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Alaska Aviation Legends: Bill Diehl, Arctic aircraft designer

  • Author: Rob Stapleton
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 20, 2014

When his aunt and uncle flew over 6-year-old Bill Diehl's house waggling the wings of their Aerosport biplane, and took Diehl for his first airplane ride, the seed was planted that he too would one day sit behind the controls of an aircraft.

Diehl not only realized his dream of flight during his lifetime, but also manufactured and built more than 50 aircraft in Anchorage. He also became an FAA-certified manufacturer and servicer of the Arctic Tern, an aircraft of his own design based on an existing airframe.

Bill Diehl was born William Archie Diehl in 1931 in Sacramento.

He credits his father, who was a mechanical engineer, designer and mathematician, with helping along the certification of the Arctic Tern. This was especially useful for the FAA certification of the aircraft during G-force stress testing.

Diehl used the influence and advice of his father and flying relatives when he bought the rights to manufacture along with the tooling and materials of the Interstate Tool Company. Diehl redesigned the two-seat L-6 Interstate Cadet and put it into production in Alaska as the Arctic Tern.

Diehl's curriculum vitae is a potpourri of challenges and disciplines that led to the certification and manufacture of the Arctic Tern, the development of a flight director simulator for twin-engine jets, and motion simulator cockpits of warbirds for video games with flight simulation for combat.

After high school, Diehl worked as a draftsman for the U.S. Navy on Kodiak, then served two years in the U.S. Army before he went to the University of Washington for a year of college. He then worked for Boeing as a method analyst at Boeing Field in Seattle. It was there that Diehl was introduced to Harry Cramer, who was training pilots in instrument proficiency. Diehl then went to work for Cramer, helping develop and train instrument flying in Link Trainers for the Cramer Instrument Flight School.

After working for Cramer in Seattle, he returned to Alaska to work for Cramer as manager of the Anchorage training office. In the 1960s he bought Cramer's Anchorage business that was contracted to do instrument training. After this Diehl contracted again, this time with the FAA. He developed the new Saberliner-Collins FD 108 flight director training system. It was the only simulator at the time available for this type of training, so for a time, Diehl trained the majority of FAA pilots in the U.S. on this simulator.

Diehl then purchased the rights to the Interstate Cadet airframe from Barlow and Reuel Call of the Call Aircraft Company.

"We formed the Arctic Aircraft Company in 1968 but it took us five years to get into production," said Diehl. "We started working with the Federal Aviation Administration engineers in 1973 and in 1975 we received the production certificate for the Arctic Tern."

Diehl says that the company produced 29 Arctic Terns, another three as modified aircraft and five four-place experimental aircraft versions called the Privateer.

The Arctic Aircraft company was a family affair. With Diehl's wife Jan at the helm of the office, Bill could oversee fabrication and construction of each airplane. After Jan passed away, Bill was ready for a change and sold the company in 2001. The rights to the Arctic Tern were sold to a company in Lebanon, N.H., but it is currently out of production.

"All of these experiences have led to a full life," said Diehl. "And I am still keeping in touch by consulting with those Arctic Tern owners with questions about this and that."

Bill Diehl is one of 13 men and women selected to represent the next class of Alaska Aviation Legends, an annual project that recognizes the pioneers who made Alaska's aviation industry and culture what it is today. For more on the legends, consider attending the Nov. 7 banquet in their honor. More information is available at the Alaska Air Carriers Association website.

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