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Alaska Aviation Legends: Rita Sholton, the queen of air cargo

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch
Alaska aviation legend Rita Sholton next to her first plane in 1946. Courtesy of Rob Stapleton

Rita Sholton, known as the first and only woman president and chief executive officer of an all-freight airline operating above the Arctic Circle, was a pioneer in bringing the Alaska air-cargo industry from propeller-driven aircraft into the jet age.

While Rita credits her late husband, Bobby Sholton, for starting the business that eventually became Northern Air Cargo, she managed the business for decades, eventually expanding to nearly 300 employees before the company was sold in 2006.

“Bobby had a vision of the need (for cargo being flown for Alaskans),” she said in the July 1992 issue of Air Classics magazine.

“We made a lot of friends in rural Alaska, and they had the need for our services. It was more like we were one big family,” says Rita today.

Before coming to Alaska in 1957, Rita worked in San Francisco as a Girl Friday. Once in Anchorage, she was employed as a vocational counselor for the Territory of Alaska, a fact not many can claim and one for which she is proud.

Rita later met Sholton and they were married in 1960.  At that time, Sholton and his partner, Maury Carlson, were operating two C-82 Boxcar aircraft, hauling supplies and oversized freight for the mining industry and for construction of villages as well as the Distant Early Warning sites (DEW Line) in remote Alaska.

But one of Rita’s finest memories about the business is when Bobby found and purchased a DC-6 that had previously been owned by billionaire Howard Hughes. The aircraft she affectionately calls “80 Bravo” had fewer than 10 flight hours on it and was in immaculate condition. Sholton purchased the aircraft for $250,000 for use during the build-up of rural Alaska.

This aircraft seemed perfect for use in Alaska, as it was built to use gravel runways, was very sturdy, and had long-range capabilities. Hauling horses, cows, vehicles, pipe and mail, the distinctive sound of the Pratt & Whitney R2800 engines could be heard lumbering across the tundra day and night delivering cargo throughout Alaska’s 365 million acres and along 42,000 miles of coastline.

The first DC-6 was put into service in 1969 -- a wise decision for that era due to its 28,000-pound payload and short-field take off ability.

The Northern Air Cargo fleet eventually consisted of 14 DC-6 aircraft before transitioning to Boeing 727-200 jets.

A new face as Northern Air Cargo CEO

Sholton had been ill since 1975 but continued operating the company, buying out his partner Maury Carlson in 1981. Unfortunatel, Sholton died Dec. 16, 1982, leaving Rita and the family to run the company.

Rita, having been a homemaker and caregiver to three children since her marriage, was suddenly left with the responsibility of a large airline. Prior to Bobby’s death, Rita said he had placed very competent and experienced people in the company. At that time there were about 75 people on the payroll, and Rita proceeded into Northern Air Cargo’s next phase.

Due to FAA regulations and questionable usefulness, the C-82 Boxcars were eventually retired in 1983 after flying 29 years and logging nearly 30,000 flight hours. The airline operated the Boxcars with only a few incidents and no major accidents.

As Rita became more engaged in the business, she was a full-time presence as president and CEO. During this era, more DC-6s -- including two swing-tail DC-6s -- were added to the fleet.

Updating and company growth in the 1990s incorporated the use of a turboprop ATR and Boeing 727s as the DC-6s aged and timed out.

During the late 1990s and mid-2000s, the three Sholton children continued the legacy of their father, with sons Adam and Paul acting as a pilot and house counsel, respectively, and daughter Mary as president.

During this time a suitor surfaced to buy the company. Saltchuk, a privately owned company, eventually bought Northern Air Cargo in 2006.  “I was very happy that Saltchuk became interested,” says Rita. At the time of the sale, Northern Air Cargo had nearly 300 employees and continues to grow to this day.

“It was very emotional to sell a 50-year-old company, but the family is proud to have a buyer who will carry on the tradition of serving the people of Alaska as well as growing outside of the state,” she reflects.

Work hard, play hard

But Rita’s interest in her family and its growth were always on her mind, also. To ease the pressures of business, Rita became an avid hunter. Her many trips to Africa, where she has hunted on safari on numerous occasions, are evident in her home and shared with the family. Having made seven trips total to Africa, Rita enjoys learning about the country and is not afraid to travel abroad.

Once, on a trip out of Alaska, Rita took a hint from the film “Out of Africa.”

While Rita took up flying when she was 16 in an Aeronica Champion, in which she soloed, the former airline executive now owns a British-manufactured, Massachusetts-built deHavilland Gypsy Moth, purchased on a trip to England.

“We were visiting friends with homes in the countryside of England," Rita says. "They collected antique cars and aircraft and we would go for a drive or flight because that is what they loved doing. That’s when I ran across the Gypsy Moth. I fell in love with the aircraft. So I called Mary and asked her to help me make the arrangements to purchase it and have it shipped to Alaska.”

The aircraft was shipped via container to Anchorage where it was assembled by an English mechanic. The biplane is kept at a location in the Mat-Su Valley and flown at family holiday gatherings.

The Gypsy Moth is the same type of aircraft flown by actor Robert Redford in the film “Out of Africa”, produced by Sydney Pollack and based on a book of the same title by Isak Dinesen. Rita says that her aircraft was also used in an African-themed film.

Today Sholton enjoys her family, which includes four grandchildren, who love to raid her candy dishes. Despite all of this octogenarian’s accomplishments, she says the one thing that she would love to do is to learn how to operate the Bobcat aircraft owned by her son Adam and his wife Brigitte.

Mrs. Sholton’s part in the history of Northern Air Cargo is epic, and just as valuable as the Bush pilots of the golden era. Her accomplishments are well known among her peers. The Sholton name will long be remembered as testimony to the services Northern Air Cargo still provides.

For more on Sholton and other Alaska aviation legends, consider attending a banquet, to be held in their honor on Nov. 1. For more information, check out the Alaska Air Carriers Association website.