Don Sheldon invented what we take for granted as “modern” Alaskan bush aviation. During a storied 25-year career beginning around 1948, while based out of Talkeetna, Alaska he built a legend that defies belief. Even if half of it is really true, his epic life is enough to infect you with a severe case of drop-jaw. Did he really kayak his pontoon equipped Supercub backwards, under power, down a canyon channeled whitewater river to rescue eight stranded boaters? Not once, but four times? Or how about the time he retrieved an obese, hypothermic naked woman off a ten-foot-wide sandbar?
It’s tales such as these that drive Wager with the Wind, James Greiner’s biography of Sheldon. While published in 1974 and written in a dated voice that’s not exactly your latest James Patterson or Michael Connelly, Greiner’s use of extensive Sheldon dialog carries the narrative.
Take this for one example, while flying by dead reckoning in a whiteout: “Suddenly, Perry and I saw a flash of something reddish-brown above the wing tip, and I immediately began to ease the plane upward in a very cautious climb. Perry said, ‘Was that a fox?'”
While the adventures carry the book, mixed in you’ll find plenty of Talkeetna, Alaska backstory: The Fairview bar, the Road House, even the impossibly-short grass airstrip in the middle of town — and Denali, of course.
While I was expecting the book’s Denali content to grab me, such wasn’t the case. The parts I found most compelling were the the workaday adventures of Alaskan pilot life, the grizzly Sheldon living on bags of snack food while flying sleepless through the 24-hour Alaskan daylight. Or winter, when the long night hits and the thermometer bottoms, heating the engine with light-bulbs then taking off for yet another impossible mission. No GPS, let’s be clear on that.
Yet if you’re so inclined, the mountaineering stories are in there. I liked the tale of Sheldon landing in the Ruth Gorge with Bradford Washburn, then picnicking on a rock outcrop. That’s like tying into a rope with Sir Edmund Hillary. (Info dump: among his many exploits, Washburn put up the first ascent of Denali’s West Buttress route, the “standard.”)
The Denali rescue stories are key as well. Here you’ll acquire a foundational history of the Big One’s epics. Take for one example Sheldon’s history making landing and subsequent takeoff at 14,000 feet. A woman named Helga Bading had developed cerebral edema. Her only chance was an evac from the 14,000-foot camp. While newish turbine helicopters of the day might have done the job, the task came to Sheldon and his lightweight, fabric covered Piper Super Cub.
Sheldon swooped in like some kind of mythological deity, and evaced Bading, thus making the first 14,000-foot fixed-wing glacier landing. But the day didn’t end there. Concurrent with Bading, the John Day expedition — which included the famed Whittaker twins — had fallen from Denali Pass down what we now call the Autobahn. All of the Day party were alive, but they were injured and stranded above the Peters Glacier. Sheldon couldn’t land there. Instead, he flew cover for helicopter pilot Link Luckett, who’d heard about the Day party, borrowed one of his boss’s tiny two-seaters, and in typical Alaskan style went after it. This involved removing the copter’s battery after starting the engine, to reduce weight. He then shuttled the Day party to the 14,000-foot camp, where they transferred to Sheldon’s plane to complete the evacuation. In all, Sheldon made eighteen fixed-wing landings at 14,000-feet within one 24-hour period! Superhuman.
As you might suspect, there’s plenty of crashes. Some not so pleasant. Others that Sheldon somehow survived. During one such epic Sheldon’s airplane was entirely dismembered, while he and his passenger survived with hardly a scratch. Summed up by Sheldon: “I’ve owned a lot of planes, 45 at last count, and I’ve demolished a few, but I’ve never lost a single passenger.”
Don Sheldon died in 1975, liver cancer, at just fifty-three. That’s a long time ago… a time before many readers of this were born. But don’t let that stop you. I don’t often review “older” historical literature, yet this biography is worth a read, as well as a place in the WildSnow digital record. Whether you’re planning to circle Denali in a sightseeing plane, or catch a bush flight to the climb of your life, do your homework. First assignment: Wager with the Wind.