In 1929, in severe winter conditions, he accepted a request to fly 1,000 kilometres up the Siberian coast to retrieve a $6,00,000 cargo of white fox pelts from an icebound trading vessel. He completed the mission safely, in the process also making the first flight between North America and Asia.
Alaska, the 49th state of the USA, is situated in the north-west extremity of the North American continent, with only the Bering Strait separating it from Asia. It has a unique distinction: about one in 78 of its citizens are pilots. And the credit should go to Noel Wien, a pioneer aviator of the 1920s. He single-handedly introduced aviation to this sprawling territory, noteworthy for its inhospitable climate and vast wildernesses. In just half a century, aircraft became the primary means of transport there.
Wien’s achievements have been likened to the 19th century pioneers who opened up the American West; only they did it with horse and wagon while he did it with wood, wire and fabriccovered aircraft. He was the first to fly beyond the Arctic Circle across the Bering Strait and the first to fly between Alaska and Asia. Despite severe environmental and operational challenges, he launched a year-round air service, even throughout the vicious winter. His nicknames, “The Arctic Ace,” “The Lindy of the North” and “The Father of Alaska Bush Flying,” symbolise his exploits.
Born in Wisconsin on June 8, 1899, Wien learned to fly in 1921. He joined the Federated Fliers Flying Circus, a husband and wife barnstorming team, on a crosscountry tour. Originally hired to help with ground support, he soon began doing much of the flying and giving flying lessons. In 1924, he gained his pilot licence signed by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale official Orville Wright. Meanwhile an enterprising businessman in Anchorage, Alaska, created a rudimentary airstrip for bush pilots in the gold-rich territory and on July 4, 1924, Wien performed aerial stunts at the inauguration ceremony. He fitted an extra fuel tank on his watercooled Hisso-powered Standard J-1 open-cockpit biplane and with a copilot, made the first non-stop flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks on July 6. Wien soon perceived that commercial aviation was urgently needed in Alaska and he began to put his hunch into practice.
In 1927, he founded Wien Alaska Airways, Alaska’s first airline, and only the second in the entire United States. For several years, it faced little or no competition and the name Wien became practically synonymous with Alaskan aviation. The region had no air charts, no radio communication and very few safe landing strips. Navigation was a matter of using rivers, ranges and other natural features as identification points, but the innumerable streams and hills could easily look identical. He faced all challenges head on and taught his small band of intrepid pilots to do likewise. Legend has it that Wien could land the Standard biplane in just 300 feet. Although flying over the icy wastes of Alaska was akin to torture, there were no closed-cabin planes being built in the US. Wien finally located a 1921 Dutch-built Fokker F-111, a sixseat monoplane, which KLM and some early German airlines had been using in Europe. The F-111 was shipped to Seward, Alaska, via boat, then dismantled and sent by the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks where it was reassembled. Soon essential supplies could be taken to isolated communities by air. Apart from ferrying the ubiquitous gold miners from Fairbanks to Nome, the airline flew tourists, bodies for burial and the sick for treatment. There were also accounts of pilots having to deliver babies in flight.
Although Wien had many hair-raising experiences, he managed to survive them all. In 1925, while returning on his first flight north of the Arctic Circle, he encountered strong headwinds, ran out of fuel and was forced to land on a gravel bar. Knowing that there was no other pilot who could mount an airborne search for him, he immediately began trudging towards safety. He walked 110 kilometres in three days, crossing ice-choked rivers, with only three biscuits for food. Through many decades of flying over the Alaskan wilderness, he gained unrivalled experience that also helped him impart valuable safety and survival lessons to others. Although cautious by nature, he was unable to resist a challenge. In 1929, in severe winter conditions, he accepted a request to fly 1,000 kilometres up the Siberian coast to retrieve a $6,00,000 cargo of white fox pelts from an ice-bound trading vessel. He completed the mission safely, in the process also making the first flight between North America and Asia.
Ralph Wien, Noel’s brother, came with him to work as a mechanic and Noel taught him to fly. A couple of years later Ralph was killed in a flying accident. Later, Noel’s other brothers, Fritz and Sigurd Wien, also joined him in the airline business. Although Noel lost an eye due to infection in 1946, he was able to continue flying commercially until 1955. His efforts brought the people of Alaska closer and he was largely instrumental in keeping the remote state connected to the outside world. Noel Wien was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation History Museum Hall of Fame, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum Hall of Fame and the US National Aviation Hall of Fame. He died on July 19, 1977.