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“Take What You Can”

Part 2--June 1998

Following the turbulent war years and hard times of reconstructing Poland’s aviation industry, Wilanowski was suddenly asked in the spring of 1969 to head LOT Polish Airlines.

Director Wilanowski remembersFollowing several weeks during which I took a close look at LOT’s assets, my first dream was to enrich our air fleet with at least a few Soviet Ilyushin-18 planes. It now sounds like a joke but at the time only the “Ilyushin-18” were not “blind”, in other words, they could fly at an altitude of 10,000 metres which improved flying safety and passenger comfort and they could take a hundred passengers on board. Whereas we had to use Li-2 produced in Russia under the “Dakota” license. Those machines were rented from the Polish air force, and were equipped with benches on both sides of the cabin and later adapted to carrying passengers. We also had Il-14s, which could take 26 persons at the most, and of course “Convairs” (40 seats) and “Viscounts” (52 seats) which were purchased a few years earlier in Great Britain. Not all machines were fully efficient so they had to be overhauled and quickly sold.

Then the first obstacle arose. LOT did, indeed, employ 2,500 persons but they included only 5 graduate engineers. This less than modest state of qualified technical managers was a fundamental problem I had to resolve. So I reached for specialists from the State Aviation Plant in Warsaw, where I had managed the Construction Bureau not long before. The constructors of “Iskra” and “Wilga” sports planes came to LOT, engineers Swidzinski, Wyganowski and Piatkowski. I had to pay them high salaries for they were respected on the market. For instance, Soltyk, the main constructor of “Iskra”, was snatched from under my nose by the shipbuilding industry. The staff christened me “the five thousand man” because such were the very high salaries I paid those skilled specialists.

They helped me to put those British planes in order, though several had to be repaired in London. Britain was the first western country I visited as LOT director. I was accompanied by Captain Pelka with who I was to fly back in a repaired “Viscount”. On our way back we experienced a moment of real fright. The machine encountered a storm and lightning flickered and sparked all the wings, while the turbulence was quite horrific. Our fear was even greater since we remembered that another “Viscount” had crashed and was destroyed together with its crew a short time earlier in the very same conditions. But Pelka was a brilliant pilot. LOT had many such pilots then and, as a far as I know, still has many of that standard today.

My stay in Britain made me aware that we were at least 10 years behind western technology. For the first time I was able to see a profusion of goods in the shops and such a high standard of living. True, I felt no small envy but I felt I was a part of my country, observing its reconstruction and believing that better times were just around the corner. Translating that into the situation within LOT, I believed in the rapid modernization of Poland’s air fleet. On the one hand, we were aware of the superiority of western planes, of the much lower fuel consumption and operating costs they represented, which on the other hand we knew the facts of life in Poland involved in the community of socialist countries.

Decisions were taken for us as to what and from whom we were allowed to purchased. I took that very personally. All my numerous elaborations, analyses and proposals to purchase “Boeings” or “Air Buses” were very firmly filed by the decision takers. Out of necessity LOT assumed the working principle that “you have got to take what you can get”. So we kept our feet on the ground and had to be satisfied that we succeeded in decommissioning all the elderly planes with piston-driven engines and buying in their place “Antonov-24” and “Ilyushin-18” planes. Soon we also reached for jet planes, “Tupolev-134” and Ilyushin-62”. Popular Tu-134s took 72 passengers on board and they started a jet era in Polish civilian aviation. LOT commenced flying to Istanbul, Madrid, Nicosia and Baghdad. “Ilyushin-62s” could seat 168 passengers on board and were able to cover almost 9 thousand kilometres without landing en route.

Those purchases allowed us to get rid of old units, which were sold to African airlines at a handsome price.

The hard currency earned by LOT in those days did not land in the company’s account, but in the national cash box. And when we needed foreign currency we had to ask for an allocation and receive special consent.

Was I a lenient director? Definitely not. I was a stubborn director and no conformist. Not once did I employ anyone sent to me from outside but always made my own selections. I appreciated the professionalism of Wladyslaw Janas, responsible for technical matters. I also have the warmest memories of Magnus Hedeman, commercial director, sadly no longer with us, an eminently intelligent person who knew his job thoroughly as well as a couple of languages. We shared a secretariat with Hedeman with one secretary, a truly charming person able to enchant each and every visitor to our office. Elzbieta Wanat was her name. She was a perfect secretary who knew how to cooperate with her coworkers but also arouse their trust, which is very important for family peace and quiet. She is still employed by LOT, running the commercial director’s secretariat. I also maintained close contacts with my very efficient assistant, Marek Maczynski who is currently in charge of passenger services personnel. Another person I can never forget is chief stewardess, Maria Szargot who earlier represented Poland in basketball. She was brilliant at keeping an eye on the three hundred girls whom passengers came to call “princesses”. That was when Poland had no airplanes to boast about but could point to its extraordinarily good-looking stewardesses. In the 1970s and also earlier, that profession was an exclusive one, a window on the world, giving access to fashionable clothes, top-brand cosmetics and also often allowed goods to be purchased which were not available in Polish shops. Many were the magnets which attracted Poland’s most beautiful girls to that profession.

When I think back to that first period I can safely say that the company had personnel it could be proud of. There were no weaklings among them, and when someone did not live up to our high standards I did not just throw him into the street but ordered that he be educated and trained. In the 12 years I headed the company I dismissed very few people.

Recorded by Tadeusz Zakrzewski.