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Alaska Aviation Legends: Noel 'Merrill' Wien, the all-purpose pilot

  • Author: Joy Journeay
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 11, 2014

Noel "Merrill" Wien has to be one of the most diversified and experienced pilots of his time. With more than 30,000 accident-free hours of flying over the course of more than a half-century, Wien has owned 20 different aircraft and flown 149 different types.

Wien was born in Virginia, Minn. on April 4, 1930. His mother was born in Nome and his father, Noel Wien, came to the state in 1924 and became one of the first pioneer pilots to bring air travel to Alaska.

Early training

"When our family moved to Seattle for a period of time, I took my first official flying lessons at the airport on the Smith Dairy farm in Kent, Wash.," said Wien. And when the flight school moved to Boeing Field, I soloed on my 16th birthday. My flight instructor was a cute 23-year-old ex-WASP (Woman Airforce Service Pilot) named Sherry Phelps. The following summer, I received my private license in Fairbanks on my 17th birthday."

While attending the University of Washington, Wien was also busy working and getting his ratings.

"I worked at the fledgling Kenmore Air Harbor founded by the legendary Bob Monroe, continuing my flight training while working as a gas boy. World War II B-24 pilot Bill Fisk was my primary instructor when I also acquired a seaplane rating. I then acquired my commercial license back in Fairbanks from Hawley Evens in July 1949," he said.

"I trained for the instrument rating with Harry Cramer in his Link trainer at Boeing Field and Harry talked me into getting a Link instructors rating," Wien said, referring to an early type of flight simulator. "I acquired my instrument rating at Renton in March 1950. A few days later I traveled with my dad to Wichita to pick up a new Cessna 170 and fly to Fairbanks."

Military experience

Merrill also received flight training even after he had logged a considerable amount of commercial flight time.

"I started primary pilot training at Marana, Ariz., in September 1952," Wien said. "Although I had about 1,500 hours of flight time by then, I consider the six months in primary flight training some of the best training I have ever received."

Wien flew the T-28, B-25, Douglas B-26 and C-119 while in the Air Force.

Wien Airlines

After military flying, Wien returned to Alaska to fly for Wien Airlines, primarily flying the DC-3.

But, Wien said, "I also enjoyed flying the smaller bush planes. As the Airline grew I flew C-46, DC-4, Constellation, F-27, Boeing 737 and 727."

But change was in the wind for the Wien brothers.

"In 1960, my brother Richard and I, along with our friends Stan Halverson and Doug Millard, founded Merric, Inc.," Wien said. "We initially operated two B-25 aircraft to do borate bombing for fire-fighting, along with the Hiller 12E (helicopter) we had purchased. In time we sold the B-25's and expanded the helicopter business. In 1969 Richard resigned from Wien Airlines to become president and general manager of Merric. We added many more helicopters, and in 1973 we merged Merric into Era Helicopters."

Wien had experience flying onto the McCall glacier, Juneau Ice Cap and Mt. McKinley glaciers.

"With glacier flying experience, Lowell Thomas Sr. asked me to support the filming of his 'High Adventure' program on Alaska for television," Wien recalled.

Additional winter flying conditions by Wien included taking the C-46, DC-4 and even a Boeing 737 onto frozen lakes and along the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line on the North Slope of Alaska.

In 1987, Wien was hired by an airline to fly Lockheed L1011s as captain until he turned 60 and was forced to retire from flying wide-body aircraft due to Federal Aviation Administration regulation.

In 1993, Wien found himself as one of the chief pilots for round-engine aircraft for what was then called the Confederate Air Force Southern California Wing, where he flew B-17, C-46, B-25, B-24, and B-29 aircraft.

Merrill and Barbara Wien's children are also in aviation. Daughter Kimberlee's interest in flying resulted in her being a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines for the past 29 years. Merrill Wien also mentored his two sons, Kurt and Kent, who are both American Airlines captains.

Wien's flight and training experience is so varied and valuable that he has been named as an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner Resource.

Noel "Merrill" Wien 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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