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“LOT with the Pope on board”

Part 5--September 1998

Director Wilanowski remembersThe whole of Poland, as well as LOT Polish Airlines, was engrossed in the preparations for Pope John Paul II’s first visit to his mother country.

He had arrived in Warsaw in an "Alitalia" plane but was to return to Rome in one of our planes. And that flight was to start in Krakow according to the organizers' wishes. That led to a problem. The runway at Krakow airport was short, too short for jet planes while the hilly surroundings compounded the situation. The use of an Ilyushin-62 was out of the question. The only possibility was a double-engine Tupolev 134 but only a number of conditions had been satisfied: the plane could not carry an excessive load, its engine would have to be adapted for take-off at the "Krakow altitude" where the air pressure was different than in Warsaw and, in addition, take-off power had to be reached in a shorter time than usual. Fine weather was also needed since the airport did not have facilities allowing landing and take-off in poor visibility.

We started tackling the job a month prior to the visit. As is the case in such non-standard situations two planes were prepared for the papal flight, the second being a backup of the first. We started by testing the Krakow airport, with Tupolev landing and taking off in various weather conditions, at various loads and at various engine speeds. These engines were later delivered to our ground engineers for a through check. In conjunction with the chiefs of flying personnel we selected the group of pilots and air hostesses. These were the best who had great experience but despite that we had to take the suggestions of the special services into consideration since they carried the responsibility for the safety of the Pope during each moment he spent in his motherland.

Krakow was bathed in sunshine on the day the visit came to an end. The Tupolev-134 which had just gone through a thorough wash was glittering on the runway like a brand-new plane. Just before John Paul II entered the plane I experienced an unpleasant incident. It had become my custom to participate personally in all special flights to give something of an additional guarantee of safety to the passengers through my presence. That is what I intended to do this time but General Gorecki, the lead of the Government Protection Office, gave me a firm "no". I have no idea why he did that though I suspect it might have been an expression of envy, seeing in my person a competitor for the Pope's attention during the flight to Rome. So I bade farewell to my Passenger at the steps leading to the plane. A moment later Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Primate of the Polish Roman Catholic Church, did the same adding to his blessing "Holy Father, you are flying in excellent company. Wilanowski is a fine chap". That led to consternation among the official entourage. What seemed like becoming an unpleasant moment was defused by Council of State President Henryk Jablonski who decided: "Wilanowski is to fly too". General Gorecki immediately got off his high horse. We took off. I told the pilot to make an additional circle above Krakow, almost every citizen of which had come out to say farewell with crowds waving from the surrounding hills. I sat near the Pope so could see just how moved he was. Later he said: "Wilanowski, you know best how many times I have flown from Warsaw Okecie Airport to Rome. But this is the first time I am flying from my much loved Krakow. If I may ask you, let others also fly like that. Do something about it". I promised I would.

That required three years of preparations, not only of talks with "Alitalia" and consultations between the two governments. We had to purchase in the West appropriate navigational equipment allowing landing to take place in all weather conditions. The management of the Airports Board had the runway extended and the terminal buildings upgraded while LOT had modern equipment brought in. Shortly before the Krakow-Rome line was inaugurated, the Pope asked me to a personal audience which I attended together with Andrzej Podczaszy, manager of LOT's Rome office. I reported that "the desire of the First Citizen of Krakow had been fulfilled". The Pope was delighted. He had been accurately briefed prior to our meeting. I was surprised with his knowledge concerning my family and myself. He knew of our futile efforts to purchase Western flying machines and was aware of the faults and merits of Soviet airplanes. Most important, he sensed all the economic and political considerations which forced LOT to base its development on cooperation with the Soviet partner. And the majority of the erstwhile Polish establishment just could not comprehend these considerations. I shall be describing the whole complexity of LOT Polish Airlines joint operations with the Soviet aerospace industry in the next installment.

Noted by Tadeusz Zakrzewski