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Dreams and Reality
Part 6--October 1998
Almost everyone in my company dreamed about Boeings, Douglases and Air Buses. That included me. Planes produced in the west were equipped with wholly computerized navigating systems, guaranteed better traveling comfort, boasted technically better and more economical engines.
An American manufacturer even promised that he would sell us his planes in exchange for . . . dog food! That was when I started thinking about constructing a dog-food factory near Warsaw but the political barriers proved too high since Poland was wholly subservient to Big Brother.
Having said that, I refuse to criticize all Tupolevs and Ilyushins outright. They were excellent and solidly constructed machines but definitely not modern. They had an outdated navigational system and fuel-guzzling engines, but they cost a fraction of what had to be paid for planes produced in the west. And we also bought them for rubles and not dollars which were at a very definite premium in the national budget. But when one speaks of inexpensive Tupolevs, it should also be remembered that Poland sold Soviet Union inexpensive ships.
The differences between Boeings and Ilyushins faded after 10 years of use since that was when increased fuel costs and more regular general overhauls approached the price of American planes. And disastrous crashes? They are part of the life of any world airline. Those accidents which we encountered were not the effect of bad design but of careless technical checks at the plant which did not notice cracks on shafts and those cracks on shafts and those cracks, during engine operation turned into fractures which became the causes of tragedies. Once we purchased devices to detect such cracks, the accidents ceased.
One remark may be of interest at this moment. Ilyushins are faster than Boeings. Flying to America on board Soviet planes also took less time because they could fly in a straight line since they had four engines, while double-engined Boeings have to keep close to land for safety purposes.
The general opinion is that cooperating with Russians was always unsatisfactory, but they imposed their will on us and interfered in the smallest matters. But that is not the crux of the matter. A bad system is one thing but another was the people who stood behind the system, docile, cowardly, with an eye exclusively on their careers. So-called Soviet people are also Slavs and think and feel much as we do. One could always find common ground with them but you had to stand up to them. I can quote one example: I began my contacts with the Soviet industry with a conflict with those less courageous than me claimed would be the end of my career. I flew with a group of engineers to Kiev as the freshly nominated LOT director to receive the first Antonov-24 plane which was to serve our domestic lines for many years. During the checks they made, my engineers noticed numerous shortcomings: the number of rivets connecting the wings to the hull were less than in the documentation and, in addition, the connections were improper. We also noticed faults in the navigating equipment. I decided we could not accept the plane we had bought, which I let the Soviet side know very firmly and openly. My superiors in the Transport Ministry, all of whom were total conformists, immediately washed their hands off the whole affair expecting a storm to blow up in the White House, the party head office. But what happened was that the storm developed in the Soviet Aviation Ministry. Demientiev who headed that ministry sacked the technical director of the factor producing the Antonovs while the senior designer was reprimanded.
The result was that the Russians started treating us as a demanding customer and never again did we have any quality headaches. Indeed, they respected my view. I talked them into purchasing western-made engines and navigating systems for the Ilyushins and into agreement with western manufacturers as to the joint production of these very important elements. May I also add that I am in very friendly contact with Minister Demientiev and with Novozhylov, senior designer of Ilyushin-62 planes to this day. We are in continuous correspondence and only health makes it impossible to meet them and talk over a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka.
I am aware that there is no climate today conductive to a balanced appraisal of cooperation with our eastern neighbour but I cannot pretend that I have forgotten the types of planes with which LOT spread its wings where I was in charge and which planes we flew to almost all corners of the world. The Russians were, are and will be Polands natural economic partner and we would be committing a very great error were we to comprehend that fact later than other countries.
To conclude these outpourings, I surely do not have to convince anyone that LOT is still very close to my hear, that I still experience all her problems and have many friends there. I would like to wish all those old hands who still remember me and those youngsters to whom the name Wilanowski may mean little--all the best on the jubilee celebrations of the firm and May you have strong winds in your tail.
From the author:
Wlodzimierz Wilanowski was a unique figure in LOT. He consolidated the staff and his door was always open. He knew everyone and to many was a father-figure, though he managed a team that was twice as large as that which LOT employs at present.
Wilanowski started his day at 6 a.m. by going into the hangars, not only to have a look at the planes but also to have heart-to-heart talks with the personnel. He was with his staff at all the most difficult moments: he was at the crash site of the Ilyushin-62, he was there--shovel in hand--when the airstrip had to be cleared quickly following a blizzard. He was one of the few directors who did not have to fear being wheelbarrowed out of his job in the turbulent Solidarnosc times, and when he retired he was bade farewell with dignity and full honors. His son-in-law, Jan Litwinski, followed Wlodzimierz Wilanowski as elected LOT president which is surely yet further testimony to the fine memory which Wilanowski left behind. Litwinski was nominated to a further term of office a few months ago.
Tadeusz Zakrzewski, the author of the cycle of these articles, was an erstwhile star TV reporter and director Wilanowskis press counsellor.