Book Review – Noel Wien: Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot

This post written by Leanna Williams, Pioneer Air Museum’s volunteer social media manager.  When Leanna isn’t running our Facebook page, she’s a graduate student in the UAF Arctic and Northern Studies program, with an interest in Alaska & circumpolar history, infrastructure development in remote regions, and especially aviation history.  ​Be on the look out for Leanna’s bio, coming to the blog next month.  
Harkey, Ira.  Noel Wien: Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot. Forward by Terrence Cole. Fairbanks, University of Alaska Press, 1999.

Note: This title was first released under a different title: Harkey, Ira. Pioneer Bush Pilot: the story of Noel Wien. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1974.

It’s hard to imagine a name more synonymous with Alaska aviation history than that of Noel Wien; through whose pioneering accomplishments and life story, the development of the territory/state’s air transport industry . The 1974 biography, Noel Wien: Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ira Harkey, tracks Wien’s life from his birth in Minnesota in 1899, the son of Scandinavian immigrants, to his retirement years in Seattle in the 1970s, when he made monthly trips back to Alaska for board meetings of the airline that bore his name. Harkey’s biography is a great asset to the bibliography of Alaskan aviation; published just three years before Wien’s death in 1977; and before Wien Airlines’ closure in 1985. 
As UAF history professor Terrence Cole writes in the forward to the 1999 University of Alaska Press reprint, “Harkey did a masterful job in bringing the silent story of Noel Wien to life” (xv). Harkey drew heavily from Wien’s scrapbooks and interviews with Wien, his wife Ada, and others.  The book shifts perspective from third person omniscient, to first person, enabling readers to gain insights into the mind of the infamously quiet Wien, and those who knew him best. A reader will finish the book with the sense that they just ended a long conversation with the pilot himself, a testament to Harkey’s skill in recording Wien’s oral history. 
With equal parts dramatic tension and journalistic restraint, Harkey’s book chronicles Wien’s early flying days as a barnstormer and aerial circus performer, an occupation all but gone today, but then a major entertainment draw. Young pilots building time today might relate to Wien’s diet of bruised bananas, when his flying time and wages dried up during a stay in New Orleans; although perhaps for the best, as the potential job was to drop bombs from an open cockpit OX-5 Jenny. 
The biography ticks off Wien’s “firsts” the way a person might imagine the modest pilot’s recollections of the flights: first flight between Anchorage and Fairbanks (1924), first between Fairbanks and Nome (1925), first flight between the U.S. and Soviet Russia (1929).  Harkey recounts Wien’s various business ventures in Alaska, beginning in the 1920s, illustrating the financial and logistical difficulties of establishing not only an airline, but an air transport industry, in the remote reaches of the then-territory.  While Wien was not the first Alaska pilot (James Martin, Carl “Ben” Eielson, and others flew before him), he was certainly the pilot and operator who gave Alaska its wings. 
Although the biography is focused on Noel Wien, it’s important to note that one of Wien’s indirect contributions to aviation was by sharing his enthusiasm with his brothers, Ralph, Fridthof (“Fritz”) and Sigurd (“Sig”), and with following generations of Wien children,  fellow pilots, aircraft mechanics, and support staff throughout Alaska.
To put it simply, Alaskan aviation owes a great debt of gratitude to the calm, cautious and level-headed Wien. Much like the airline that bore his family name (of which we have extensive objects on exhibit in our museum), Wien’s innovative spirit and thousands of hours of Alaska flight experience set the course of Alaska aviation history.  If you read one book about Alaska aviation this year, make Harkey’s Noel Wien: Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot the book.

If you’re interested in reading this book, you can pick it up at the Pioneer Air Museum Gift Shop.  During the winter months, please call  (907)451-0037 to arrange a time for pick up.  You can also pick up a copy in Fairbanks at the Noel Wien Public Library, which was named in his honor and opened in 1977.  

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