In the 19th century, pioneers opened up the American West with horses and Conestoga wagons. By the early 20th century, and for the Alaskan frontier, it was men like Noel Wien in wood, wire and fabric-covered airplanes that opened up the wilderness territory.
- First to fly from Fairbanks to Seattle; Fairbanks to Nome, beyond the Arctic Circle, across the Bering Strait and was first to make a round-trip flight between Alaska and Asia.
- Nicknamed “the Arctic Ace,” “the Lindy of the North,” and “the father of Alaska bush flying.”
Born in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin on June 8, 1899, Noel Wien’s family moved to a homestead near Cook, Minnesota in 1905. Not long after taking his first airplane ride in May of 1921, Wien learned to fly. In this golden age of aviation, Wien soon joined a husband and wife barnstorming team on a cross-country tour. Originally hired to help with ground support, Wien quickly found himself doing much of the flying. He went on to give flying lessons and perform with several barnstorming groups, including a flying circus.
In 1924, Wien saw opportunity in Alaska, arriving at Anchorage in May for a job piloting a Hisso Standard biplane. His first few weeks were spent performing stunts and giving passenger rides. In July of 1924, Wien made the first flight between Anchorage and Fairbanks — and went on to a number of “firsts” in Alaska aviation in the coming months and years. He was the first to fly from Fairbanks to Seattle; Fairbanks to Nome, and beyond the Arctic Circle, across the Bering Strait and was first to make a round-trip flight between Alaska and Asia.
In 1925, while returning from Wiseman on the first flight north of the Arctic Circle, Wien encountered strong headwinds and was forced to land on a gravel bar when he ran out of fuel. Since there were no other pilots who could look for him, Wien walked 70 miles in three days, crossing ice-choked rivers with only three biscuits for food. This was one of many such close calls from which Wien learned valuable safety and survival lessons that he shared with others.
It was late 1925 before he received his formal pilot’s certificate, however – No. 39 – signed by Federation Aeronautique Internationale official Orville Wright. Though his feats earned him names like “the Arctic Ace,” and “the Lindy of the North,” Wien believed that he was simply doing his job.
Soon after coming to Alaska, Wien worked to get his brothers to join him there. Ralph was the first to come in 1925. The following years, they were joined by Fritz and then Sig Wien. In 1927, Wien and some partners founded Wien Air Alaska, the first airline in Alaska, and one of the first in the United States. In the first two months, the Wien brothers had made $4,000. They used that money along with a bank loan and purchased a second plane, a Stinson Detroiter. A cautious pilot, Wien nevertheless was willing to take on challenging flights. In the winter of 1929, Wien agreed to fly 600 miles up the Siberian coast to retrieve a $600,000 cargo of white fox pelts from an icebound trading vessel. Despite the -40-degree temperatures, Wien accomplished his mission – and incidentally made the first flight between North America and Asia.
Also in 1929, Wien married Ada Bering Arthurs, daughter of the Nome postmaster. The couple made their home in Fairbanks with their three children, Noel Merrill, Jean, and Richard. Wien passed away in 1977 at the age of 75. In its almost-60 years of operation, Wien Air Alaska pioneered the use of jets from gravel runways, as well as innovative ways to carry both cargo and passengers in Boeing 737 jetliners. By the early 1980s their route network extended from Point Barrow and dozens of Alaskan towns all the way down to Phoenix, Oakland, and Denver. Their main bases were in Anchorage and Seattle.
The airline ceased operations in 1985, but on July 6, 1999, exactly 75 years after Noel Wien’s first flight between Anchorage and Fairbanks, his sons Merrill and Richard repeated the historic flight. The Wien Family remains actively involved in aviation to this day.
In recognition of his truly courageous and pioneering accomplishments, Noel Wien, “the father of Alaska bush flying,” has earned his place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.