Cleo McMahan was interviewed by Bill Schneider and David Krupa on October 20, 1993 at his home near Gakona, Alaska. Cleo and his wife, Daphne, lived just off the Richardson Highway, overlooking the Tok Highway with a beautiful view of the mountains that Cleo spent so much time flying in. He came north during the Depression, worked several Civilian Conservation Corps jobs, and then learned to fly. With that he had a way to get into the woods and he soon was taking folks out and guiding hunters. Cleo's sons lived adjacent to him. At the time of this interview, Cleo's eyesight had deteriorated a bit so he couldn't keep his license, but he wanted to get into flying ultra lights, since he wouldn't need to have a license to fly them. If you are interested in learning more about Cleo, his daughter, Sally McMahan Pollen, wrote a book about him entitled Papa was a Bush Pilot.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Oct 20, 1993
Narrator(s): Cleo McMahan
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, David Krupa
Transcriber: Sue Beck
People Present: Daphne McMahan
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Traveling to Alaska
Where he worked throughout Alaska
Learning to fly
Airplanes, and choosing to trap and guide full time
Taking out hunters, and meeting Lloyd Pennington "by accident"
Lloyd Pennington and early guiding business
Early clients in his hunting and guiding business
The hunting situation in the 1950s
Picking up clients, and using base camps
The hunting and guiding business
Wolf hunting and bounties
Hunting polar bears
His sons' involvement in the guiding business
Providing scenic tours
Daphne's perceptions of the guiding business, and starting an airplane in the wintertime
Establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and effect on animal populations
Airplane access into the Park
A WWII Lend-Lease airplane wreck
A bootlegger at Fox Lake
People visiting the Lend-Lease airplane wreck
High altitude flying in the Wrangell Mountains
The best types of bush planes, and airplane maintenance
Advice for modern-day air taxi operators
Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.
After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay, today is October 20, 1993. I’m Bill Schneider. Dave Krupa’s here. We have the pleasure this afternoon of doing an interview with Cleo McMahan at his beautiful house here looking out over the Wrangell range here. And his wife, Daphne, is with us here in the house, too.
So, Cleo, thanks for making time to do this and for sharing a bit of the past. I think folks coming along will be interested in some of the heritage and things you’ve been involved in.
Let’s start by -- if you’d tell us a little bit about your background. Who your parents are, and then we’ll get you up to Alaska.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, I was born in a sod house in Kansas, western Kansas near a town called Logan.
And, of course, my father was a farmer. But soon after -- when I was about four or five, he went to business college and got a job running farmers’ elevators and we lived in small towns in various parts of Kansas.
I finished school -- finished high school in Salina, Kansas. Then we moved to Marysville, Kansas, and run a pool hall there. I don’t know whether you want me to tell all -- everything or not.
BILL SCHNEIDER: No, you’re doing fine. Keep going.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Naw, I won’t tell that part.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Now our listeners will wonder.
CLEO MCMAHAN: We had a pool hall there for several years, and then finally we all -- the family broke up.
And then I went to Denver and worked there for quite a while. Then I’d come back and work and harvest fields, and go back to Denver and work.
And it was mostly summer times I could work for the DNRG Railroad there. Forty-four cents an hour as a laborer.
And finally I got tired of that and came up to Alaska.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh-huh. Now you were saying that was during the Depression?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, of course, the Depression started in ’29, but the Depression was still -- was still -- was the Depression as far as I was concerned, ‘cause there was hardly any jobs.
And what jobs you could get, didn’t pay anything, and ---
BILL SCHNEIDER: How did you get the money together to get up here?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, to get up here I borrowed twenty-five dollars from my thousand-dollar life insurance policy, and my mother’s -- twenty-five dollars from my mother’s life insurance policy. And then had saved about a hundred dollars from -- from my unemployment insurance in Denver.
And hitchhiked to Seattle and got on steerage on Alaska Steamship and came to Seward. Alaska Railroad to -- to Anchorage, and I had thirty-seven dollars left when I got to Anchorage.
And the only jobs there was WPA for a little while and workin’ in people’s gardens and choppin’ wood for ‘em.
And I and several others were in -- camped in what was -- let’s see, that was Ship Creek. It was Ship Creek Park. I don’t know if they call it a park, but anyway it was nobody there then.
A bunch of us was camped down there and we heard a -- heard a ad on the radio that they wanted boys for the CCC.
And so, we went up there, five of us or six of us. Told us that they’d send us to this -- out in the brush to a spike camp where they was gonna build a landing strip and a -- and a emergency cabin for the bush pilots, why we’d go. So they took us.
And we went out there and with wheelbarrows and picks and shovels, we made a -- Well, of course, it was already a place that the old Pilgrims airplanes could land.
They’d land us there and then they hauled other stuff in for us. And we made a pretty good landing strip there and whipsawed lumber and drug logs in and made this cabin. It’s probably about a 20 x 30 shelter cabin over there. It’s still there, I guess.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So you were in Anchorage at that time, and a little bit of work with the Conservation Corps there, and then what brought you further north?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, I never did -- I never did go anywhere except -- well, after the -- let’s see.
Yeah, I started working for the -- well, when the CCCs -- I came back from Rainy Pass. We call it Rainy Pass. It was the Rhon River, which is a checkpoint in the Iditarod now.
We came back and I spent the CC -- it was the winter with the CCs. We was clearing land for the -- Fort Richardson there.
But we didn’t know it. But, we didn’t know what we was doing. We just was cuttin’ trees down and cuttin’ brush.
And then, of course, the war brought on lots of jobs, and I got a job runnin’ a speeder up and down the Alaska Railroad from Talkeetna to Broad Pass, to be sure the freight trains didn’t start a fire on a bridge, burn a bridge down.
And I did that for one summer and started the next summer, and then they sent me over here to take over a CC -- a bunch of CC boys over here.
They had a camp over here of Natives, livin’ in tents. And then I stayed over here in Gakona then for practically all the time after that, except for the winter of ’41 in Fairbanks and a couple of winters working for the FA -- or, yeah, the FAA, buildin’ these FAA stations around the country. Talkeetna and Summit and Unalakleet.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let’s back up to that winter in Fairbanks. You were learning to fly?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Yeah, I learned to fly that winter. A young guy there taught me to fly -- or halfway to fly. I didn’t really know how.
I remember the first takeoff. I was headed for a building right close to the runway and I didn’t have enough sense to turn away from it, and I just skimmed the roof and went over it.
But I soon got over that. I didn’t have any more narrow escapes like that. But I’d -- I was --
I’d go out in forty, fifty below zero and put a firepot under the engine 'til it was warm enough to start and then go out flyin’.
It’s a wonder that I ever made it, because that wasn’t a very good idea with a little sixty-five-horse Taylorcraft. But I got through it all right.
And then I got drafted. For some reason, at that time, everybody was saying don’t get drafted in Alaska because you’ll have to stay here. I don’t know what -- what they’re -- why that was.
But anyway I went to Denver and they wouldn’t take me because I got a crippled right arm. So I came back.
But before I left, I had -- I sold my airplane for the same I’d paid for it. $1500 for a new Taylorcraft.
And when I came back the guy wanted $3000 for it. So, I had to go without an airplane 'til 1945, when the first ones -- first J-3s was shipped up to Anchorage. And it came in a great big crate, a great big wooden crate.
And that was the beginning of my flying experience. All I wanted the airplane for was to -- just to get around Alaska by myself, ‘cause I didn’t like messing around with dog teams.
Tried it a couple times and I did work more than the dogs, ‘cause I felt sorry for ‘em. Always a-pushin’ and shovin’ the sled.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell me about that J-3. What sort of aircraft was that?
CLEO MCMAHAN: That was a two-place tandem sixty-five horsepower little airplane. It was so light that they could lift the ski up, lift it -- just lift it around pretty near any way you wanted to. If you got caught in overflow or something, why it was easy to get out, compared to the airplanes nowadays.
And I bought it especially to trap with, and turned out to hunt wolves with later. I didn’t know at the time anything about huntin’ wolves. I knew there was lots of wolves, ‘cause I’d see ‘em. You didn’t even have to look for ‘em, there were so many of ‘em.
And I was workin’ summertimes for the highway department, and then wintertimes I’d trap with the airplane, and people got to asking me -- wanting me to take ‘em huntin’ and fishin’ so much, that I just finally quit the highway department and -- and just flew the airplane and trapped.
I didn’t even get a commercial license for several years. I think it was about -- almost about 1950 before I ever got a commercial license. Got -- went up to Fairbanks and got that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Who was your instructor on that?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Harry -- I just can’t remember his name. Harry something. He was a young guy.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: It’s in your logbook, isn’t it?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Yeah, but I don’t know where that logbook is right off the bat.
He was a -- he wasn’t an old-time bush pilot or anything like that. He just was a young guy up there. I think he got drafted hisself and had to go to the Army.
And I never seen him after that -- after he soloed me.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So then you got pretty much involved in taking people out hunting and fishing, and -- As well as, your own trapping with the airplane?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Yeah, but to begin with I didn’t have -- there wasn’t many hunters really. I had just a few. Two or three that’d come out every year from Anchorage or Fairbanks.
And about 1950, ’51 or ’52, started to get non-residents.
Lloyd Pennington is from Snowshoe Lake. He got me started. And I got to know him real well, because the first thing I tried with my J-3, I went up to Klutina Lake and was gonna trap beaver.
And I got in a hurry to come home one time after I’d been up there several days and took off, and the wind was just a-roaring down the lake. It just sounded like a hurricane.
But I was in a little bay, real protected, and I figured, well, I could get up -- be flying by time I got out into the wind. And turn into it and then get home.
But turned out that just about the time I got into the wind, I got off my packed runway and the left ski went down, and the wind got under the right wing and flipped me right upside down. So I was there for a week tryin’ to snare rabbits. Couldn’t catch -- even catch a rabbit, but I had lots of Spam. And I sure got tired of Spam.
And in the meantime, I was trying to right the airplane by myself, because all that was wrong with it was a little -- about three inches off the tip of one prop -- of the prop. And I figured I'd do like I’d read that other guys had did, just even the prop up by whittlin’ it off -- the other end off.
But I couldn’t quite get it up right side up. And I’d get it almost there and it would flop back again.
So I just waited. And this Lloyd Pennington from Snowshoe Lake came over and helped me get it out. Took me out, and we got another prop and I got back out there. And then he wants me to --
He said I better stay around him if I was gonna trap beaver with an airplane. ‘Cause he was kind of worried about me.
I no more did that than I went out and landed in a place and broke -- let’s see, that time I broke a ski in the landing gear, one side of the landing gear all messed up.
He came and rescued me from that the same day. I got that fixed and I went out and landed again. I really didn’t know how to land. I didn’t know how to stall it out slow. I’d come in real fast and close to the ground and close to the snow and then shut the engine down. And I hit a -- hit a drift. Bounced me in the air this time.
He was watching me this time, just to be sure nothing happened. And I bounced back in the air and right away I knew something was wrong, because it took full power to keep it flyin’. And I looked out and the left ski was -- was hanging straight down.
The wind was -- made so much drag that the airplane would hardly fly.
And so, of course, Lloyd saw that and he headed right back to Snowshoe Lake and, of course, we didn’t have any radios in them days. I don’t know why. I guess we didn’t even think we needed ‘em, but I --
On the way back with the airplane wide open -- I’d tried to straighten the ski up with a ice chisel I had in the airplane. It was about five, six feet long.
And every time I’d shove down on it, the airplane’d dive in towards the ground. And I wasn’t very high, so I finally decided I was gonna have to get some altitude and -- to straighten the ski out. And so I did.
I got high as I could there, that little airplane. Then I shoved it down and just let it dive until I got it straight, and then I held it there and got back to Snowshoe Lake.
And Lloyd and a few other people was there with stretchers and fire extinguishers and first aid kits. Of course, I come in, landed without any -- any trouble.
Then he give me heck for not shutting the motor off before I landed, in case it wrecked and caught afire.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: He was the one who was killed by the bear.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Yeah. He’s the -- Lloyd Pennington took a bear hunter out several years after that and they -- both of them got killed by a bear.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That’s Daphne we’re hearing in the background. Maybe I can get you to sit over here, and that way you’ll be on the mike.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Right here.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us a little bit about Lloyd Pennington if you would.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Lloyd was -- was an Indian or part Indian -- Outside Indian from Oregon, I believe it was. He was up here and he worked for the fire control, is where we first got to know him.
And my wife went out with he and his wife to trap beaver a couple of times in the wintertime.
And he’s the one that really got me started guiding, ‘cause he had -- he started to get non-residents before I did. And he’d take -- have me come along with him because the J-3 was a little bit better in short, small lakes than his Aeronca Chief.
And he was a real good trapper. He told me times when he tried to kill a wolf in a trap with a -- with a axe. The back, dull part of an axe. And things like that. And have the wolf come at him.
And he was always tellin’ about how he got a kick out of pushin’ a grizzly bear that attacked when he was on a pile -- on a moose or something.
And he was quite a character. He was sure a good trapper, too. He got all -- got lots of fur.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: I’ve forgotten how he died. Airplane wreck?
CLEO MCMAHAN: No, a bear killed him. DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Oh, that’s right. I'd forgotten about that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You were saying that he was the first one to get Outside hunters to come in in your partnership?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, the first ones except for, of course, Harry Boyden and the old-timers. All the old-timers around here. But they was -- they had kind of slowed down by then, and he’s the only one I knew out here.
In fact, I and he were the only ones with small planes out here that I can think of, until Layton Bennett came to the FAA over here. Was working over there, and he got a -- had a J-3.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Where were some of the clients from, that you got? Those first ones?
CLEO MCMAHAN: I can’t even remember, because they wasn’t my clients.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, I’m sorry. CLEO MCMAHAN: They was -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Pennington’s
CLEO MCMAHAN: -- Pennington’s and I don’t -- can’t remember where they were from. But they was hunting caribou and moose. I remember that.
Most -- the first ones I had, when I finally got to guidin’ about 1950 -- Before that, all I had was resident meat hunters, mostly. And once in a while I’d get a bear hunter.
But the ones -- the first ones I think I had was from Colorado. Byers, Colorado
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: How about the guy who had the wild animal farm? From the east coast. What was their name?
CLEO MCMAHAN: No, they wasn’t the first ones. Space's.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Space’s. Ralph Space, yeah. He had Space’s Wild Animal Farm back there in -- what state was it?
CLEO MCMAHAN: New Jersey. No, they wasn’t the first one.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And what were some of the areas you went to with these hunters?
CLEO MCMAHAN: There was so much game in them days and nobody else huntin’ it, I didn’t have to go very far. I did go up -- well, mostly right over here at Sanford and Drum. And then right out of Meiers (Lake), which is just about forty-five miles up the road from here.
And for several years, I never went anywhere except right around here.
So much game you couldn’t believe it. Well, there wasn’t -- it wasn’t -- Really, there was lots of sheep, but when I first came here, there was hardly any caribou. Caribou was practically nonexistent.
And there was lots of moose, of course, but after they started killin’ the wolves off in 19 -- about, I don’t know, 1950, somewhere along in there they had a big wolf-control deal. And moose and the caribou just exploded then. There were just thousands of ‘em just seemed like in just a few years.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And for some of the people that will listen to this tape, what was it like when you took clients. Would you meet them in town and bring them out here or what were -- what were the arrangements like?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, it was a little of both. Sometimes -- most of the time I’d go to town and get ‘em, but -- Or my wife would.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And would that be Fairbanks?
CLEO MCMAHAN: No, Anchorage. DAPHNE MCMAHAN: No, Anchorage. Oh, I suppose one or two people in Fairbanks.
CLEO MCMAHAN: I think we had one or two come to Fairbanks, but mostly it was -- It was easier -- I don’t know why. I guess it was more convenient to go to Anchorage.
I think Anchorage is a little bit closer than Fairbanks, maybe.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: That’s where we did all of our shopping anyway. Grocery shopping. We bought our groceries wholesale.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And so you’d haul them out, and where would the base be?
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Up at Meiers where we lived at the time. That’s forty-five miles up the Richardson Highway.
Yeah, we’d come home tired and he’d have to get up early in the morning. Well, so would I. And off they’d go.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And you had to cook them breakfast, huh? DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Oh, sure.
CLEO MCMAHAN: She didn’t like to cook either.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Still don’t.
CLEO MCMAHAN: You're tangled up. BILL SCHNEIDER: We're okay.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: And it got so the same people kept coming back year after year, or they referred somebody else. We were always busy.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And then would you take them out to spike camps? Or how did that work?
CLEO MCMAHAN: For a long time, there was no laws that you could just land and shoot the same day airborne. And there was so much game and no -- no competition that it was very easy.
But most of ‘em went out and camped and hunted on their own, for several years up until the 1950s.
When I started to get -- take guided hunts, and then, of course, I hired -- I’d hire a couple of guides to help me. Never did hire anybody else to fly.
And then I had one -- one pretty good camp clear over in the Tetlin Indian Reservation. And my boy still hunts over there. He pays them so much per year to hunt there.
He uses horses, now. Of course, I just used a airplane to get there and walked and --
Well, I had a Weasel over there for a while. Which is a surplus army tracked vehicle from World War II. But we didn’t use it much. We mostly walked.
And then a fellow moved in here close to us at Gakona and had horses. He was a horseman, so went into partnership with him, and -- Kenny Saylors.
And he hunted with I and my boys for a long time, for several years, over in the Tetlin Indian Reservation.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: He lives right over beyond us here. You go along our road on -- right around to his place. I don't know if they're here now though. They're usually gone in the winter.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You did some other types of flying, too, some wolf hunting?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Yeah, I wolf-hunted from the time -- Let’s see, it was probably about 1948 that I tried shootin’ wolves from the air. I didn’t know how to do it, and I guess many of the other guys didn’t up here either.
Anyway, I tied a rope from the tip of the ski to the end of the wing strut and put a ring in there a certain place, and I thought I’d just stick the barrel of the gun in that ring and maneuver the airplane to shoot the wolf. Well, I couldn’t hit anything that way.
So, finally, I just took that off and held the stick between my knees and throttled down and then shoot the wolf. And then I’d hit the throttle with my elbow and pull the stick back up.
So I got so I was shootin’ wolves by myself and flyin’ at the same time. In fact, I could do it better than somebody shootin’ for me most of the time.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And then how did that work? Did you have to go pick the carcass up?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, most of the times I could land -- land right there on skis. Right -- either that or I’d wait 'til they got someplace that you could land.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: You had to turn in a certain bone of the wolf to get your bounty.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, at that time they had all kinds of different rules. You had to leave the left foreleg bone on -- on when you skinned the wolf or else bring the whole carcass in to get your bounty.
And the bounty was about all it was worth then, because nobody wanted to buy the skins. So lots of the times we didn’t even skin ‘em, because nobody would buy ‘em. They’d just bring ‘em in and they’d give us the fifty dollar bounty.
And -- but I don’t know. It didn’t do much good at that -- when I first started because -- I mean, the bounty system was kind of crazy. They even paid bounty on coyotes and wolverine.
Wolverine especially was crazy to pay bounty for them, because they didn’t kill anything to amount to anything that was game. They were just a furbearer. They mostly ate carrion and small animals that they’d catch theirself.
But then, finally, it got so that wolf pelts was worth quite a bit and it was really worth -- worth gettin’ ‘em then.
I used to trap ‘em and snare ‘em, too, but lots of times I’d go to a lot of work to try to set traps and snares, and then I’d get a good chance and I’d shoot the whole outfit, the whole pack or most of ‘em. And they’d never come back to the -- there’d never be enough of 'em to catch any in the traps or snares.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: What’s the most you ever got for a wolf hide? CLEO MCMAHAN: Oh, I think $600.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Then you did some guiding up on the North Slope? Polar bears?
CLEO MACMAHAN: Yeah, we used to go up there to hunt wolves. That was 19--, let’s see, 1958, I think is the first year we went up there to hunt wolves.
And so then we -- after the wolf hunt we decided to -- Well, Chuck Gray and Schaible (sp?) got a couple of hunters that said they would pay the -- we’d never been up there and didn’t -- never knew anything about it. And they’d pay all expenses if we’d take ‘em polar bear hunting.
And, well, I’m not sure that was -- whether they paid anything or not. They just paid the expenses, I think, that first time.
‘Cause they wasn’t my hunters. I just went along with Chuck Gray and Schaible, Leroy Schaible. And I believe it was ’58 -- either ‘58 or ’59.
And we took these guys out and got ‘em a polar bear, and that was the beginning of my polar bear hunting experience. And I spent fourteen -- fourteen seasons up there.
First, we’d go up on the first of March and stay 'til the last of April. And then they put a limit on the number of polar bears each guide could -- could shoot.
Each -- the number of hunters you could take, which was six per hunter -- or per guide. So that -- we’d just go up there the first of April and have plenty of time to get the amount of bears we was allowed.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let me ask you about your kids. Tell us a little bit about your family and how the boys got involved in the operations.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, my boys got started just because they was going with me all the time. I took -- I took my oldest boy polar bear huntin’ when he was ten, and my youngest boy was eleven when I took him.
And, of course, they was out ridin’ with me, sittin’ in my lap tryin’ to fly the airplane or just usin’ the stick flying it.
And they just -- I kind of hoped that they wouldn’t, but they did. They all -- both are fliers and guides and commercial fisherman.
Yeah, they was -- they started huntin’ and trappin’ real early age.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Do we have any pictures of them?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Oh, yeah. We got all kinds of pictures. Thousands of ‘em.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Why do -- why do you say that you kinda hoped they wouldn’t?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, I thought it was kind of a dangerous occupation. Of course, I wasn’t scared of it.
But I knew it was dangerous. Especially flying out over the ice. Anything could happen, but I was lucky. Nothing did happen.
BILL SCNEIDER: Do they still have attachments to this area, too, and flying and guiding down here?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Yeah, my boy flies mostly for Fish and Game now. I was about to give up the air taxi business.
Well, we was -- the Fish and Game was taggin’ or collarin’ wolves with radio collars, and we was still huntin’ wolves pretty heavy in the wintertime and trappin’ ‘em. And we was gettin’ too many of their collared wolves.
And so they come over and made a deal. Said that they’d give us a lot of flyin’ -- or more flyin’ for them if we’d lay off of their collared wolves. So we did.
And that’s about the time I quit flyin’ or mostly quit flyin’ and I let my boy take over the air taxi part.
Harley and Chuck both fly for Fish and Game now, when they’re not fishin’. Mostly countin’ and radio trackin’. Puttin’ collars on wolves -- or on wolves and caribou and moose. Even wolverine.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Have you done any guiding of people just for scenic purposes or for -- ?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Very little. I’ve probably -- Well, I was so far from Mount McKinley or I’d have probably done more of it. I’ve had -- taken a few to fly around McKinley. But it’s so far from here that they could get it done a lot cheaper and closer from Talkeetna, so --
Well, yeah, I’ve taken a few out, showed ‘em game. Well, years ago I could show ‘em pretty near everything.
Let’s see -- moose, sheep, bear, wolves in one trip. But it got finally so that it was kinda hard to do it. Show ‘em everything.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Daphne, what’s it like to be married to a pilot who’s involved in dangerous work?
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Worry, worry, worry. No, I’ve got used to it now.
Well, you’re always glad to hear the airplane comin’ back. You go outside and listen quite often, you know.
Yes, it’s -- it’s kinda scary, I guess. So many years now I’ve gotten used to it. And then the boys -- when the boys started, that was -- that was too much. And now their wives do the worrying.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Somebody told me that you start up the engine every day before you have coffee.
CLEO MCMAHAN: No. No, that’s a job in the wintertime to start up the airplane. You gotta -- well, not -- it isn’t such a job anymore.
We used to have to drain the oil and put a plumber’s furnace under it with a canvas cover over it. Warm the engine and heat the oil and pour it in, but now if you’re around where there’s any electricity it’s simple. You just put a little electric heater in and a timer on it, and it’s all ready to go.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us a little bit about the Park area here, and how has that affected your life and how would you like to see your activities and your heritage interpreted in terms of the Park?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, I think the Park is a good thing in a way, but I think they took too much. I mean all that stuff up in the mountains is -- I mean it would have been ruined just about if the Park hadn’t taken over, I think, unless -- unless the State Fish and Game had slowed up a little.
But, God, the sheep was all -- when I first came here there was so many sheep you couldn’t believe it. Everywhere. There was sheep everywhere.
And soon as the Park took over in certain places, I’ve noticed already that the sheep are -- there’s more sheep than there was to begin with. But now I don’t know.
It’s gettin’ to be so many wolves over here that I don’t know whether the moose and the caribou and the sheep are gonna come back or not. Because right now they’re at a real low level.
At times, I’ve seen as high as seventy-five -- years ago -- seventy-five great big bull moose, up fifty and sixty inches, just right above Chalet Lake up there.
And sheep just right up the -- up the mountain from ‘em.
And, of course, there wasn’t caribou over there for a long time, but there has been in the last several years.
And now there’s practically no moose over there compared to what they used to be and there’s lots of wolves, and the caribou are even kinda disappearing from over there now.
And the sheep started to build up right up the head of the Sanford there, and now I don’t know what happened to them, but they’re not there now. I don’t know where they went to.
So it’s just hard to say.
But I think the Park is just tryin’ to get too darn far. They should stay at least all -- clear the other side of the Copper River, and the Nabesna Road, too.
But otherwise I think it’s a good idea to save that -- that high country and take care of it.
DAVE KRUPA: One of the issues that’s come up in a lot of the other interviews are issues of access to the Park and the difficulty, and, of course, planes then come up.
And what would you like to see in terms of a policy that -- would you like to see air access be something that they -- the Park -- promote or -- ?
CLEO MCMAHAN: No, I don’t think airplanes need to fly into the Park itself and the -- and the -- what do you call the other? There’s the Park and then outside of the perimeter?
DAVE KRUPA: Preserve? CLEO MCMAHAN: There’s the Preserve. I don’t know, it seems to me like it’s okay the way it is now as far as airplane access goes.
I don’t know. You can fly into the Park and land as long as you’re not hunting or anything, can’t you?
DAVE KRUPA: Well, there’s a few -- According to the Ellises, there’s a few airstrips that used to be maintained by them in the high country that are -- the Park Service is discouraging.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Oh, yeah. Mm-hm.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, one of the things that we’ve -- has been talked about is the wreckage during World War II of the plane, the Lend Lease plane into the mountain. And maybe you’d tell us your story about that.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, the first I knew of it was I’d been out on the trapline, a real clear moonlight night.
And I was -- it was so clear I was thinkin’ about flyin’ home instead of spendin’ the night at forty below zero in a tent, so -- but I didn’t.
And the next morning I went home pretty early and my wife told me what had happened. She’d heard it on the radio.
So I flew up there and they was -- I just -- let’s see -- that was -- I forget the exact year. ‘46 or somewhere along in there.
I’d just gotten my airplane and didn’t know much about it, flyin’ or flyin’ in high country in the mountains.
So when I got up there, I think I got up about seven or eight thousand feet with that little airplane and -- anyway it was high enough that when I started to turn I’d lose altitude. That was how weak the motor was, the engine was, and I’d have to run it wide open.
And I got up high enough that I could see this tail section layin’ down on the glacier, and a little curl of smoke comin’ up from it.
And then, of course, from years after that, pretty near every year for years, why, somebody'd be trying to get up there.
And first I flew people to a place up here called Fox Lake. It’s where an oldtimer used to have a -- said it was a fox farm. That was his blind, but he was really bootleggin’. He was really makin’ whiskey up there.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Be careful what you say.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, that’s -- everybody knows that. He’s dead anyway.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But there might still be whiskey up there.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Yeah. He come back. Yeah, he come back and had me fly him up there. He was trying to find two or three kegs of whiskey he’d buried years ago up there.
I used to fly him up there every once in a while. And he tried to get up there once with a wagon with a bunch of stuff on it. I don’t know what he was gonna do, but he never made it. Wagon and horses.
But anyway from then on, why, there was all kinds of guys tried to fly up there -- tried to go up there and get it.
And I took quite a few of ‘em up to a lake. It’s about five thousand foot up there. And they’d walk from there.
I took one bunch that they had so much rope I couldn’t believe it. All kinds of rope and hardly any food.
And they -- they got separated someway or other. Lost their rifle and had an awful time up there.
Two guys finally got back and I picked them up. They said the other guy, they didn’t know where he was.
I kept goin’ back, goin’ back, and finally he showed up and he was -- he was about starved to death. I guess he’d been livin’ on blueberries for a couple of weeks.
What happened, he'd -- he'd -- they got across a glacial stream and he couldn’t make it. It’d wash him back the same side every time.
He finally went up the glacier and got across and got back. He looked like an old man from the time -- from what it looked like when I took him in. From his ordeal.
And Layton Bennett is the only one I know of that flew up there and -- and found any signs of the wreckage. But I think all he found was a bunch of papers strung around on the glacier.
I never did know exactly what they were or anything.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Wasn’t there a rumor that there was a big army payroll on it?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, there was rumors of gold. And FAA officials told me all there was was a bag of diamonds and whatever would be in the passengers' pockets.
One guy took -- went up there with his own airplane, an old junker airplane. I don’t remember his name.
I know I was goin’ around lookin’ at the airplane and shakin’ it. It was about a -- felt like about a quarter-inch play in the -- in where the struts connected to the wing, just a-rattlin’.
But anyway, he got a long ladder tied to his airplane and went up there, and he made it up there and back all right. But he never did get anywheres near the -- what was left of the airplane.
Because you couldn’t hardly see it. It was almost all -- even the next spring after I seen the tail section, why, the next winter and the next summer I couldn’t see the -- any tail section or anything.
BILL SCHNEIDER: For those of us that don’t know, tell us about high-altitude flying. Flying in the mountains. What -- what are the things you have to keep in mind? Flying with a Super Cub and the J-3 like you had?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, there’s not much. From my experience there’s nothing much to it, if the wind isn’t blowin’. But, boy, if the wind is blowin’, it’s terrible up there.
When I was tryin’ to rescue these -- well, tryin’ to pick these mountain climber -- or the guys that was looking for that airplane.
When I was tryin’ to pick them up one day, I had a -- I had a 1952 Cub then with a fixed antenna on it for high frequency radio. And it was just a perfectly clear day, but I noticed between Drum and Sanford a real -- just a flat layer of clouds.
And I looked over on Drum and it looked like a waterfall comin’ right down the mountain. It was -- the clouds was comin’ right down the mountain like a waterfall on the side of the mountain. I guess that was a downdraft apparently.
But I never paid any attention to it and I went on over there, and about halfway to the lake where I was gonna pick ‘em up, all of a sudden there was the awfulest turbulence.
I just thought that was the end of me. You could see the wings bend even. It bent so much -- the wind bent ‘em so much that it broke the fixed antenna. And I couldn’t believe it.
And I was afraid to turn or do anything, but I finally got out of it.
And I couldn’t believe it could be -- still be doin’ it, so I went back again and got in it again.
‘Cause it was so clear right where I was going, or where I was.
Anyway, I got out of it again and come home, and that -- that was the worst -- worst I’d ever been in.
But anyway, I’ve been over the tops of all these mountains, over the top of Wrangell.
And I know Jack Wilson has been up there, and I never heard him say much of anything -- that there’s nothing much to it. You just --
At high altitude, of course, you have to lean your carburetor out real good because -- and I didn’t think of that the first time I flew up there.
And I was a-flying over the crater, lookin’ in it. And all of a sudden I thought, "Well, I better pull the carburetor heat to be sure there ain’t gettin’ any ice." And the darn motor almost quit because I was so darned high and it was -- made it too rich.
And I hollered to Jack on the radio that my engine was -- sounded like it was gonna quit, and he said, “Well, lean it out.” So I did and everything was okay.
But wind and downdrafts are about all you have to worry about in high-altitude flying in the mountains. But there’s sure some terrible winds up there at times.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How about places to land?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, if you’ve got wheel-skis, even in the summer you can land pretty near anywhere.
And the big -- even the big wheels -- most of these glaciers you can land on lots of places.
And just -- a good bush pilot can land almost -- just dozens of places. On rivers, river bars, and on smooth places on glaciers.
A lot of the glaciers, if you know ‘em good enough, have got real hard places. It’s white, but they’re still -- you can land on them with wheels, especially these big wheels.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you --
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Go ahead. BILL SCHNEIDER: Go ahead. No, go ahead.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: I’ve lived with this for fifty years almost and this is interesting to me, too. I haven’t heard some of it myself before.
DAVE KRUPA: Do you have any sort of favorite equipment, favorite planes you think are the best for bush flying up here?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, everybody will tell you that the Super Cub and the 180 -- until the 185 -- but, yeah, I still would take the 180 -- are the best bush planes for gravel bars and glaciers and one thing and another.
DAVE KRUPA: What makes them the best?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, I guess just their -- their short takeoff and landing and they’re light airplanes.
The one 1960 180 I had was darned near as good as a Super Cub for short landings and takeoffs, unless you was loaded too heavy.
DAVE KRUPA: And do pilots usually take care of their own planes in terms of maintenance or -- ?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, in -- when I first started, why, I never even thought of a hundred-hour check or anything like that. And there didn’t never did seem anything wrong with ‘em. I mean, you just get to know --
Of course, you have to check your airplanes yourself all the time or they’d probably fall apart on you. But ever since I’ve been air taxi, of course, why, we have to have hundred-hour checks, all kinds of checks. Fly -- flying checks.
But years ago, of course, we did it all ourself, except overhaul. I never did try to overhaul an airplane. I wouldn’t even think of it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What did we forget?
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: I don’t know. I was just thinking you’ve done a thorough job. You doing this on several pilots?
BILL SCHNEIDER: Hm-mm. Yeah.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: That might be an interesting story.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. What’s your advice to the modern-day air taxi operator?
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, the modern-day air taxi operator probably knows as much of it about it as I do, probably more.
They’re instrument rated and everything else. Even my boy’s instrument rated.
But I never would -- I never did want to be. I never would’ve been, because I wasn’t very good at that kind of -- at mathematics or anything to pass the test.
I figured if I couldn’t see the ground, why, I wouldn’t be flyin’.
No, the only -- you just gotta have your airplane in good shape. Have it checked all the time and watch the weather. Just -- everybody should know that.
I -- I told my boy when he first started flyin’ to be sure and -- I told him all, everything I could tell him about the fog and white-outs I’d been in, and what to look for and not to do, and he did it anyway.
I piled up the 180 one evening and 'cause -- and the next morning, why, he went over to pick up a guy that I had to leave there when he come over and rescued us.
And he piled up the -- piled up the Super Cub the next morning flying in the fog. He’s lucky.
He had a little bit of instrument training and that’s probably -- might have been what kept him alive, because he flew around in the fog a long time after he got caught in it. And then he’d -- all of a sudden he’d see part of a mountain or something and turn.
And he just about made it out, but it was just too deep of a canyon and he couldn’t quite make it down to a big creek that would’ve led him right back down to the Chistochina River.
We looked for -- all day that -- ten airplanes looked all day for him. And we knew right about where he was. But it was kind of out of sight down in a little canyon. And he learned about fog from that, I think.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: Was that Harley or Chuck? CLEO MCMAHAN: Harley.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So, that judgment is a big -- big factor, huh? CLEO MCMAHAN: Yeah.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: You fellas done a lot of flying?
BILL SCHNEIDER: No. Yep. Anything else?
Well, thank you very much. Both of you.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Well, you’re welcome. BILL SCHNEIDER: For taking the time.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: I enjoyed listening to it myself.
CLEO MCMAHAN: Kind of fun -- kind of to remember that stuff.
DAPHNE MCMAHAN: And I’m hearing things I hadn’t known before.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Thank you.