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Janusz Żurakowski: Glider Pilot

by Bill Zuk

Now one of Canada’s aviation icons, Janusz Żurakowski’s first flights were in gliders in Poland.

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Summer 1932
Ten of the burliest boys grabbed up the ends of the long rubber bungee cord laid out in front of the glider in the shape of a “V.” One of them attached the end of the line to the tow hook on the glider’s nose. Another boy standing behind the glider, reached behind the tail and attached a long length of rope to an eyehook. That rope was securely attached to a stake driven into the ground. In the open cockpit, sixteen- year-old Janusz Żurakowski snuggled down in the seat, tightly cinching up the lap belt.

At a command, “pochod” “march”, the group moved forward and down the ridge, drawing up the slack on the cord. The club members had now pulled the bungee cord tight. “Przesuwany szybko” came the cry and the boys as one struggled forward against the tension of the rubber cord. “Teraz!” “now!” shouted Janusz who raised his hand and dropped it swiftly as a signal to the boy at the tail. He cut the line with one swift slash of a long kitchen knife.

The Wrona [Crow] glider jumped into the air directly into the wind, sailing over the launch crew who had thrown themselves face first on the ground. Bronek looked up as the glider gracefully dipped and turned. He smiled as he saw his brother was skillfully riding an updraft. Janusz was having an easy time, swirling around on a thermal deflected by the ridge.


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Bungee launch of a Komar glider

That summer in 1932 would be an exciting one for young Janusz Żurakowski who had caught the “flying bug” at the age of seven, when he had been trudging home from school in Garlowin, Poland, and had been startled by the sight of a beautiful “white bird” swooping above him. That day, Żurakowski had breathlessly chased after the humming contraption until it was out of sight. He never forgot that first glimpse of a flying machine.

In 1927, the Żurakowski family moved to Lublin, where his father, Dr. Adam Żurakowski was a district medical inspector. Janusz attended the Stanislaw Staszic High School but did not take a great interest in his studies. He loved skating, skiing and swimming but he commented later, “I didn’t show too much enthusiasm for learning; I would rather follow in the footsteps of my brother,” who was studying aeronautical engineering and had become an accomplished glider pilot.

By the 1920s, Poland was establishing an aviation industry producing “home” designs for both civil and military aviation demands. Civil aviation in Poland developed along the lines of other European nations with the Polskie Linie Lotnicze (LOT), state airline established at Strachowice Airfield in 1928. Civilian airfields provided training facilities as recreational flying in both glider and powered aircraft became popular.

Air-minded young Poles were in the forefront of gliding and sailplane advances in the inter-war years. Whereas Germany had embraced gliding as a means of training a generation of future military pilots, the Polish gliding movement had developed as a recreational activity. During this exciting period in Polish aviation history, Janusz’s brother, Bronislaw, three years his senior, studied aeronautics at Warsaw Polytechnic.

Żurakowski emulated his brother’s interest in flying and began to build flying models at an early age. Both he and Bronislaw were members of a school model club where larger and more elaborate models were constructed. This hobby became Żurakowski’s preoccupation where he excelled at the construction of intricate balsa and cloth models. His memories of that period reveals that there were numerous model plane competitions between schools and at regional and national levels.

In 1929, when Żurakowski was 15 years old, he won first prize in a national competition for flying models. His award included a flight in a small single-engine Lublin LKL-5 trainer at the Lublin Flying Club, piloted by a First World War veteran, Sergeant Żuromski. His account of the flight came later in 1959 when he wrote: “I remember what was surprising to me as we got up: that everything on the ground seemed to move very slowly. We were up 20 minutes. Coming down, everything moved faster … I knew two things: that I had to finish school and that then I would fly!” This brief first flight was the beginning of Żurakowski’s life- long passion for flying.

One obstacle had to be overcome, however. Żurakowski intimated that “the idea of becoming a pilot met strong opposition from my father, who made sure that his doctor friends at the Aviation Medical Examination Centre in Warsaw refused my application. I allegedly suffered from tuberculosis in the collarbone.”

Although upset over his treatment, Żurakowski persevered, and, in 1932, as a youth in high school, he gained flying skills at the controls of gliders. He signed on for a gliding course at the Gliding School in Polichno-Pinczow, instructed by Tadeusz Ciastula, attaining a Category A and B there. During his next holidays, after his matriculation exams, at another gliding club camp, he attained his Category C, which called for greater proficiency and the ability to climb above the launch point.

His first piloting experiences were still memorable years later. “Flying in the right kind of weather over a beautiful countryside is wonderful. Seeing the sunset above the clouds is not to be forgotten; and flying is relaxing. It takes the tension out of me … The best flying really, which I remember, was flying gliders and sailplanes.”

The operation of the single-place glider involved a team of helpers stationed near the ramp at the apex of a hill. Unlike modern gliding or sailplane launches, Janusz recalled “… one started, without using a tow plane or takeoff winch, just with the help of two rubber lines and six people, who on order pulled and ran downhill, stretching the lines, the tail of the glider being secured by a quick-release peg. On the pilot’s command, ‘release,’ the tail was released, and the glider shot in the air like from a catapult. The pilot started flying figure eights trying to catch either up-draughts or thermals. Considering the low height of the launching field, that was quite an achievement.”

By 1934, Żurakowski had completed his matriculation at Lublin. While his sisters intended to study in Warsaw, he dreamed of becoming a pilot, although his father did not approve. Dr. Żurakowski threw up many objections but his son determined there was another way to achieve his goal. He volunteered to join the Army. “As a graduate, I had a choice of service. Of course, I choose the Aviation Reserve Cadet Officers’ School at Deblin and as an 20-year-old candidate, I joined the Polish Air Force.” That year, Żurakowski enrolled in Deblin as one of only 40 successful applicants out of 2,000 prospects. At that time, the fledgling air arm was part of the army, which had a long and proud history, and, from 1935 to 1937, much of Żurakowski’s studies prepared him for a military career.

Even after completing his flight-training course under the able tutelage of Stefan Witozenc, and a promotion to Sub-Lieutenant, Żurakowski continued to fly gliders in his spare hours, and loved the sheer exhilaration of flying. He spent his holiday leave soaring in gliders at the Pinczow gliding field. There he carried out a 15-hour flight in a Komar [Mosquito] glider, which was an extraordinary accomplishment, considering the crude construction of gliders and the primitive conditions of flying at the time.

In July 1938, Żurakowski went to the famous Gliding Academy in Bezmiechowa near the Carpathian Mountains. Earlier, in May of that year, the school had received worldwide acclaim when one of its young pilots, Tadeusz Gora, had set an international record. After starting from Bezmiechowa, Gora had reached the city of Wilno, his family home, establishing a new record for the longest flight (578 km) and winning first place in the World Lilienthal Medal Competition. A year earlier Wanda Molibowska had flown above
Bezmiechowa for over a day (exactly 24 hours and 14 minutes), a record that wasn’t surpassed for two decades.

Żurakowski was determined to leave his mark on Bezmiechowa, a quest which almost led to tragedy. The school’s gliders were constantly in use, so he arranged to take a Delphin [dolphin] high-performance glider out at night when he had a better chance of having it for a long period of time. The dangers of a night launch were apparent but with the proper use of the variometer, a climb indicator mounted in the glider, Żurakowski judged that he could manage the flight safely. He recalled that on the night he chose for his flight, “It was pitch black and I could not see the top of the hills that I knew were just below.” Soon after the takeoff, Żurakowski sensed that the wind had shifted and taken him over the hilltop.

At the last moment, Żurakowski glimpsed the dim outline of the horizon and the hill in front of him. Banking the Delphin steeply, his wingtip caught the top branches of a fir tree on the slopes of Slone and he crashed heavily. The young pilot cracked his head and didn’t remember how he managed to crawl back to the Academy buildings as he lost his memory for a couple of days.

With his head wound healed, Żurakowski reported back to his squadron. Despite his crash, gliders remained his first love in the air. Recalling the period later, he remembered that he had begun his first aerobatics in gliders, and had attracted a great deal of interest from both civilian and military officials as a leading glider pilot in Poland.

In early 1939 came news that Poland would field a team for a gliding competition at the 1940 Olympic Games to be held in Rome. Żurakowski was selected to be one of two military pilots that along with two civilian fliers would make up the Polish team. As war neared in the late summer of 1939, the plans for the Polish Olympic gliding team were suddenly dropped.

After his return to the squadron, Żurakowski learned that his skills in the P.11c single-seater fighter had led his flight commander to identify him as a possible instructor with responsibilities for tactical and weapons training. Orders for Zurakowski to return to the Central Flying School in Deblin as an instructor came in the spring of 1939. He bitterly complained to his commanding officer about the transfer. “I asked him ‘why would you lose a fully qualified fighter pilot at this time?’ He stared at me and then pointed his
finger at me, exclaiming, ‘I had no choice. They asked for you.”

It would soon be evident why Żurakowski had been chosen as an advanced flight instructor. That summer Poland prepared for war; there would be little opportunity for Janusz Żurakowski to think about gliders again.

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Wrona Glider at the Polish Aviation Museum in Krakow, Poland