If all the frippery and fringe delights that airlines offer the public were necessary, the Talkeetna Air Service of Talkeetna, Alaska would have gone out of business in its first year. It is an unpretentious operation, strictly bush, in the fine sense of the word, and it has survived for 24 years by promising only to try to get its customers where they want to go. When you are flying the unfriendly skies of Alaska, that is promise enough.
If you expect haute cuisine or any other kind of pie in the sky, do not use the Talkeetna Air Service. If you can enjoy an honest slice of oldtime aviation without gloss, then Talkeetna is for you. The Talkeetna Air Service will pick you up in the middle of a lake and, if you wish, put you down on a glacier above 7,000 feet. Talkeetna will fly you from the Wrangell Mountains westward to the Kuskokwim flats, and from Ketchikan and Yakutat in the south to Barrow and Umiat on the north slope. Talkeetna will drop you off on any grassy bald or gravel bar, on water, snow or ice, provided its smallest plane, a Piper Super Cub, has room enough and air dense enough to put down and jump back into the sky like a scared mallard.
Alaskan weather, like the land, is heroic in scale. The Talkeetna Air Service has managed to hack it in a windy world of giants because 50-year-old Donald Sheldon, its founder, owner and senior pilot, is what engineers call a good stoichiometric mix for such a rude environment. Sheldon is nine parts caution and one part faith. He has faith in God and selected radio frequencies, but he filters every gallon of airplane gas five times. When low-pressure areas spiraling out of Bristol Bay and the Chukchi Sea foul up the Alaskan flyways, Sheldon bides his time. When he finds a good hole in the weather, he goes for it, day or night.
Because of the big winds aloft, the Talkeetna Air Service does not guarantee to take you anywhere on schedule. And how pleasantly you travel in any weather depends on the traffic Senior Pilot Sheldon and Junior Pilot Mike Fisher have that day. The seats in Talkeetna's three Cessnas are comfortable—but you do not always get one. On many flights the Cessna seats are left behind since they take space that can be used for cargo. Flying north out of Talkeetna, you sometimes sit on a tank of propane bound for a homesteader in the bush. Southbound you may be alongside a hunter, sitting on the hindquarters of his moose. On busy days the Talkeetna Air Service loads the bulky cargo on first, then loads you on, then piles more baggage on you, but nothing really burdensome. The most that Talkeetna ever expects a passenger to carry in his lap is maybe a bedroll, half a dozen crampons and ice axes, a pair of snowshoes, a gallon of ice cream and a carton of eggs. Odds and ends like that.
On a fine day when business is slow, Don Sheldon can usually fly a passenger on a beeline, but even then he does not always do so. Sheldon loves Alaska, every part of it, all the grandeur and agony of it. Thirty minutes outbound from Talkeetna across the spruce land and green balds, he is apt to bank around in the sky half a dozen times to point out the scars of old mines, the silver ribbons of water clogged with fish, or a cow moose browsing with her calf. He will suddenly stand the Cessna on one wing and shout, "Right down there in the spruce, a brown bear. According to the game commission, which thinks it knows everything, brown bears are not found more than 80 miles from salt water, but right there is a brown bear 130 miles from salt water."
Forty miles farther north, beyond iron-stained mountains that in midsummer still carry old yellow snow in their pockets, Sheldon enters his special heaven, the Alaska Range. Riding high over the blue ice of a glacier between scarps too sheer to hold new snow, he is in his glory. "Five ice ages have plastered this place," he exults. "This is the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier," he shouts. "Deeper than the Grand Canyon, but most people never heard of it."
After a spell of bad weather, with his commitments piling up, Sheldon still wanders, but this time not so casually. On a typical day he first heads northwest from Talkeetna to the Cache Creek area. Wingslipping a thousand feet, he levels off 20 feet over the deck, throttles back and skip-bombs a carton of dynamite to a mining camp that has been wanting it for a week. Then he strikes out for Mt. McKinley, the two-headed giant of North America. For half an hour, at altitudes between 10,000 and 14,000 feet, he buzzes the white flanks and buttresses like a gadfly, looking for mountain climbers or their tracks.
In the summer the Talkeetna Air Service flies 100 or more climbers—American, Canadian, Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish, French and Swiss—into the Alaska Range. Sheldon and Junior Pilot Fisher put the climbers down at 6,000 feet or higher on glaciers, then ferry them back out three or four weeks later when they have conquered their mountain or have had enough of it. Some of the climbers, suffering injury, frostbite, anoxia or pulmonary edema, must be hauled out on short notice, in a hurry. Some of them never come out; they fall off mountains and disappear in deep snow. Sheldon spends a lot of time looking for the lost ones and usually does not find them. In the terrible summer of 1960, in a matter of hours two mountaineering parties got in trouble high on McKinley. The first plane to the rescue was pressed by a downdraft into the mountain and burned. Sheldon landed 18 times on an untried 30-degree ice slope in the thin air at 14,300 feet, bringing out five of the distressed climbers and 13 members of a rescue party.
The Talkeetna Air Service is the abiding friend of the Alaskan climber, not only in this life but in the hereafter. Sheldon has brought dead climbers out, and also has scattered the cremated remains of a few in the mountains. (The first time he performed this rite, he misjudged the air burbling around the open plane window. A lot of the ashes flurried back inside, getting in his eyes and hair.) A mountain climber freshly dead is usually more of a problem than a cremated one. Last summer when a large dead climber was recovered from a crevasse 9,300 feet up on the Muldrow Glacier, Sheldon could not bend the streeked, frozen corpse enough to get it into his Super Cub. He flew it out of the mountains lashed to a timber on the outside of the plane.
On a typical day, after he has hunted for half a dozen climbing parties on McKinley—finding perhaps one and traces of another—Sheldon heads northward out of the Alaska Range into the dry blue sky of the Kantishna drainage. He comes in low over an outdoor camp and skip-bombs a gallon of peach ice cream to the proprietors. His aim is too good. The ice-cream bomb knocks down the camp's washline. He rises, then lands a few miles to the northwest on a gravel strip along Moose Creek, a tributary of the Kantishna River. There he temporarily off-loads a photographer who has been with him and takes aboard three Estonian mountain climbers who want to make an aerial reconnaissance. Sheldon advises the photographer he is leaving behind, "I'll be back in about an hour. Meanwhile you will be eaten alive by mosquitos." After buzzing around McKinley again with the Estonians, he returns to Moose Creek for the mosquito-bitten photographer. Then he flies northwest to Caribou Creek to advise some antimony miners how to fix the radio he left with them. (They should realign the aerial and dip the corroded battery clips in hot soda water.)