by James D. Greiner
In most places below its confluence with the shallow and swift Chulitna, five miles above the approach to Don Sheldon’s backyard airstrip at Talkeetna, the Susitna River, or “Big Sue,” as it is known to Alaskans, is at least one-half mile in width.
There is, however, a place 65 miles above Talkeetna where this generous breadth shrinks to a measly 50 to 75 yards between vertical rock palisades. Here, during spring, the Susitna’s 6,750,000-gallon-per-minute flow attempts to surmount itself in a roaring dervish of hissing gray spume at a place called Devil’s Canyon.
Sheldon had been almost content with the transport of itinerant fishermen, miners, and homesteaders during the weeks that followed his rescue of a woman from the Talkeetna River, but this contentment was overshadowed by a vague restlessness. It was 1958, Sheldon was 36 and was more convinced than ever that his specialty flying would become the profitable venture that he had hoped for.
The arrival of the northbound train from Anchorage, an event of regular though transient interest, took on new dimensions that same afternoon. Sheldon noticed that a crowd had gathered on the planking near the station almost before the engine jarred to a stop and braked against the slight grade. Resting on a special flatcar like some huge landbound ark was a bright yellow boat, its bow decked over, and sporting two formidable looking engines in its capacious stern section. The detachment of U.S. Army scouts that presided spelled property of Uncle Sam.
As the 50-foot boat was being offloaded, Sheldon joined the group of curious spectators, and found that little if any information was being offered by the Army as to why the boat was there, or what it would be used for. Speculation was the order of the day, and Sheldon had already heard several rumors, when he spotted a vaguely familiar face among the GIs struggling with the boat. The officer was a lieutenant with the Search and Rescue section at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, and a casual acquaintance. He was busy checking a sheaf of dog-eared papers.
“Hi, hi! How’ve ya been?” grinned the pilot.
“Good, Don. How’s yourself?”
“Great. Hey, what’s the deal here? You guys goin’ fishing?”
The officer glanced once more at his paperwork and allowed that the boat was to be used in an attempt to chart navigable watershed in the Susitna drainage.
Sheldon was incredulous. “Hey, you don’t mean you’re going to attempt to run this thing up the Susitna and through the canyon?”
The lieutenant, who had never seen Devil’s Canyon, missed the surprise in Sheldon’s voice. His reply was curt and precise.
“That’s exactly what we plan to do, and as soon as we can get under way, the better.”
There wasn’t time for Sheldon to appraise the real chances of such a mission on such short notice, and even if there had been, he was sure that the officer was not particularly interested in his homespun opinions. He did, however, have a very vivid picture of the Devil’s Canyon, and had serious doubts about the possibility of the mission’s success.
“Lookee, I’ve got a heck of a lot of fishing traffic up that way in the next few days, and I’ll check on your progress from time to time.”
With the boat successfully launched, the small detachment of scouts that comprised the crew cast off, and with the powerful engines churning the current-roiled river, disappeared from view around the first upstream bend. Sheldon had flown over the five-mile stretch of boiling water in Devil’s Canyon many times. It was, in fact, a very familiar landmark to the pilot, one that he used often. From the air, the sheer rock walls of the canyon rising to 600 feet produced an awesome corridor, above which the air was characteristically turbulent, and at the bottom of which existed almost continual shadow. Of the current, Sheldon says, “The current here is so swift and heavy that even the salmon get beat to death trying to swim upriver.”
The day after the scouts started up the Susitna, Sheldon flew over the river to make a casual check on the progress of the boat, but did not see it. Since he was not really searching for it, he did not fly over the entire section in which he judged the party to be.
On the second day, he was curious, a trait which to date has accounted for not only his promptness in times of trouble, but to his own personal safety as well. This time, with two elderly fishermen aboard, and en route to Otter Lake north of Takleetna, he deliberately flew up the Susitna to the tail of the Devil’s Canyon rapids. As he reached the flume below the fast water, he banked sharply to the left, and rolled the portly Aeronca Sedan up on its ample side. Something had caught his attention at the periphery of his vision, and when he identified it on the second swing, his skin crawled.
“I was shocked to see pieces of yellow wreckage floating down the river. It was boiling.”
He continued the 10 miles to Otter Lake, offloaded his passengers, and quickly retraced his path to the rapids below Devil’s Canyon.
“I had a feeling this was a fresh wreck, and they’d really gotten clobbered. I saw barrels of gasoline bobbing around here and there. The wreckage was strewn downriver to a point almost 25 miles below the canyon, and it consisted mostly of bright yellow chunks of the boat’s hull and other debris, but no people.”
Sheldon then flew upriver, above the canyon itself, down to a point just above the rim, and after making several passes in the seething air, spotted a huddled group of men on a narrow ledge of wet rock in the shadows at the base of the north wall. Even from his vantage point, he could tell that they were in bad shape and in desperate need of assistance.
“They were in a terrible condition, cut up, and barely managing to cling to the shelf of rock. Their clothing was literally torn off, and a few of them still had life jackets on. These were also in shreds. They had apparently floated down about 60 percent of the canyon, a distance of about three miles.”
Because he knew the place so well, Sheldon could rapidly appraise his chances of retrieving these men, and they looked poor. The canyon walls at their top were but a scant 200 yards apart, and the river was a closed succession of hissing combers broaching over house-sized boulders in the river bottom.
His chances were not only poor, but probably nonexistent, for the Aeronca, though heavier than the Super Cub, weighed only a scant 1,400 pounds empty and would be tossed like a tiny rock, even if he somehow managed to land it on the surface of the river below, a feat which at this moment looked impossible.
To drop onto the surface of the rapids here would be suicide, for the floats needed a flat surface upon which to dissipate the inertia and forward momentum of the airplane. Sheldon needed little or no imagination whatsoever to visualize the results of running headlong at 65 miles an hour into any one of the tumbling white crests of water that surely towered up to six feet above the surface of the river.
“There was no place to land below them, it was just more of the same terrible rough water. I did a 180-degree turn, and about a quarter mile above the guys, I spotted a slick, high-velocity stretch of river that looked like it might be big enough. I made a couple of passes to try it on for size, and then set myself up for an up-canyon approach to the place. It looked mighty small.”
As Sheldon dropped the Aeronca below the tops of the canyon’s walls, he found himself flying in a narrow alleyway of wet spruce and vertical rock. The wings rocked with the turbulence produced by the unstable air of the canyon and he carefully adjusted his glide path. The floats were causing his airplane to respond to the controls in a delayed manner, which is normal, due to a lowered center of gravity, and in a routine landing produces no problems. Here, control of the airplane was everything, and Sheldon hitched forward as far as his seat would allow, to gain every last inch of forward visibility.
Even before the floats touched down, spray and mist from the river surface were streaking the plexiglass windshield of the Aeronca, and Sheldon had the compulsion to firewall the throttle plunger and climb away from the terrifying spectacle of the gray water, but he resisted it. Then he was down.
Sheldon was landing against a current in the magnitude of 30 miles per hour, and the plane decelerated at an alarming rate. When an airplane is moving through the air at an airspeed of 90 to 100 miles per hour, the control surfaces—ailerons, rudder and elevator—work at optimum efficiency. This is due to the rush of air over the wings and tail surfaces, produced not only by the forward motion of the plane through the air, but by the slipstream blast of the rotating propeller.
An airplane, out of its design element and on the ground or water, is much more difficult to control, primarily due to the loss of this forward velocity, when all that is left is the rush of air produced by the propeller. In addition, an airplane on floats is infinitely less maneuverable than one on wheels or even skis, and as a result, the Aeronca became an unresponsive deathtrap as it almost immediately began to accelerate downriver with the current.
“The nose wanted to swing in about every imaginable direction, but somehow I managed to keep it pointed upriver with the throttle. I was floating backward at about 25 miles an hour, the windows were fogged, and I couldn’t see where I was going.”
Sheldon was certain of one thing, that behind him was the beginning of the heavy stretch of boiling rapids he had seen from the air only moments before. He was at that moment like a man blindfolded, rolling backward toward a cliff in a car without brakes that he could not steer.
Sheldon will never forget those moments that elapsed so rapidly that they precluded panic.
“As the plane backed into the first of the combers, I felt it lurch heavily fore and aft. It was like a damned roller coaster, the water was rolling up higher than my wing tips, beating at the struts, and I could barely see because of the spray and water on the windows. All of a sudden the engine began to sputter and choke, and I knew it was getting wet down pretty good. If it had quit, I’d have been a goner, but it didn’t.”
Suddenly, he saw the huddled group of Army scouts on the small rock ledge, through the Aeronca’s side window. Like white images on a frozen screen, they stared with open mouths as the airplane backed past them. And now the most critical and delicate aspect of the entire rescue began.
“After spotting the men, I had to stop the airplane’s backward motion, which I did with full throttle, but I knew my problems had only begun. I had to get the airplane close enough to the ledge for the guys to jump out onto the float and get aboard without damaging a wing on the rocks. If they missed, in their condition, they’d drown for sure.
“I jockeyed around and finally got the wing angled just enough to get one of them on the left float, and still keep myself from turning downstream.”
Once aboard, the grateful GI managed to balance-walk long enough to get into the cabin while Sheldon was already making his next move.
“Because of the heavy current and extremely rough water, it was impossible for me to taxi upriver, let alone take off in that direction, so all I could do was continue to float backward as I had been doing. It was a mile and a half downstream to the end of the rapids, and that first trip was one of the longest rides on a river that I’ve ever taken. It was a shocker.”
Once below the rapids, Sheldon was able to turn the plane and make a downriver takeoff. He would make three more of these landings for there were seven men on the ledge, and he could only remove two at a time due to the need to keep the plane as light as possible for maximum maneuverability.
With the unbelievable taken care of, Sheldon now accomplished the impossible. He returned to the rapids three more times without damage to the airplane, himself, or the rest of the stranded scouts, and then turned his attentions to the eighth man. Sheldon had ferried the seven to the tiny settlement of Curry on the Susitna, a way station for the Alaska Railroad, and then returned to the canyon.
“I flew upriver, looked and then looked some more. I still saw a lot of debris, but no eighth man. I was just about ready to go back for another load of gas when I finally spotted him. The guy had dragged himself out of the river, and he was about 18 miles below the canyon. He had floated all that way hanging onto a piece of debris, and when I got to him, he was a shock case and could barely crawl aboard. The water was about 55 degrees and he was all skinned up and bruised, but had no broken bones.”
The rescue at Devil’s Canyon had been a marvel of efficiency. It was the first of a multitude of tasks that Sheldon would accomplish with the passage of time. Many would be of milder cast, while some would exceed the events that had transpired that day at Devil’s Canyon. Today, Don Sheldon is well aware of the part that luck played in the four landings and subsequent takeoffs, for not even he could gauge the depth of the water as it plunged over the jagged rocks in the floor of the Susitna, yet somehow his floats missed them all four times.
Don received a special citation in a formal ceremony from the U. S. Army, Alaska, and today, when asked which aspect of the entire Devil’s Canyon episode he remembers best, he smiles thinly.
“I guess it would have to be the expressions on those guys’ mugs as they crawled aboard my old floatplane.”
Alaska Magazine—October 1974
Used by permission
by James D. Greiner