Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Remembering a Family Friend: Alaskan Bush Pilot Sig Wein

Wien Air Alaska was formed from Northern Consolidated Airlines and Wien Alaska Airways. The company was famous for being the first airline in Alaska, and one of the first in the United States. Noel Wien flew an open cockpit biplane, a Hisso Standard J1 from Anchorage, Alaska's "Park Strip" to Fairbanks Alaska on July 6, 1924.

In 1925, Noel Wien purchased a Fokker F.III monoplane (with a cabin), built in 1921 in Amsterdam, for the Fairbanks Airplane Company. It was shipped to Seward, Alaska via boat. Then it was shipped in pieces, via the Alaska Railroad, to Fairbanks

Ralph Wien, Noel's brother came with him, to work as a mechanic. They assembled the Fokker F.III Monoplane in Fairbanks. Noel taught Ralph how to fly, but Ralph was killed on October 12, 1930 while flying a diesel-powered Bellanca bush plane.

The airline was started in June 1927 by Noel Wien in Nome, Alaska, but it actually traces its roots back to Noel's 1924-26 flights out of Fairbanks with Bennett Rodebaugh's Fairbanks Airplane Company, which was later absorbed into Wien Alaska Airways.

Noel's brother, Sigurd Wien, was a mechanic from 1935-37, when Noel also taught Sig how to fly.  Starting in 1937, Sig was also a bush pilot. Sig managed the Nome, Alaska office, and flew the North Slope bush flights. 

Sig Wien, as a bush pilot, flew contracts for USGS geologic exploration activities including those of geologist Marvin Mangus and his peers. Sig Wien became CEO of Wien Airlines after Noel retired from management activities (1940-1969). 

Expansion came at a price, as Wien was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. Household Finance then dumped its investment in the airline, and sold the company to Wien’s President, Jim J. Flood. He shut down the airline, and on November 23, 1984, Wien was liquidated for profit. 

Noel's son, Merrill, said the end of his family's airline came when it "was bought by a corporate raider on a leveraged buyout, and was liquidated for about twice what the stock was selling for. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 made this possible." in an interview with Avweb.

Before Wien Air folded in 1985, they were known as the second oldest airline in the United States. The company pioneered jet service to gravel runways, and developed the B737 Combi configuration which allowed a maximization of freight and passenger loads on the upper deck of jet aircraft. 

Wien Air Alaska at one time flew to more places in the world than any other airline, excluding Aeroflot. 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

Other airlines, such as MarkAir and PNA Pacific Northern, also tried to challenge Alaska on this turf but the rest is history and Alaska prevails to this day.

Noel Wien's son flew in an open cockpit biplane from Anchorage, Alaska's Park Strip to Fairbanks Alaska on July 6, 1999 to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of his father's solo flight in a Hisso Standard J1. The municipality of Anchorage allowed the reenactment plane to take off from the grass park, which was originally used as a runway back in 1924.

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