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Legends in Alaska Aviation: Richard Wien

Courtesy Rob Stapleton

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Legends in Alaska Aviation project celebrates the amazing lives of Alaska's long-time aviators who are still with us today. We've already taken a look at the lives of Al WrightRod Judy, and Bill Stedman, among others; Today we go along for a ride with Richard Wien.

 

Richard Wien is a walking encyclopedia of Alaska aviation history, and much of it lies in his family’s legacy. Sitting back in his hangar office at Fairbanks International Airport, Richard Wien places his hands behind his head and starts to explain the details.

Early Years

Born in Fairbanks and the youngest of three children to Noel and Ada Wien, it became clear early on that Richard wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He describes his early years of hanging around aircraft and mechanics, fascinated by engineering and everything that went into making an airplane fly.

“I was really somewhat of a pest then. Aviation was a constant passion, and I was forever running to the airport-- then Weeks Field.”

“We lived a block from the airport,” he continues, “and after school I would always run to airport to see what progress was being made on the aircraft being fixed.”

Wien was a mechanic early in his carrier from 1952-55. But not for long; influenced by father Noel and Alaska aviation legends such as Ben Eielson, Richard donned his flying glasses, jumped in the left seat, pushed in the throttle and headed skyward, that’s when his flying career took off. The family aviation business was well known throughout the community and state, and after working around legendary aviators and mechanics, Wien knew what he was going to do.

Richard Wien followed the custom of soloing at 16 years of age, getting his license at 17 and then obtained his Commercial license and Instrument rating.

After ending his career turning wrenches for the company in 1955, Richard went on to fly as a bush pilot, became chief bush pilot, and later director of bush operations for Wien Air Alaska up until 1969.

“I started making commercial flights when I was 20 years old flying the Norseman, that was really something. That first job … flying mail to and from Bettles … was pretty big stuff for a twenty year old,” recalls Wien.

Richard later went on to accrue 15,000 hours of flying in Alaska.

In 1960 Richard and Sally O’Neil married and settled down in Fairbanks to raise a family. Eventually they had three children; Kelly, Michael, and Leslie.

Out of the family business

With the advent of new jetliners, things started getting more expensive. Despite the financially advantageous merger between Wien Company and Northern Consolidated, Wien was feeling the pressure of the many changes, and decided to leave the family aviation business.

“Yes, leaving Wien Air Alaska was a bit of a shock to everyone,” he admits. “But I couldn’t see a clear way of making the revenue and changes that were necessary, so I decided to leave.”

In the meantime Wien’s acumen for business and brother Merrill’s experience lead them to create Merric Inc. This was something new to Alaska a helicopter charter and contracting business.”

Later the brothers realized that they were undercapitalized and not major players in the industry. They offered to merge the company with Carl Brady at Era Aviation.

The decision to merge Merric with Era Aviation was a bitter-sweet business decision, according to Wien. The merger eventually prompted offering Richard a job as executive vice president of the new operation.

A few years later as part of an Era company promotion to Chief Operation Officer, Wien was offered a position which would have required him to move from his hometown of Fairbanks to Anchorage. Thinking of his ties to the Golden Heart city, family, and his getaway cabin in the Brooks Range, Richard declined the offer and resigned.

Despite the changes in de-regulation, competition, increased aircraft prices the Wien brothers Richard and Merrill kept their involvement in Alaska Aviation history.

While Richard admits to having qualms about the financing of large expensive aircraft, his entrepreneurial spirit and solid business ethics were recognized widely by the Alaska business community. “And…I didn’t really want to be a jet pilot and I had seniority, so it was time for a change.”

Perhaps one of the paybacks for his leaving the aviation industry was the many invitations to remain as an experienced advisor.

“After the Alaska Airlines crash of flight 261, on Jan. 31, 2000, I was made Chairman of the Directors of Safety Committee. Alaska Airlines was struggling with crash issues, and this crash was truly an accident, but that determination was not good enough for the airline’s leadership.

“Ultimately investigation found that the crash was caused by a lubrication problem between the uses of two approved jack-screw grease types. At that point the board said, ‘We have to reinvent the airline, and change the culture. We can’t let anything like this happen again.’  This crash was very severe it almost caused the demise of the airline.”

“I worked a lot on safety in 1972, with the Helicopter Association of America. I developed a code of ethics because we were wrecking helicopters at an alarming rate. Helicopters were having an accident every couple of thousand hours. We took on a safety program, and we were able to develop a program that doubled the incident and accident hour rate. During this time I worked with Arlo Livingston to bring a change to the nationwide culture of aviation safety.”

A long family legacy

Wien recalls the history of flying during the 1920’s and 1930’s when his grandfather Noel Wien and flying partner Ben Eielson flew all over the north.

“I can remember when the Governor of Magadan contacted then Alaska Governor Steve Cowper,” recalled Wien. “The Russians wanted to give the wreckage of the Hamilton aircraft flown by Eielson back to Alaska during Perestroika. Everyone knew the wreckage was still lying on the tundra in Russia and both the Anchorage Aviation Museum wanted it and so did the Interior and Arctic Alaska Aeronautical Foundation.

“Cowper asked me about it, and told him that my dad brought it to Fairbanks and it never flew in Anchorage. Eielson had maybe 20 hours in the Hamilton Standard and dad had over 600 hours in it, I told him. Cowper then said, ‘I’ll tell them to bring the aircraft to Fairbanks.’

“When they brought out the wing to 1002, I can’t remember being more emotional than at that moment. Dad had over 100 photographs of the airplane and I felt like I knew it well, and of course Eielson was killed along with mechanic Earl Borland in Siberia in 1929.

“At that time there was no place to put it, so they brought it here to my hangar, and I inventoried every part of the aircraft.”

Preserving aviation history

Wien is a lifetime member of the Arctic Alaska Aeronautical Foundation museum, and has donated to both the Fairbanks and Anchorage Aviation Museums.

“I would sure like to see us have a more cooperative attitude to be able to trade aircraft back and forth. It’s all Alaska history it’s a statewide deal,” Wien says. “There is no reason that we couldn’t take something like the Hisso wings and other things and trade them back and forth between aviation museums, to share the history.”

Wien credits other historians for their expertise such as Ted Spencer, Dirk Tordoff, and Jim Rearden; Wien has worked with Rearden and Tordoff and Spencer on various past aviation projects.

The Wien family has an incredible amount of historic aviation footage and photographs in storage. “We recently turned over 18,000 feet of movie film. A lot of it will go to the Rasmuson Library and will ultimately be available to the public.”

Commitment to community

Richard has devoted more that 30-years of community service to numerous organizations. Wien is a founding member of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, a former director of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, a 30 year plus member of the Board of Directors for the National Bank of Alaska (now known as Wells Fargo), Chairman of the Alaska Transportation Planning Council under Gov. Jay Hammond, Chairman Governor’s Alaska Aviation Advisory Board, under Gov. Murkowski, a member of the Alaska Airlines board of Directors for more than 25 years, and Chairman of first Directors of Safety committee at Alaska Airlines.

Wien’s work with aviation safety paid off for Alaska Airlines; “Today I believe this is the only airline that has a board of directors run safety program,” Wien points out.

“I am pretty proud of my work with the safety committee at Alaska Airlines,” said Wien. “Alaska Airlines is well known for its safety culture, and is the finest airline in the U.S. -- in fact it’s a world class airline.”

The Alaska Air Carriers Association has an award in his name for the betterment of aviation and contributions on behalf of women in helicopter aviation. Wien also wrote the Alaska Airmen’s Association bylaws that are still in effect today.

Wien also serves on the board of directors or advisory councils for Usibelli Coal Co., Holland American Line, Wells Fargo, and the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

Richard attended the University of Alaska from 1954-1958, and later received an Honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2008, for Aviation and Community Service.

Richard has flown a variety of aircraft, ranging from single engine Cessnas, to Norseman, DeHavilland Beaver, Beech 18s, C-46’s, F-27’s and various models of helicopters, but list the Pilatus Porter has his favorite.

Wien was honored in 2004 for 50 year of accident free flying, thus earning the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, the FAA’s top award for an aviator to achieve.

“Aviation has always driven my life,” says 72 year old Wien.