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“To Fly Over the ‘Big Water’”

Part 3--July 1998

Director Wilanowski remembersFor the first time in the history LOT’s plane touched down at New York airport on 16 April 1973, to inaugurate regular connections with the United States. In this manner a 35-year long project had come to fulfillment. In 1938 the erstwhile LOT director, Waclaw Makowski took the first step in this direction when he piloted a “Lockheed Super Electra”, the most modern plane of those days, from Los Angeles to Warsaw. It was a complex undertaking The plane had to fly over a roundabout route of 30,000 kilometres and had stop-overs in Mexico City, Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Natal, Dakar, Tunis and Rome. It took all of seven days. Regular flights to the USA were planned for the early 1940’s. The second world war made this quite impossible.

The LOT’s dreams about transatlantic connections assumed practical shape after the war when the first long-range Ilyushin-62 planes were purchased. But a long and trouble-strewn road stretched from the possibility to implementation. During the period of the Polish People’s Republic to commence flying to the USA was a matter of the greatest political weight, in which not even the Party Political Bureau but only Wladyslaw Gomulka, its leader, could decide. The question “how to get at him” kept me awake at night. How to win political blessings for the attempts of our group who were fully aware of the importance of transatlantic flights for the national carrier. The time came when I finally presented a proposal to open an airline connection with America. In this copious document I proved that the undertaking would bring handsome profits, backing up economic arguments with a patriotic accent--”Several million Poles live in the USA cut off from their fatherland”. This was quite true. No foreign airlines carried our countrymen directly from the USA to Warsaw but let them down at various West European airports. I believed this argument would win the day since I had been informed Gomulka has family members in the USA. That means he would understand us better, I thought. But as it turned out, he proved to be the greatest enemy of the project. So I started talking to the other side and lost no opportunity to tackle prime minister Cyrankiewicz and his deputy Piotr Jaroszewicz whenever they appeared at Okecie International Airport. They both lined up on LOT’s side but continued to shrug helplessly, explaining that Gomulka had ordered the whole matter to be shelved. It seems that whenever the matter was mentioned he used to say “it is still too early for a decision, that our Soviet comrades will take it badly.” But I did not give up. I tackled all party and government decision-makers who used LOT services. To be quite frank they were all in favour but they all behaved as if they had an inbuilt brake which the “Big Brother’s” foot was pressing.

It was only when Edward Gierek came to power, taking over from Gomulka as Party boss, that the matter was taken up again. I had to deliver a personal written guarantee that the connection would be profitable. Of that I was sure, I rubbed my hands in glee . . . but still too early. It turned out that only the first step had been made. The United States government also had to consent to the opening of this connection and also Pan American, the national carrier in that country. For two years I tramped a path to the US ambassador in Warsaw, in the attempt to get his support. But the Americans were far from favouring the idea. Though they did not fly to Warsaw, they had monopoly on transporting Poles from USA to Europe and did not want to let go even a little. In the end they did give way a little but proposed we use their Boeings. Their argument was that “our” Ilyushins did not possess navigational equipment up to western standards.

Indeed, Soviet equipment was not compatible with the American system of receiving signals from air and sea when overflying the Atlantic. And you must remember that each plane is in constant contact with stations controlling and monitoring its flight. The only way out was to purchase American navigational equipment. When I managed to get a special foreign currency allocation (each unit cost $15,000US), it turned out that what we needed is under an export embargo and no Warsaw Pact country could buy it. We managed to avoid that reef by purchasing the equipment on the quiet through a Swedish company and the good offices of a Polish foreign trade company.

What we now had to do was get the consent of the Soviet designers. Since they were responsible for the servicing and the technical state of the Ilyushins, they had to accept our turning their navigational system inside-out, and that system is the brain of each and every flying machine. Luckily the Russians were not difficult and frankly admitted the “hostile” equipment is just better than theirs. What remained was to overcome United States aviation specialists who had to taste our Ilyushin fitted with their “nerve system” which, clearly, they did not know. They flew it several times over the Atlantic and had no reservations. And, as the final step, we reached agreement with Pan American on the principle of reciprocity, that is American planes could land at Okecie and our planes could land at both New York airports.

During the inaugural flight Damian Zuchowski piloted the Ilyushin 62, the first Polish pilot to have registered ten million kilometers in the air. Zbigniew Sulecki, another of our top-lines pilots, piloted the plane on its return flight to Warsaw.

And that was how we had to struggle during several years to overcome a matter which today seems simple and obvious.

Recorded by Tadeusz Zakrzewski