Yeager. Hoover. Von Richthofen. Earhart. Names that should ring a bell in any aviator’s mind, civilian or military. They are legends of the skies, whose accomplishments have inspired countless millions all over the world, myself included.
There’s another name that ranks right up there with the greats, a latecomer to my aviation world and a true superman of the air–but I guarantee you wouldn’t ever hear him say that. It’s part of the reason why he’s a genuine hero: it’s not so much what he did that grabbed my attention, but also the humility which he displayed, all while showing incredible aeronautical ingenuity and skill.
Being the east coast airline dude that I am, I’m not awfully familiar with flying into the uncharted wilderness. I came away with a newfound respect for the Alaskan bush pilots after reading the story of Don Sheldon in Wager with the Wind, by James Greiner. For an awe-inspiring book about Don Sheldon and his life, check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Donald ‘Don’ Edward Sheldon might not be widely known in the lower 48, yet he’s a household name when it comes to Alaskan bush flying. Although he wasn’t a WWII ace or renowned test pilot, the story of Don Sheldon is just as monumental in the aviation world. Born in 1921, Don grew up in Wyoming and in his teen years moved to Seattle. He continued to head northwest, and found himself working at a dairy in Anchorage, Alaska. Making only $40 per month, eventually he had enough money saved for a train ticket to Talkeetna, where he would later form Talkeetna Air Service with partner Stub Morrison.
It wasn’t long after he arrived in Talkeetna that the US was suddenly entangled in World War II. Sheldon soon found himself in a B-17, though not as a pilot. He spent 26 missions over Europe as a tailgunner, where the life expectancy was not far above nil. Earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service, Sheldon returned to Alaska with a surplus military airplane and a vision.
Soon Talkeenta Air Service was up and running, flying into the Alaskan bush. Don’s stick-and-rudder prowess had become widely known and he had already made a name for himself by 1955 when he met Bradford Washburn of the Boston Museum of Science. Washburn & Co. were tasked with mapping the area around the tallest peak in North America, Mount McKinley. Known as Denali to locals and the native Athabascan Indians, the “high one” stands a monster 20,320 feet above sea level. When measured reference the surrounding terrain, it is the largest mountain in the world (above water, that is). Just as it stands imposingly out from the surrounding Alaskan Range, Denali would prove crucial to Sheldon’s business success.
Washburn’s expedition required unique skills, and Sheldon was ripe for the task. Flying his Super Cub newly outfitted with retractable skis, Sheldon quickly became an expert in glacier landings. For 15 years he ferried men and supplies in support of the expedition, landing where wheeled airplanes dare not go. Not only that, he quickly gained familiarity with the “high one” and its notoriously brutal weather conditions.
In addition to flying for the Washburn expedition, Sheldon also flew countless missions in search of downed aircraft or missing persons all over Alaska, in all kinds of hazardous weather. He was a tried and true hero, but only thought of himself as doing what needed to be done to make a living flying airplanes in Alaska.
He left his mark on the aviation community in a big way, a selfless aviator who dared to go to extreme lengths for the benefit of others. After surviving thousands of hours of flight in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, Don passed away from cancer at 52. His legacy still lives on with Talkeenta-based Sheldon Air Service, operated by his daughter Holly Sheldon-Lee and her husband, David Lee. We’ll bring you more about Sheldon Air Service soon, but for now check out this stunning video of flying around Denali National Park (including a glacier landing!) courtesy of Sheldon Air!
We can’t recommend Wager With The Wind enough. Do yourself a favor and get your copy of the book today.