbial straw going through the oak tree," Sheldon remembers, "we hit so hard we never got a scratch." Finding wreckage strung out for 300 yards but no sign of life, a search plane wrote them off. Sheldon and Grubbs got out of the bush aboard the helicopter that came to look for their bodies.