DO NOT BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ
The Wall Street Journal, date March 17, 1971
Story on Alaska Bush Pilot Don Sheldon
“Or the time Don hit a stump and broke a ski on takeoff, with three ministers as passengers. To land again, the ministers had to hang out the door, in human-chain fashion in order that one of them could hold that damaged ski in place.”
“Wager with the Wind: The Don Sheldon Story” by James Greiner (In spite of one error, I highly recommend this book.)
Page 249 “Sheldon’s passengers are not always on the receiving end of the service he offers. On a sight-seeing jaunt with three Baptist ministers, he landed amidst several thousand caribou for pictures. On the takeoff, the right ski rigging parted company, causing the front of the ski to point straight down. ‘I had a minister hanging out the door, standing on the heel of the ski so I could safely land the airplane. It was about 20 below outside in the slipstream and 40 miles back to Talkeetna.'”
What to do? I was there and I am not a Baptist minister. So a few people will know the truth of the matter. There were not three ministers, but only two. One of the group was an United Methodist layperson by the name of Jim Ekstedt. The UNITED METHODIST ministers were W. E. Hoover of Ohio and John J. Shaffer of Chugiak, Alaska. It happened in approximately 1966, when W. E. Hoover was with us to assist in raising money to build at new sanctuary at Chugiak.
We were not sight-seeing. We were hunting for caribou. We never saw any the entire flight. They had disappeared.
(Portions of a letter sent to the author James Greiner, dated February 22, 1975)
First of all, it was not three Baptist ministers. It was two United Methodist ministers (myself and W. E. Hoover) and one active United Methodist lay person (James Ekstedt). We were attempting to caribou hunt, but were unable to find any. We had landed for coffee and a visit at a remote lodge, where a young couple were celebrating their first wedding anniversary. (Add-on: at the time they didn’t seem to appreciate our visit, so we didn’t stay long. As we took off, we hit a submerged stump and were flying. We observed that a bolt on the ski struts came out and the right ski pointed straight down.) As we headed back to the Talkeetna Airport, we tried to hold the ski level with a gun, but found that it would not work. Then Mr. Hoover volunteered to stand on the rear of the ski for landing. Roberta (Sheldon) came to the main landing field with a fire extinguisher and the fire department was waiting at the end of the field. Don slowed the plane to the point that we stopped almost immediately upon touchdown. He let out a yell of victory and whatever the value of the new plane, Don was grateful. So grateful that he only charged us for 1/2 air time. Then he got some wire and tied down the bolts on parts of his new plane and he was ready to fly the next customer.
I suppose worse things could happen than going down in history as a Baptist minister, but let’s not push that.”
It is my memory that the author promised a correction in future editions, but alas, he died prior to making that happen. Don Sheldon also died from cancer, not from an airplane crash. As I recall, he was Catholic, so he could be forgiven for not keeping his Protestants straight.
Don Sheldon had used some code to his wife to indicate that he was in serious trouble, perhaps something like “we are coming home to the barn” and his reaction (not suitable for younger ears), indicated that it was serious business.
I was not overly nervous as we prepared to land. As I recall, Mr. Ekstedt held the door open and I held Mr. Hoover’s neck as he went outside of the plane to stand on the ski. As he said: “I want to get home safely to my wife.” However, when I saw the fire trucks along side the airport runway, I realized how risky the situation was. All was well that ended well. We took photographs and went home to our wives, without any caribou steaks.
Footnote: Jim Ekstedt died in an airplane crash in 1990 while “caribou hunting” in the Bethel area while serving as Aniak City Manager. This was 24 years after our experience with Don Sheldon.