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Polish Air Force’s 100th Anniversary – Part III: Polish Aviation Industry

Polish Aviation Industry explained.

The Early Days

Aviation became present in the territory which was to become Poland once it reached Europe. Those two things happened simultaneously. The Poles who were living, in practical terms, in three separate countries (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia) were devoting a lot of time to research and practical issues related to aviation. Stefan Drzewiecki, an engineer living in Russia was the most notable of the scientists at the time. His theoretical studies conducted between 1887 and 1892, concerning the principles of flight applicable to aircraft and sailplanes, as well as the propeller theory research, were used by the Wright brothers, when they were designing their “Flyer”. Drzewiecki’s propellers were utilized by Louis Bleriot and numerous pioneers.

The Poles also faced numerous obstacles in the area of engineering, since the hosts strongly opposed any symptoms of scientific development in the area where their jurisdiction was placed. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was the most friendly, or least unfriendly, of the hosts. In that region, in Lviv, at the only Polish University of Technology, the first ever organization tasked with supporting the development of the Polish aviation was established. It was known as “Awiata”. The organization was not only tasked with promoting the new domain of technological development, through organization of displays. One of the goals adopted was to conduct research and experiments related to theory and practical side of aviation.

Stefan Drzewiecki (image credit: Wiki)

The first attempts to create aviation industry on the formerly Polish land date back to 1910. Warsaw Aviation Society “AWIATA” was established in the Russian part of Poland. The main objective adopted by this entity was to create a pilots’ school and aviation workshop. The workshop established was the place where the Farman IV plane was being license manufactured. During that period the first Polish indigenous aircraft designs began to emerge too. It is hard to verify which design was the first one, since Poland per se was non-existent. It was in 1912 when the Russian Empire liquidated the W.T.L. AWIATA facility, with the property transferred to the Russian Army. When Warsaw was taken over by the Germans in 1916, the occupant established a factory manufacturing the Albatros B II airplanes there, with 200 examples built. Furthermore, the Germans also established a military facility tasked with overhauling the aircraft engines there. Both enterprises would ultimately be liquidated at the beginning of 1918.

When Poland regained its independence in November 1918, no factory manufacturing airplanes was located within its territory.

The overhaul workshop taken over from the occupiers could be, then, considered to be the cradle of the Polish aviation industry. The said facility also played a crucial role in creation of the Polish Air Force. The facility overhauled the airplanes and engines left by the occupiers and manufacturing all the required parts and propellers. In many cases, this referred to complex aircraft overhauls and restorations. Centralne Zakłady Lotnicze facility (Central Aviation Works) was founded in 1918.

The authorities, being aware of the requirement to unify the number of operated types of aircraft and to introduce more modern designs into use, undertook efforts to create aviation-profiled facilities and transfer the relevant technologies to master this field. As the Central Aviation Works in Warsaw had no capacity to work on new initiatives, private Zakłady Mechaniczne Plage & Laśkiewicz facility (Plage & Laśkiewicz Mechanical Works) had a task assigned to manufacture the Ansaldo Balilla and A-300 aircraft. These designs turned out to be a failure, which, amplified by the lack of experience in the manufacturing process, led to a situation in which the production was stopped in 1925. Once the facility became a state entity it was transformed into Podlaska Wytwórnia Samolotów (Podlachia Airplanes Manufacturing Plant), where “Lublin” reconnaissance aircraft were manufactured. From that moment on, the industry faced a dynamic development. SKODA opened its aircraft engines manufacturing plant at the time, while the newly established factories in Poznan and Biała Podlaska began to manufacture Hanriot and Potez airframes. PWS was another plant established at the time, working on manufacturing the Potez XV. The facility was taken over by the state in 1932. Being subordinated to PZL (Polish Aviation Works – Polskie Zakłady Lotnicze), it manufactured sailplanes and trainers – PWS-26 was the best known product of this plant.

At the beginning of 1930s it was assumed that the young engineers and designers had accumulated enough knowledge to try to create own designs, compliant with the needs. Institute of Aerodynamics and Institute of Flight Tests (Instytut Aerodynamiki and Instytut Badań w Locie) were established at the time, to accommodate the future aircraft development programs.

A proper atmosphere was created, stimulating the manufacturing of the Polish aircraft. This was a result of the program led by the Head of the Department of Aeronautics of the Ministry of Military Affairs, Col. Ludomił Rayski. Rayski was all about self-reliance and becoming independent from any foreign aircraft design.

Amateur designers also thrived, creating sporting and touring airplanes. A group of students of the Warsaw University of Technology, gathered within the workshop established in 1925 of the “Aviation Section of the Mechanics Student Reading Group”, became a seed which later on was transformed into a private RWD manufacturing plant. RWD became one of the most important Polish aircraft manufacturers, with numerous successful touring and sporting designs created. RWD-8 trainer and RWD-13 touring airplane that were series manufactured, as well as the RWD-6 and RWD-9 that won the Challenge 1932 and 1934 aircraft competitions were among the best known designs of the RWD plant.

RWD-13 Displayed in a Museum in Brasil. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Another step that made aviation and industry in Poland much more modern was taken when the Poles decided to acquire a license which would allow them to master the all-metal aircraft technologies. A decision was made to go with the Wibault’s offer – the Wibault 70C1 design complemented with a transfer of technology. Moreover, it was decided that a newly established PZL facility in Warsaw would manufacture the aircraft. It was founded as a result of reorganization of the Central Aviation Workshop facility. The said decision contributed to expansion of the modern aviation industry in Poland and the industry started to deliver world-class products at the time.

The aircraft in question made it possible to develop a Polish fighter in which the new technology was used. This was done by Engineer Zygmunt Puławski who had been supervising the Wibault 70 license takeover process. PZL P.1 was the designation for the new fighter. It was the first Polish fighter aircraft made fully out of metal which became a foundation for a whole family of aircraft in the future. Furthermore, some of the design solutions implemented in case of Wibault 70C1 (wing skin for instance) were also used in case of aircraft developed later.

In the mid-1930s heightened tensions characterized the international arena, as the Nazis came into power in Germany. Threat was acknowledged, defense spending – increased. In 1936 an ambitious program was launched, the goal of which was to double the quantity of the manufactured airplanes. Private aviation plants were nationalized, and the industry went through a centralization process. PZL was the facility that emerged through transformation of CWL.

This plant was the most significant of the Polish aerospace industry entities before WWII. At the time, PZL Okęcie also created numerous modern designs. Due to the space constraints of this publication, we cannot list all of the aircraft of the time, however one should note the PZL P.7 and PZL P.11 fighter aircraft. Poland became the first nation to own a fighter force involving planes made completely out of metal, once these were acquired. PZL-23 Karaś, PZL-26 sporting airplanes or prototypes of the pre-War new generation military designs that were not ultimately produced and delivered all were promising at the time.

PZL P.11C fighter aircraft in 1939 – Image Credit – Wikimedia

Some attention should also be paid to the PZL-37 Łoś (Moose) bomber, with innovative design solutions which later on became a standard all around the world. Here we are speaking of Eng. Kubacki’s landing gear design, Swiatecki bomb slip or Eng. Misztal’s torsion box. Introduction of this complicated design uplifted the quality to an unprecedented level, with new tools and accessories required. The airplane’s performance, in terms of its speed, outclassed the fighter aircraft operated at the time, with 96 examples made.

PZL-37 Łoś [Moose] bomber – Image Credit – Wikimedia

PZL airplanes gained a significant reputation in Europe, succeeding on the market and in numerous sporting competitions. PZL P.11 and derived PZL P.24 were the most successful ones when it came to exports, as they were procured by Greece, Romania, Bulgaria or Turkey. PZL-23 Karaś was another export success. Until the war it was being exported to Bulgaria and after the Poles lost the 1939 defensive battle with the Germans, it was operated by Romania.

Right before the war, Biała Podlaska PWS and AVIA facility in Central Industrial District (Polish: Centralny Okręg Przemysłowy, abbreviated COP) construction sites were prepared. COP was a special economic zone located in the region of Poland struck with poverty and gathering new investments, including modern aircraft engine manufacturing plants in Rzeszów and Okęcie, or airplane manufacturing plant in Mielec. Unfortunately, the entities were unable to initiate full scale production before the war broke out.

In general, the Polish aviation industry manufactured 4,054 aircraft in the interwar period, including 100 prototypes and 1245 license manufactured aircraft.

The Aftermath

As a result of WWII the Polish aviation industry underwent complete degradation. The facilities were completely destroyed, while the manufacturing assets were no longer present in the country. Personnel loss in case of the highly qualified staff was the most painful effect the war had on the industry. The professionals either fell victim to the war, or were scattered around the world. Numerous designers, industry professionals, test pilots decide to leave their homeland, in the light of the political transformation.

A designers group led by Engineer Tadeusz Sołtyk initiated its activities as the first industrial entity dealing with aviation. Sołtyk later became the creator of the first Polish jet – the TS-11 Iskra. LWD (Lotnicze Warsztaty Doświadczalne – Aviation Experimental Workshop) led by Sołtyk design the first of the Polish post-war aircraft – Szpak-1. The effort was made in very tough circumstances. The pioneer, post-war period saw the Polish engineers adopt simple steel-tubes, wood and canvas airframe structures. The designs made use of components left in Poland by the occupant, or were based on the Soviet Po-2. The Żak, Miś, Żuraw or Junak are some of the aircraft that were created at the time. Junak, manufactured by PZL-Okęcie in a number of 251 examples and powered by the Po-2 engine would become a primary training aircraft for general aviation and the Air Force for many years to come.

Once Junak started to be manufactured, in light of the rapid development of aviation Sołtyk noted that the design was to become obsolete soon. He decided to design a modern, all-metal trainer powered by a Polish engine. The TS-8 Bies that made its first flight on Jul. 23, 1953, was reliable and well designed. It also set several records. 250 examples were manufactured, and the aircraft was used to train military pilots.

TS-8 Bies trainer aircraft, maintained by Silvair – Image Credit: Małgorzata Kraków-Okine/Silvair

As the Cold War came into being, the aerospace industry of Poland became fully dependent on the Soviet Union, and all of the work done was being conducted to meet the Soviet Union’s demands. And this was the case for all of the countries of the Eastern bloc. The Polish industry was facing serious development and modernization. The aviation facilities became a part of the supply chain of the Warsaw Pact. As potential emerged to easily launch aviation-related projects (proper HR, facilities and heritage were available), the Soviet Union granted Poland with a license to manufacture modern jets and rotary-wing aircraft.

Within the period between 1951 and 1960, at WSK PZL Mielec facility which had manufactured the Łoś bombers before the war, a lot of MiG-15 and MiG-17 jets were made. These aircraft became a foundation for the Polish Air Force for a few decades. Lims of the Polish Air Force made their last flight on July 1993. In total, between 1951 and 1960, over 704 examples of LiM were made. Unfortunately the Soviet Union, due to political reasons, did not grant Poland with a license to manufacture the MiG-21. Mielec facility was forced to manufacture the technologically obsolete Antonov An-2 aircraft – this was a step back for the Polish industry.

Lims were used by the Polish Air Force in major quantities. Image credit: Andrzej Rogucki

The obsolete An-2 (maiden flight in 1947) agricultural and cargo aircraft of simple design manufactured mostly to meet the demand in Soviet Union had two faces. On one hand, this hampered the development of the Mielec factory, on the other, it provided the plant with a long-term stability for many decades to come. In total, between 1960 and 2002, 12,500 examples of the An-2 were made, in a variety of variants. Most of them (more than 10.5 thousand) were exported to the USSR.

Last flight of the An-2 in the Polish military service – Image Credit: Michał Wajnchold

Attempts were also made to modify the fighters becoming obsolete to conduct CAS operations. It shall also be noted that the plans, even though they were ambitious, enjoyed no support or enthusiasm on the part of the licensor. This made it more difficult or even impossible to implement all of the required modifications.

ISKRA – The Legend

The first all-Polish jet aircraft was also manufactured at Mielec, in late 1950s, in parallel with An-2 and LiMs. The TS-11 Iskra is an icon for the Polish Post-War design thought. The jet has quickly grown into a legend. The design proved that Poland could become one of the leaders of the aviation industry and that it was able to design and manufacture a high-performance jet independently. The trainer jet aircraft that also had some combat capabilities was designed by Tadeusz Sołtyk working at the Warsaw Institute of Aviation. Iskra made its maiden flight on Feb. 5. 1960. More than 420 jets were made between 1962 and 1987, in 20 production lots. 50 Iskras were exported to India, where they were operated between 1976 and 2004. Iskra broke several international speed records, similarly as Bies, a couple of years before.

Iskra trainer is one of the best known, and one of the most successful of the Polish jet trainer designs – Images marked 09 – by Michał Wajnchold

It should also be added that TS-11 Iskras, that are gradually approaching the end of their lifetimes, are used by the “Biało-Czerwone Iskry” (White-Red Sparks) aerobatic team. Wearing an attractive livery, the jets made their first public appearance at the Poznan Air Show in 1991. The aerobatic team in question continues the traditions established by the “Grupa Rombik” [Little Rhombus Group] that performed at the air shows in Poland in the early 1970s. “Biało-Czerwone Iskry” aerobatic team has performed many of its displays in Poland and abroad. Iskra was also showcased all around Europe, here we are referring to 1976 and 1977 Farnborough shows and the 1977 Paris Air Salon.

skra trainer is also used as the jet of the Polish national aerobatic team, the ‘Biało Czerwone Iskry’ group – Image by Michał Wajnchold

After developing Iskra, the team of designers set a goal for themselves, which was even more ambitious. They decided to create a modern supersonic aircraft. This is how the TS-16 Grot was born. Unfortunately the program was cancelled for political reasons. Meanwhile, PZL Okęcie stepped away from aviation for a few years.

Elite Club of Helicopter Manufacturers

The history of the Polish helicopters goes back to 1947. One needs to associate the first Polish rotary-wing aircraft with the RWD designer, Bronisław Żurakowski. It was at the Central Institute of Aviation where a helicopter design group was established. This group designed a prototype that took aa name of GIL (Bullfinch), derived from its SP-GIL registration. It made its maiden flight on Apr. 4. 1950. It shall be noted that the aircraft was created without any scientific or manufacturing background. GIL was a subject to damage and redesign, to be presented ultimately to the military and civil authorities and rolled out in 1951 in the end.

In the period between 1952 and 1953 more derivatives of the design were proposed, however these did not take real shape in a form of prototypes. A helicopter design bureau was then established in 1954 at the PZL Okcie facility. The entity led by Żurakowski created a design documentation for a BŻ-4 “Żuk” four-seater helicopter. The aircraft featured a three-blade main rotor based on a universal joint and a three-blade tail rotor stabilizing the helicopter and diminishing the force imposed onto the control column. The main gearbox and the shaft were installed in a flexible manner. However, the ground test period took three long years, from 1956 to 1959, due to the troublesome nature of the drive, and due to the fact that the design was not really reliable. Furthermore, the helicopter did not evoke much interest, since Mil Mi-1 design (SM-1) started to be manufactured at the WSK-Świdnik facility, on the basis of a license provided by the USSR.

In February 1959 “Żuk” made its maiden flight, and then the project was abandoned. As in late 1959 a decision was made to license manufacturing of the Soviet rotorcraft, the Okęcie design bureau was disbanded. The Soviet era in the Polish helicopter industry came into being. Mi-1 helicopter started to be manufactured at the Świdnik plant in 1956, under SM-1 designation. This meant that Poland joined an elite club of a couple of countries that serially manufactured rotary-winged aircraft. And the Świdnik facility did not lag behind, as almost 1600 examples were made between 1956 and 1965.

SM-1 Helicopter in HEMS variant – Image Credit: Wikimedia

Analyzing the design, the Polish experts came to a conclusion that it would be fairly simple to enlarge the cabin. Between 1961 and 1964, along with the prototypes, 89 SM-2 helicopters were manufactured. It turned out though that the helicopter performance was significantly worsened after the weight went up. Production was quickly stopped, also due to the fact that soon afterwards production was launched with regards to a much more modern turbine-driven Mi-2 Hoplite, on the basis of a license.

Mi-2 Hoplite was one of the most iconic helicopter designs manufactured in Poland – Image Credit – Marcin Parzyński

The Mi-2 was manufactured in Poland exclusively, starting from 1965 until 1986, without any major changes. In 1986 the PZL W-3 Sokół was designed as its replacement. Numerous interesting variants of the Mi-2 were designed, including armed, rescue or radio-repeater derivatives. Production process was also evolving. The engine was modernized, while rotor blades were redesigned and made out of laminates. It was also decided in the 1970s to offer the Mi-2 globally, with Allison engines and western avionics. Unfortunately, in the early-1980s Poland was isolated due to the Cold War becoming more intensive, and the export hopes quickly disappeared. The PZL Kania, this was the name adopted for the export variant, was resuscitated in the 1990s, but with no major success.

The W-3 Sokół was a design that invoked hopes equivalent to the Mi-2. It was to fill in the gap after the Mi-4 helicopter (larger than Mi-2) decommissioned in the USRR. The Poles designed the propulsion and fuselage with the use of the helicopter variant of the Soviet TVD-10 engines. Those engines were being manufactured in Poland for the An-28. The helicopter made its maiden flight in 1978, production began in the 1980s. And for the reasons identical as the ones emerging in case of the An-28, no export success was achieved.

W-3 Sokół is one of the workhorses in the Polish helicopter force. Image Credit: Michał Wajnchold

Only the Polish military acquired the helicopter and it is operating several specialized variants, as well as utility helos. The special-purpose versions include maritime SAR, SIGINT or MEDEVAC varieties.

PZL SW-4 is the latest Polish single-engine helicopter that has been designed to replace the Mi-2 and complement W-3 airframes. The design effort began in the 1980s, however, due to the crisis and due to the emphasis placed on Sokół, the prototype’s maiden flight was delayed. Only after the USSR markets were closed and the Mi-2 turned out to be obsolete, the Świdnik factory was forced to create a design compliant with Western standards. SW-4 made its maiden flight in 1996. Production was launched and the design was offered to the Air Force as a training platform. After the PZL Świdnik facility was taken over by Agusta Westland, the facility started to manufacture fuselages and components for the British-Italian company. SW-4 became a base for an optionally piloted helicopter, and interest in this design can be witnessed in case of the Royal Navy.

SW-4 Helicopter manufactured in Świdnik, together with Leonardo [formerly Agusta-Westland]. Image Credit: Michał Wajnchold

Gliders – Where the Champions were Made

This does not apply to the Bielsko-Biała based gliders manufacturing plant. Within the framework of training the future pilots, competition gliding was on the rise. Initially Poland used the ex-German equipment, left around the airfields by the occupant. As time passed by, the Jeżów Sudecki ex-German glider manufacturing facility was used to produce more sailplanes. Own designs were also being created at the time. Polish glider pilots quickly became known all around the world, for their skill and expertise. The competition gliding also constituted a stimulant for creation of gliders that were more and more perfect, thanks to implementation of state of the art technologies in their designs. Successes achieved by the Polish sportsmen became a natural marketing tool for the airframes they were flying. Trainer and competition gliders were sold in many countries, all around the world. The export included socialist as well as capitalist states. Mucha, Jaskółka, Foka or Kobra gliders became well known, advertising the Polish know-how, while the Polish glider pilots were winning world and Europe championships, using the above sailplanes.

SZD-22C Mucha Standard sailplane – Image Credit: Wikimedia


As the competition gliding was becoming more and more popular, one needed a plane to tow the sailplanes. Furthermore, the Polish aviation was lacking a modern, yet light multipurpose platform that could be used for training with parachutes, medical transport or in agriculture. Moreover, in case of a design as such one could make a good use of STOL properties, good performance and low-cost of use. All of the aforesaid requirements led to creation of the PZL-104 Wilga aircraft which was born at the WSK Okęcie facility. The airframe was designed by a team led by Eng. Ryszard Orłowski. It was made out of metal. The aircraft received a flat WN-6RB engine, designed by. Witold Narkiewicz. The prototype made its maiden flight on Apr. 24 1962.

Wilga in flight. Image Credit: Aleksandr Markin/Wikimedia

The engine was troublesome. It overheatedand the fuselage had to be redesigned. Even though the Poles were close to resignation, Export interest of Indonesia kept them going. Bronisław Żurakowski was the engineer who decided to create the Wilga 2 prototype that received a new lighter fuselage. The PZL-104 Wilga 2 was created at the beginning of 1962, and in 1963 it made its maiden flight. Export Wilga C variant used a flat Continental engine. Ultimately the problems with the flat engines made the designers adopt the more powerful Al14 engine which worked well at low RPM, which , on the other hand, contributed to good STOL properties of the aircraft. Wilga 3 was born in this way. After certain modifications were made, the designers created the PZL-104 Wilga 35 airframe that made its maiden flight in June 1967 and then was series manufactured.

Not only was the aircraft a workhorse at flying clubs, being used for towing gliders and leisure flying, it was also a successful sporting airframe. This was proven by the fact that once the Poles dominated the aeroplane sport in Wilgas, rules and specifications applicable to the aircraft were changed to end the reign of this PZL design.

Spreading the Wings

The industry made another qualitative leap after the so called “decade of success” arrived. At the beginning of the 1970s, the blunt Communist authorities willing to liquidate the Polish aviation industry were replaced by Edward Gierek. This former emigrant who spent most of his life in France and Belgium was very well aware of the gap between Poland and the West. Thanks to his policy of openness and external financing, the Polish aviation industry, still greatly influenced by the Soviet Union, stood a chance of working together with the European nations. This led to procurement of a number of technology and product licenses, which translated into modernization of the aviation sector. Socata Rallie (PZL Okęcie PZL 105 Koliber) or Piper Seneca (PZL M20 Mewa) licenses made it possible to get a grip of new technologies and develop entirely new products. Piper Seneca was used as a foundation for the design of PZL M26 Iskierka by the Mielec designers in the late 1980s. Its purpose was to act as a cheap training platform.

Unfortunately, as the trends in pilots training were headed towards diminishing the cost, the priorities adopted by the factory were changed and the political system was transformed, the manufacturing was limited. The potential customer: the military and flying clubs; did not show much of interest in the design. The Air Force decided to go with a larger and heavier PZL 130 Orlik platform. Iskierka was too expensive for the Flying Clubs to procure, as they were operating in line with the free market principles.

Orlik Turboprop Trainer – used to train the pilots before they transition to jets – Image Credit: Michał Wajnchold

1970s and 1980s also marked a new beginning of relations between USSR and Poland. The Poles were perfectly aware that even though the demand for the An-2 biplane was high, this airframe was heavy and it was powered with a non-economical engine similar to the engines that were used in the B-17 bomber. Thus, the Colt could not have been attractive outside the Eastern Bloc. A number of initiatives was undertaken to create a product that would be modern and competitive. As a result of the above, a whole set of agricultural planes was designed.

In the 1970s a decision was made to acquire the An-28 twin-engined aircraft license. An-28 was expected to act as a regional airliner in the USSR, replacing the An-2. This design was complicated, in comparison with An-2. Its introduction happened in sync with political transformation and the economic crisis of the 1980s in Poland, which translated into a relatively long period of time required to implement and certify the aircraft that made its maiden flight in Mielec, in 1983. In the light of the economic transformation and introduction of currency settlement, the original order (1000 examples) was canceled only after 180 aircraft were made.

Polish M-28 aircraft, a license manufactured variant of the An-28, known as Bryza – Image Credit: Michał Wajnchold

Agriculture – A Polish Specialty

When one looked at the Eastern bloc, Poland was the country that got itself specialized in agricultural airplanes, helicopters and hardware that was useful for farmers, when it came to fertilizing and fighting pests. The first steps in the field of agro-aviation were taken by the Poles before WWII, in 1925. CWL was the facility that created the first spraying systems and fitted them onto Potez XV, Breguet XIV and Fairman Goliath F-68 airframes. However, all of the effort was interrupted by WWII.

Following the end of the war, the idea to protect agriculture from air was revived. The Li-2 aircraft were properly equipped by the Central Aircraft Study (Centralne Studium Samolotów) design facility based at the Okęcie airfield in Warsaw. Later, Po-2 airframes, properly modified though, were also operated in agro-role.

It was only after the above period when Poland began to manufacture agriculture-dedicated aircraft. As Yak-12 production began, PZL Okęcie decided to design agricultural hardware. Following the long period during which relevant experience was being gathered and operational knowledge acquired, in 1957 customization of the PZL-101 Gawron took place, in order to create a specialized, agricultural variant. With a payload of 500 kg, the airframe in question became the primary agricultural aircraft in Poland and it was also widely exported. In the capitalist countries the design in question created a brand for Poland and the Poles entered the international market of agricultural aviation. Following this positive beginning, PZL Okęcie decided to open a specialized agricultural aviation branch.

The An-2 achieved a significant success – here we can see this airfrrame during an annual operation the goal of which is to distribute fox vaccines around the Polish forests – Image Credit – Michał Wajnchold

Initially, the division was making use of PZL-101 and An-2. After the Polish designs proved their value they could have been witnessed, in 1960s and 1970s, not only above the Polish agricultural areas, but also over Bulgaria, Austria, Vietnam, Libya, Tunisia, India, Egypt or Sudan. As the market was not really saturated, it was decided in the 1970s to work on a specialized agricultural airframe. Successor was needed to replace Gawron, that would be safer to use and more cost-effective, with any disadvantages of the former addressed. It was decided to go with a design created by Andrzej Frydrychowicz, also known as PZL-106 Kruk. The aircraft in question made its maiden flight in 1973. It was the first specialized agricultural aircraft that was also safe for the pilot, as the chemicals were stored in front of the cabin. Piston engine was later replaced with a turbine. For smaller areas, a conversion kit was available for the Wilga aircraft described above, nonetheless it was not really popular.

PZL-101 Gawron. Image Credit: Wikimedia

PZL Mielec, on the other hand, once the facility began to manufacture the An-2, got itself immersed in the agricultural aviation, as An-2 was a true workhorse for the Soviet kolkhozes. The Colt (NATO designation) matched the Soviet-Russian requirements. Chemicals did not take the whole space of the cabin, which made it easier to use the aircraft at long distances. This has been proven to be of advantage in agro-aviation in Africa. A whole fleet of An-2 was deployed from Poland to Egypt, Sudan or Ethiopia at the beginning of the season. Not only did the crews carry people to work, but they also had spares and all equipment required to conduct operations away from their home base with them.

The Soviet Union also asked Poland to design a large agricultural aircraft powered by a jet engine – this resulted in development of the PZL M-15 Belphegor which is the only agricultural jet and the only jet-powered biplane, the purpose of which was to replace the An-2. It was a successful design, even though economy of use was disregarded here. The aircraft was tailored to large areas and long-haul ferry trips. Almost 200 examples were made between 1976 and 1982.

PZL M-15 Belphegor agricultural jet aircraft. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Mielec facility got itself open towards the West, it was also working on developing a replacement for the An-2. M-15 was a successful design, but it was tailored solely to the Soviet requirements. An opportunity presented itself when Rockwell offered that Ash62 engines powering An-2 shall be adopted to be installed in Trusch Commander. The Polish designers came to a conclusion that the aircraft may have some modernization potential and thus they created a prototype making use of only some elements of its prerequisite. This is how the M-18 Dromader was born, and this design enjoyed a significant export success. 760 examples were made and they flew all around the world. With continuous modernization the aircraft became a trademark for the Polish industry. A whole family of its derivatives was born. Unfortunately, the crisis of the 1980s hampered the development of the design, and the whole production was stopped. It was also used as a firefighting aircraft, and the new function made it even more attractive.

PZL-Mielec M-21 Dromader Mini (reg. SP-YFK, cn 1ALP01-02) at Oldtimer Fliegertreffen Hahnweide 2013. Image Credit: Julian Herzog/Wikimedia Commons

The helicopter manufacturers were also making attempts to work on agricultural aviation. Mi-2 manufactured in Świdnik became a base for the agricultural equipment. Even though it was expensive in use, it was well suited to work on smaller fields. PZL Świdnik also decided to render its agricultural aviation services abroad. Heliseco company was being present in Europe, Asia and Africa, nonetheless, at the beginning of the 1990s the agricultural aviation became a bit obsolete in its form at the time. As the aviation industry in Poland also fell into a decline, the companies withdrew from this business almost entirety. To a limited scope they are using their assets, for instance, to fight forest fires in Spain (W-3 Sokół helicopter). And the W-3 platform is also used by foreign companies in a similar role.

Capitalism – The End of the National Aviation Industry

With the communism falling in the early 1990s, an economic transformation of Poland began. On one hand, COCOM-imposed technology access restrictions were abolished, and export markets were opened globally. On the other hand though, this led to rapid increase of prices, which often translated into lack of competitiveness and loss of demand stemming from rational management of the existing resources and hard financial situation in case of the usual customers.

The former-communist market, including the Soviet Union, used a virtual currency – a transfer rouble. Once the USSR fell into decline, the market lost its meaningfulness. Attempts made to exclude currency from the settlement process were unsuccessful, and all contracts were consequently cancelled. The factories, being unable to commercialize their products that were not really competitive faced a tough situation financially, which led to restructuring of the whole sector. Production was scaled down, numerous programs were cancelled Many of them suffered from the lack of financing or interest on the part of the government, or even redefinition of the requirements. Here the I-22 Iryda trainer serves as a good example. It was designed in the mid-1980s. As the requirements were being continuously changed and lack of decision emerged in case of the end user, the project faced a tough future. After one of the crashes the whole initiative was abolished, while several aircraft in existence were decommissioned. 20 years later the Poles decided to acquire the Italian M-346 AJT platform.

Iryda – Polish indigenous jet trainer design – Image Credit: Wikimedia

R&D processes, as no funds and prospects remained in existence, were not making it beyond conceptualization and were being delayed, to become out of date. This happened in the case of the Polish CAS design, Skorpion, which did not make it beyond the stage of a wooden mock up. More and more companies fell into bankruptcy, which entailed a higher degree of dysfunction, making it virtually impossible to design and manufacture a complete airframe, including propulsion, avionics and onboard equipment. Ultimately all of the Polish aviation facilities have been sold to foreign entities. PZL Mielec is now owned by Lockheed Martin, PZL Świdnik is now owned by Agusta-Westland, while PZL Okęcie has been acquired by CASA (now – Airbus).

PZL-230F Skorpion CAS platform concept mock-up – Image Credit: Wikimedia

Recent days

National aviation industry is non-existent in Poland now, in a conventional sense, as a branch of the state economy that would be capable to independently design and series manufacture aircraft designs. Liquidation and handing over the control over all of the entities in the times of crisis seem to be a mistake, on the part of the authorities. The existing “Polish” facilities that used to manufacture hundreds of airframes in the past, now either manufacture single units or deliver elements for the mother-companies owning them, that are not interested in any meaningful development. WZL (Wojskowe Zakłady Lotnicze – Military Aviation Works) is the last of the state-owned entities, dealing with overhauls of the military aircraft. The Airbus company winning the helicopter tender was to bring a new hope for the state aviation industry thanks to a good offset agreement. Unfortunately, following the parliamentary election of 2016 the new government, adopting a pro-American stance, canceled the tender which until today remains unresolved.

It shall be noted that liquidation of major companies created a market niche for smaller, dynamic enterprises founded by former employees of the major players, while the foreign companies start to note the intellectual capital possessed by the educated employees. This is well exemplified in the Bielsko-Biała area where the sailplanes were manufactured in the past. Now the region is known for emergence of numerous companies working on laminate-based structures. “Aviation Valley in the Subcarpathia is another “aviation-focused” region, gathering numerous aviation-profiled companies together.

Written with Michał Wajnchold

NATO Tiger Meet begins in Poznan – Arrivals Last Weekend

Last weekend we spent some time shooting the arrivals for the NATO Tiger Meet exercise that is taking place at the Krzesiny airbase in Poznan.

NTM 18, involving 70 jets, 10 helicopters and the AWACS platform, is underway in Poland until May 25. Twenty two squadrons hailing from 13 countries declared their will to participate in this operation, which is the largest of the Polish Air Force-hosted training initiatives this year.

Full list of squadrons can be found below (via the official NTM18 media channel):

The list of units attending NTM18.

The list has changed now, since the German A-4 Skyhawks have cancelled their deployment to Poznan.

From a Polish perspective, the event is one of the most interesting this year: not only does it involve the Polish Air Force, but also the Polish military as a whole. The training operation in Krzesiny has been coordinated and brought together with the Poznan Air Show event held at the Ławica international airport. 6th Fighter Squadron based in Krzesiny has been a member of the NATO Tiger Association since the year 2011, with its F-16 fighter aircraft.

Expect more NTM18 coverage from The Aviationist during the upcoming days.

Images: Jacek Siminski

Vipers, Fulcrums and Fitters: Tactical Exercise at Poznan-Krzesiny Airbase

We attended a tactical exercise of the Polish Air Force involving all fast jet types that remain in the service. F-16s and MiG-29s were tasked with providing fighter escort for the Su-22 attack aircraft.

On Mar. 13 we visited Poznan-Krzesiny airbase where Polish Air Force fast jets were taking part in a tactical exercise. As Polska Zbrojna reports, the operation involved both 1st and 2nd Tactical Aviation Wings of the Polish Air Force.

Noteworthy, what’s unique about the operation in question, is the fact that the said exercise involved the Su-22s and MiG-29s operating from the Poznan-Krzesiny airbase. Usually such operations see the pilots operating from their homebase which made it possible to integrate the planning and briefing processes, which could be considered a simulated deployment of all assets to some undefined operational theatre.

One of F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 52+ of the Polish Air Force taking off.

Not only did the operation cover fighter-escort capabilities, as the pilots also conducted CAS operations and scenarios, attacking the simulated targets around the Polish military ranges. The ground attack portion involved the Fitters, with Fulcrums and Vipers acting as the escort. Some of the jets simulated the adversary, in an aggressor role. Notably, the Fitters, to prolong their playtime probably, were carrying 4 external fuel tanks each.

Su-22 close up. The Fitters flew in the attack role.

Polish Viper thundering on take off from Poznan.

In order to extend their endurance, the Su-22s flew with four external fuel tanks.

Meanwhile, Vipers were taking off in waves, 4 aircraft per each wave.

Polska Zbrojna outlet notes that the operation is a part of preparation before the NATO Tiger Meet exercise planned to happen in May. The Aviationist is planning to attend this annual meeting of the NATO Tiger squadrons, and provide you with a report from the operation.

Polish MiG-29 Fulcrum.

Black Su-22 Fitter (305)

F-16D on the go. The Vipers escorted the Soviet-era Su-22 and MiG-29 attack planes.

All Images: Jacek Siminski

Many thanks go to Bartosz Torbicki and Sebastian Walczak, for taking care of logistics and formalities related to the visit at the base.

Polish Air Force’s 100th Anniversary – Part II: Kościuszko Squadron: American Aviators in the Polish-Soviet War

In the premiere episode covering the history of the Polish Air Force we made the readers acquainted with the Polish Air Force’s “Checkerboard”. Today we will tell you a story of one of the best known symbols associated with the Polish Air Force squadrons abroad – the “Scythes”. And the associated story of the American aviators who fought in Poland.

Never did the Poles come to terms with the fact that they lost their identity, following the loss of independence when back in 1795 Germany, Russia and Austria had partitioned their weaker neighbour. Throughout the period of partitions numerous political attempts and uprisings were organized to regain the Polish freedom. Only after WWI came to an end did circumstances emerge in which a political approval was obtained to resurrect the Republic of Poland. The Polish patriots involved in the unsuccessful attempts were often persecuted (exiled deep into Russia or Siberia) or forced to emigrate. Paradoxically, the above made it possible for the Poles to make contributions to science or culture (Maria Skłodowska-Curie, Frederic Chopin) and to support other nations in their struggle to regain freedom. Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kazimierz Pułaski were the best known of the group because they made significant contributions to the struggle undertaken by the Americans, driven towards gaining of the independence of the USA.

For Your Freedom…

Kościuszko, who was a talented officer educated in Poland and abroad, considering the impossibility of serving for Poland decided to help the Americans. Once he found out that the North American colonies stood up to the British to gain independence and sovereignty, he moved to North America.

Tadeusz Kościuszko. (Image Credit – Wikimedia)

As a military engineer and architect he utilized his expertise building fortifications. His efforts and ambitions did not go unnoticed by the top commanders. To express their gratitude, the Americans let Kościuszko work on fortification of West Point by the Hudson river. Then, he returned to Europe as a general. He used the financial award he received from the Congress to buy freedom to slaves and educate them. Furthermore, he decided within his testament that Thomas Jefferson would be the person who would manage the Kościuszko’s property after he passed away.

After his return to Europe he led an unsuccessful national uprising against Russia, as a result of which Poland disappeared from the European maps for almost a century. The aforesaid uprising involved numerous countrymen of the Krakow area, who used scythes placed vertically on the sticks as their weapons. The scythes were to become a basis for the most recognizable symbols of one of the Polish Air Force’s squadrons later on.

Kazimierz (Casimir) Pułaski is another Pole who made significant contributions to the American struggle for independence. Before he emigrated to North America, he was involved in an armed action undertaken by the Polish noblemen against Russia and Stanisław August Poniatowski (Stanisław II Augustus), the King at the time, who endorsed the Russian effort. After the Confederation lost the battle, Pułaski was sentenced to death for his attempt to kidnap the King. He was forced to become an exile. Living like a nomad and traveling around Europe he received an invitation from General Lafayette to come to North America, with the United States being born at the time. He was actively involved in the US War of Independence (American Revolutionary War), saving George Washington from inevitable death on Sep. 11. 1777, during the Battle of Brandywine.

Casimir Pułaski (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

Kazimierz Pulaski, back in the US, became a close friend with John Cooper, one of the Scottish immigrants. Pułaski shared his fencing skills with Cooper, while the latter, following the Battle of Savannah, transported the wounded (lethally) Pole to the US Ship named “Wasp”. When Pułaski was dying, Cooper made a promise to himself: America is going to pay the debt owed to Poles, for their effort and involvement in the US struggle for independence.

Why are we mentioning the aforesaid Poles who were quite significant for the American history? Well, 150 years later the US citizens would repay the debt and show their gratitude for Poles who fiercely fought with their ancestors, in order to gain the US independence.

Polish-Soviet War – 1919-1921

Regaining the independence in 1918 was not the end of the Polish efforts to reestablish the national identity, as it was required to unify territories that had been previously separated between the powers that partitioned Poland. This created a great deal of problems, as areas that were culturally diverse, with different economies, richness and mentality, had to be brought together and fused into a coherent body. One should also mention that the WWI front moved through the now Polish territory at least twice. The parties involved killed, plundered and destroyed the economic potential available in the region. In the light of the developments above, the threat of communism emerged – the Soviet Russia wanted to expand its influence and reach the West of Europe.

Following the Russian Revolution, Lenin stated that not only was Warsaw a center of the Polish bourgeoisie, it was also a center of imperialism per se. Lenin wanted the Ploretaryat revolution to spill around the whole of Europe. After the Germans withdrew from Poland, war broke out. It ended in 1921 with a peace treaty signed in Riga, with the Poles being declared the victors. Later on the said conflict became known as the 1919-1921 Polish-Soviet War.

For Our Freedom…

A Squadron (Escadrille) of aircraft flown by the US aviators took part in the Polish-Soviet War. Merian Caldwell Cooper, who was a great grandson of John Cooper, the friend of Kazimierz Pułaski, made a promise to himself: America will reciprocate the Polish effort undertaken in the struggle for the US independence. Cooper was the person who paid the debt back. How did it happen?

American Relief Administration which worked towards mitigating the results of WWI, led by Herbert Hoover, helped the nations in their efforts to secure their borders and protect themselves from the adversity that could emerge in case of other states. Hoover, leading the ARA mission, sent Capt. Merian Cooper of the United States Air Force to besieged Lvov in 1919. Cooper, being aware of the relationship between John Cooper and Kazimierz Pułaski, and after obtaining the approval of General Tadeusz Rozwadowski (Chief of the Polish Military Mission in Paris) and the Commander in Chief – Józef Piłsudski, decided to enlist himself in the Polish Army.

Cooper (Image credit: Wikimedia)

With an approval to form an Air Force unit formed by foreign pilots, Cooper met Major Cedric Fauntleroy in Paris. He convinced Fauntleroy to join him in his effort. General Rozwadowski also issued a recommendation for two American Colleagues who, respectively, in ranks of Captain (Cooper) and Major (Fauntleroy) became members of the newly born Polish Air Force. Later on the US aviators were given a lot of freedom when it came to the recruitment process – they were trying hard to reach volunteers who would later on fight for the Polish independence. Most of the effort was done via phone and telegraphy.

Faultneroy portrait on the vertical stabilizer of the Polish Fulcrum. (Image Credit: Wojciech Mazurkiewicz)

Wearing the blue uniforms of the “Blue Army” (Haller’s Army – a Polish military contingency created in France during the latter stages of World War I; the name came from the French-issued horizon blue military uniforms worn by the soldiers), the group arrived in Warsaw travelling by train. It included: Lt. George M. Crawford, Lt. Kenneth Shrewsbury, Cpt. Edward Corsi, Lt. Edwin Noble, Cpt. Arthur Kelly and Carl Clark. The unit was also joined by two new volunteers: Lieutenants Edmund Graves and Elliott Chess. The Escadrille was commanded by Fauntleroy, with Cooper acting as his deputy. Later on, the pilots listed above were sent to Lvov to become a part of the 7th Fighter Squadron (Escadrille), with Tadeusz Kościuszko becoming its patron. As mentioned above, Kościuszko was one of the Polish national heroes who, together with Kazimierz Pułaski, were involved in the American War of Independence.

Cooper portrait worn by the contemporary Polish Fulcrum. Image Credit: Wojciech Mazurkiewicz

Eliott Chess was the person who designed the distinctive emblem of the Squadron, so-called “scythes”. The emblem features a “rogatywka” cap, which is a traditional Polish folk headwear. The background includes seven red stripes placed on a white background (six white stripes). Not a lot of people are aware of the fact that the emblem is derived from the US national flag. The whole layout is complemented by crossed scythes and thirteen stars, associated with the first 13 states of the United States of America. The “rogatywka” and scythes refer to the Kościuszko uprising, when the Poles armed with scythes made an attempt to gain freedom for the country, fighting against Russia and Prussia. The emblem was placed on the aircraft flown by the American pilots.

Coming back to the Polish-Soviet War – the 7th Escadrille also had Polish pilots. This, which also bears a certain degree of relevance, created a language barrier. The Escadrille, at the beginning of its existence utilized aircraft taken over from the nations who had partitioned the Polish territory during the preceding period, as we mentioned in the first episode of our series. The 7th Escadrille also utilized the only Polish Air Force’s Sopwith Camel, brought by Kenneth Murray, privately.

The Escadrille was acting as a liaison element, to evolve into a reconnaissance and attack unit later on. Dogfights were not a part of the operations, since the enemy did not utilize any aircraft. Between 1919 and 1920 the pilots involved were mainly delivering the orders and reports to the forward positions which eliminated the need to use teletype – here the messages could have been easily intercepted. At the time, Lt. Graves died tragically, during an air display in November 1919. He was replaced by Lt. Harman Rorison. Later on, on Apr. 25., Lt. Noble was wounded, which ends his involvement in the war. Cooper also ended his efforts, but he became a POW. He spent 9 months at a POW camp, then made a successful escape attempt and reached the Polish land. Kelly was also KIA. Crawford, on the other hand, left the unit. This rendered some serious problems for the Escadrille, suffering from pilot shortage at the time. Fauntleroy issued a message, and six new pilots joined the element as a result of his attempt to reconstruct the unit: T.V. McCallum, Thomas Garlick, John Maitland, Kenneth Murray, John Speaks and Earl Evans. McCallum is the only pilot of the group who lost his life in combat on Aug. 31. 1920.

7th Escadrille in all of its glory. Unique historic photograph featuring the American aviators next to Ansaldo A.1 Balilla (most probably wearing bort no. 6.). From the left: on the landing gear: Władysław Konopka, Kenneth M. Murray; on the ground: Jerzy Weber, Antoni Poznański, Zbigniew Orzechowski, Edward C. Corsi, George M. Crawford, John C. Speaks, Elliott W. Chess, Earl F. Evans, John I. Maitland, Aleksander Seńkowski, Thomas H. Garlick. (Image Credit: Małgorzata Punzet’s Private Collection)

Ultimately the Poles reached Kiev, to push away the Eastern invaders further away. Operationally speaking, the “Kościuszko” Escadrille was involved in flying within area between Lvov and Kiev, successfully eliminating the Semyon Budyonny’s Army from the main battle.

What is interesting, after the war the US pilots were still policing the Polish airspace, until the moment when a peace treaty was signed in Riga, on March 18th 1921. The Americans were monitoring the enforcement of the ceasefire. They were decorated with high military decorations, including Virtuti Militari, Cross of Valour, Haller’s Medal and Cross of the Polish Soldiers of America.

After the war, Meriam Caldwell Cooper returned to the United States, where he worked as a journalist. He was also a passionate traveler, visiting exotic locations all around the world. He became a film producer in Hollywood, also working on documentaries. Inspired by the lives of gorillas, Cooper wrote a screenplay and co-directed the King Kong blockbuster in 1933. Cooper starred in the film, flying an aircraft attacking the giant ape. He remained close to aviation for the rest of his life. During WWII he first served as the Chief of Staff for Gen. Clarie Chennault of the China Air Task Force, and then as the Chief of Staff of the Fifth Air Force’s Bomber Command, to become a Deputy Chief of Staff of USAAF in the Pacific operational theatre. In 1950 he became a General. He took a great pride of his relationship with Poland and the Poles, getting in touch with the RAF Squadron 303 continuing the heritage provided by the 7th Escadrille, also working together with the pilots who left Poland for the United States of America after the war. Cooper passed away in 1973.


After the war came to an end, the 7th Air Escadrille commanded by Cpt. Jerzy Weberwas transferred to the Mokotów Field in Warsaw, being incorporated in the 1st Aviation Regiment as the III Squadron. The fact that the personnel were leaving the squadron after the war led to circumstances in which major rotation of human resources could have been witnessed. The airplanes also were not what you would call “state of the art”. The Escadrille was flying the Italian Ansaldo Balilla airplanes which, due to the poor quality and defects, were referred to as the “flying coffins”. At the beginning of 1925 the aircraft were replaced with SPAD 61s. In the spring of 1925 a new number is associated to the Escadrille. Between 1925 and 1928 it is referred to as the 121st Fighter Escadrille. Another change of numbering, which is also the last one, took place on Aug. 14. 1928. In the Spring of 1933 the unit receives modern, all-metal Polish made fighter aircraft – the PZL P.7. In 1935 they also receive the PZL P.11, a new type which later on saw combat during the beginning of the WWII, in September 1939, fighting against the Nazi German invaders. By that time the Escardille had been transformed into the 111 Fighter Escadrille, which took part in the defense of Poland as a part of the Pursuit Brigade. As such the Squadron’s pilots scored several air-to-air victories, succeeding against the enemy who had technological and quantitative advantage, suffering own losses which were minor – only 3 pilots were wounded. We will be mentioning the aircraft they flew in detail in the next episode of our series, covering the Polish aviation of 1920s and 1930s.

PZL P.7 (Image Credit: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive – Flickr/Public Domain)

Kościuszko’s Scythes during WWII

The loss of the defensive campaign of the September 1939 did not translate into the end of the war efforts made by the Poles against Germany. The Poles joined France and England and organized the Air Force on foreign land, enhancing the allied defense potential. Squadron 303 was the best known of the Polish units, formed abroad, in 1940, in Northolt. The unit proved its usability and the fighting spirit of the Polish pilots in an impressive way during the Battle of Britain. The Squadron was undoubtedly the deadliest of the Polish units. It adopted, succeeding the Squadron 303, the traditions and heritage of the 111th “Kościuszko” Escadrille.

Post-War Period

After WWII Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain. Poland, being within the zone of influence of the Soviet Union, broke off its contact with the West, while the Armed Forces, organized on the basis of the Soviet structural model, did not cultivate its pre-war heritage. As mentioned by Andrzej Rogucki, one of the Polish pilots who was flying in the Air Force of the People’s Republic of Poland as well as in a NATO setting, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, it was decided that heritage should be brought back to life, with patrons and unique names being associated with the military units.

Pilot’s social facilities at the 23rd Tactical Air Base in Minsk Mazowiecki, with the scythes placed on the wall, replicating the shape of the emblem. (Image Credit: Wojciech Mazurkiewicz)

The “Kościuszko Scythes” became associated, back in 1993, with the 1st “Warszawa” Fighter Aviation Regiment, stationed in Minsk Mazowiecki. The unit obtained an approval of the former Squadron 303 pilots, to use the emblem of the famous Polish Escadrille.

Backstage shot, depicting the process of painting the Chess’s emblem design on the back of the Fulcrum. (Image Credit: Andrzej Rogucki)

After a period of restructuring, the tradition lives on at the 23rd Tactical Aviation Base. The Kościuszko emblem is still worn by the Polish fighter aircraft – currently, the supersonic MiG-29s. One should mention the fact that the Polish Fulcrums wear portraits of the distinguished pilots of the 7. and 111. Escadrilles and the Squadron 303, this includes the founders of the “Kościuszko” Squadron – Merian C. Cooper and Cedric Fauntleroy.

Polish Fulcrum with the Scythes on its back! (Image Credit: Wojciech Mazurkiewicz)

Post Scriptum: The “Kościuszko” Badge

When speaking of the “Kościuszko” squadron, one shall also mention the badge. Here we present photos of the original badges used by one of the pilots of the unit, during the interwar period. They belonged to Antoni Poznański – who is also depicted in one of the photographs above.

Kościuszko Squadron badges worn by its pilots. The set depicted here belonged to Antoni Poznanski. (Image Credit: Małgorzata Punzet/Private Collection)

As historians argue, there’s no clear division between the badges.

Paweł Tuliński, one of the reputable authors working in the field of Polish aviation history, told us the following:

The 7th Escadrille badges were not divided into silver and gold ones, when it came to the color. They were only silver. However, some of the examples made out of brass and silver-coated have lost their coating, and they appear as if they were originally gold. This could have resulted from cleaning or oxidation.

There are two types of the 7th Escadrille badges: 1) Multi-part, two-toned badge with a silver surface and overlays (stars, scythes, cap); 2) Single part badge (One should remember that both types of badges featured a metal element with red material forming the background for the front portion of the badge). Unfortunately, no information has been obtained so far with regards to the rules ascribed to provision of the badges.

It is usually stated that the ones exhibiting better quality belonged to the officers, while privates and NCOs used the badges that looked “cheaper”.

The set that belonged to Cpt. Antoni Poznański (presented above) may be a contradiction to this. Most probably the pilot in question was in possession of two badges, one used with dress uniform, with the second one utilized for other purposes.

The officers also were buying the badges themselves. In case of privates and non-commissioned officers, the circumstances were not uniform, depending on the periods and units. Thus, almost always, the badges were delivered in “rich” and “economical” variants. And this is, in my opinion, the primary reason for the division. Despite the above, collectors like to divide the badges (without any reference point in the sources) into the ones used by the officers, NCOs and soldiers.

Badges belonging to the members of the 111th Escadrille and of the 303 Squadron – (Private Collection of Paweł Tulinski)

Written with Michał Wajnchold.

Top Image: Polish Air Force’s MiG-29 Fulcrum during the service’s 100th Anniversary photoshoot. Image Credit: Michał Wajnchold.

Polish Air Force’s 100th Anniversary – Part 1: The Checkerboard

In 2018 the Polish Air Force is to celebrate its 100th Anniversary. Let’s celebrate the Service’s flamboyant and rich history through a series of articles.

It seems appropriate to start a series of articles covering the 100th Anniversary of the Polish Air Force with getting our readers acquainted with the circumstances related to the birth of the Polish Air Force’s equivalent of a “roundel”, that has been accompanying the Polish aviators throughout the last 100 years. Here we are referring to the white-red checkerboard which, as you probably know, is not round, contrary to the insignia worn by the aircraft of most air forces.

The story of applying national markings on aircraft dates back to WWI. The dynamic development of aviation per se, and of military aviation in particular, was the main factor that made it indispensable to introduce signs that would allow for quick and unambiguous aircraft recognition. The French were the first to introduce a roundel, back in 1913.

The history of Polish aviation actually began back in 1910, when the first aircraft was built on the territory that once belonged to Poland, which, for 120 years, belonged to the occupants: Germans, Russians and Austrians. The said aircraft was reportedly built in Cracow.

During WWI the storm of battles was going through the Central European land and it did not leave it unscathed. The Poles were often forced to join the armies of the invaders and occupants, which led to a situation in which in fact they were fighting for all of the parties to the conflict.  Also in a role of the troops working within a newly established service – the Air Force.

The events during which Poland regained its independence are closely tied to the ending of WWI, on Nov. 11, 1918.

According to the bible of historians who are passionate about the Polish Air Force, “Polski Samolot i Barwa” [“Polish Aircraft and Color”], authored by Tadeusz Królikiewicz, the story of the checkerboard dates back to November 1918. This was also related to the process through which the Polish military was taking over the equipment and airfields left behind by the invaders. Frequently the Polish pilots were defecting (from Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Armies to join the newly born Polish military), taking their aircraft with them. These airframes were later to become the cornerstone for the Polish military aviation. This also created a new problem: the use of aircraft markings which would designate their affiliation with the newly born state. The aircraft were sporting roundels of the former enemies, the camouflage schemes differed, the planes also featured personal badges of the pilots flying them.

Before the Polish checkerboard was ultimately selected as the designation of choice, the aircraft often featured spontaneously painted white-red graphic elements, following the national color scheme. Nonetheless the form of the symbols ranged from heraldic badges divided across (Warsaw squadrons), through white-red stripes (Lvov squadrons) with red Z letter placed in a white square to finish with (Cracow squadrons).

Warsaw, Lvov and Cracow squadrons roundels.

However, the white-red checkerboard was to ultimately become the sign of choice for the Polish aviation. It is usually claimed that the history of the symbol began with Lt. Stefan Stec – a Polish pilot flying for the Austro-Hungarian Army. On Nov. 15. 1918, Lt. Pilot Stefan Stec flew to Warsaw in his Fokker EV (D VIII), delivering a report from Lvov that was under siege at the time. His aircraft wore the personal badge of the pilot – a square divided into four symmetrical fields in contrasting national colors – white and red.

Stefan Stec was quite an experienced aviator who, when the war for the Polish independence began, had already scored a couple of aerial victories flying for the Austro-Hungarians during WWI. At the end of WWI, on Nov. 15. 1918, he went to Lvov.  Operating from there under the Polish command, he conducted combat sorties delivering reports to the staff officers during the fights against the Ukrainians. On Apr. 29, 1919 ,Stec won the first air combat engagement in the independent Poland, downing an enemy plane.

In 1919, Stec was transferred to the Paris Ecole Superiore d’Aeronautique where he obtained an engineering degree. Following that Stec became one of the persons who drove the development of the Polish aviation industry. Stec died in an aircraft crash, on May 11, 1921.

Stec’s aircraft – Fokker EV (D VIII) – arguably the first ever airframe to wear the checkerboard. Again, you can note the lack of layout’s consistency. Image Source: Tomasz Kopański’s book. “7 Eskadra Myśliwska im. T. Kościuszki” [T. Kościuszko 7th Fighter Squadron]

Coming back to his appearance in Warsaw – after Stec arrived, Lt. Col. Hipolit Łossowski, the commanding officer of the Polish Air Force at the time, came to a conclusion that the checkerboard conformed with all of the criteria ascribable to a roundel equivalent that could be utilized in case of the Polish aircraft.

Order issued on Dec. 1. 1918, designating the checkerboard to become the official symbol for the Polish military aviation.

On Dec. 1, 1918, the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish military, Div. General Stanisław Szeptycki, issued the order no. 38 also published as a Regulation on Dec. 7. 1918, within the Journal of Regulations of the Ministry of Military Affairs. The order read as follows:

“Polish military aircraft shall be, in the future, featuring, within the areas that were valid for this purpose so far, a square sign with width of 60 cm, divided into four equal fields. Upper left and lower right fields shall be of crimson color, lower left and upper right fields shall be white.”

Scanned Journal – the document which ultimately defined the Checkerboard to be the Polish Air Force insignia.

One may also wonder about the shape of the roundels used by most of the countries which, as the name suggests, were usually round, while the checkerboard took on a square form. Within his work, Królikiewicz suggests that this had reasons which were pragmatic for the most part. The new symbol could be easily painted on the wings and fuselages of the aircraft. The square shape was better suited to be placed over a myriad of markings on German, French, British or even Italian aircraft that became a part of the Polish Air Force.

Initially, the roundel was painted in a way that it covered the whole width of fuselages, wings and vertical stabilizers. The checkerboard layout’s interpretation also varied. Even though the aforesaid regulation was quite unambiguous defining the matter. Back in 1921, Manual No. 15 of the Air Force (General Technical Conditions for the Aircraft) introduced changes to the “checkerboard’s” layout, as reverse-color frame had been added to the primary colors of the symbol.

Further changes were introduced by the President of the Republic of Poland on Mar. 13, 1930, formally approving the checkerboard as a means for recognition of the Polish military aircraft, on the basis of a decree “Regarding the issue of flag and aviation markings”. The very same decree also regulated the “frame” of the checkerboard, as it was to have a width following ratio of 1:5 in comparison with the length of the square sides. In essence, the sign in this form remained in existence for another 70 years, until 1993.

PZL P11C – Polish indigeneous fighter design of the 1930s, wearing the checkerboards. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Two things are worth of noting. In the 1930s the lower portion of the wings of the aircraft featured checkerboards painted solely with the use of red color. The white color was replaced by the color of the airframe: this was the beginning of what can be compared to today’s low-vis aircraft markings. Another rule which was also quite significant was that small checkerboards were painted on top of the wings, in order to deform and camouflage the aircraft shape.

During WWII, the checkerboard also remained present on every frontline around the world at war, maintaining the reputation of the Polish aviators flying in the foreign air forces. Both in the East and West fronts, the aircraft used by the Poles were marked with the allied markings, supposedly for safety reasons. However, during the French campaign of 1940 the aircraft were wearing checkerboards or fusion of the checkerboard and the French marking. Then, extra “checkerboard” was painted on the aircraft, usually in the nose area – in cases of the Eastern and Western fronts, as well as in case of the Battle of Britain – the best known episode of the Polish WWII aviation.

Spitfire wearing a checkerboard marking, clearly visible in the front portion of the fuselage. Image Credit: Marcin Parzyński

In the postwar period the communist authorities were not bold enough to replace the checkerboard with a red star – as happened in Romania, Bulgaria or Hungary. The checkerboard was painted on the vertical stabilizers, fuselage, and on the bottom part of the wings. The form of the marking remained unchanged until 1993, when the order of the fields was switched. The argument here was to recover the heraldic correctness of the checkerboard. Obviously, some exceptions did happen, throughout the several years of the symbol’s existence. There are some photographs depicting aircraft wearing the checkerboards without the white fields, or with the colors switched. This may be explained as an effect of errors emerging after overhauls were carried out abroad or simply as a ramification of human error.

Even though the regulations were in place, the checkerboard issue was still confusing – as we can see on this shot of a Su-22M4 Fitter, sporting the symbols in two layouts. Image Credit: Andrzej Rogucki

Here we can see a pack of jets hailing from the “Pyrlandia Air Force” [name of the fictious country involved in the Orli Szpon ‘97 exercise] during their ferry flight to attend the VIP Day held at the Powidz Air Base following the training conducted (note the white stripes that allow for force identification). This photo was taken on Sep. 18. 1997. Again, it is clearly visible that the checkerboards do not match. Image Credit: Andrzej Rogucki

Currently, the shape, color and way the checkerboard is placed on the airframes is defined by the provisions of Chapter 5, Article 22 section 1 of the Act of Feb. 19, 1993, on the Marks of the Armed Forced of the Republic of Poland, the “mark of the military aircraft is a white-red aviation checkerboard […] divided into four equal fields […].”

A Checkerboard layout on the helicopters is also different, when it comes to its positioning – it is usually placed in the rear part of the fuselage. The pic presents the Polish Mi-17 and Kaman SH-2G helicopters during the Kapar exercise – Image Credit: sierż. Patryk Cieliński | Combat Camera DO RSZ

Furthermore, the Act assumes that the checkerboard shall be placed on both sides of the vertical stabilizers (or on the external side, if the aircraft uses two surfaces as such) and on the bottom part of the wings. Back in 2012, extra regulations were introduced. According to the new legal framework, the symbol was also to be painted on the top of the wings. In case of the helicopters the checkerboard is usually placed in the back section and on the bottom of the fuselage. The edges need to be parallel to the longitudinal axis of the aircraft. It is permissible to place the checkerboards on moving surfaces too, this possibility was used in case of the Polish Fitter. In this case, there is one more condition – the checkerboard must be placed, in its entirety, on the moving surface. When the checkerboard is placed on white or gray surface, the symbol needs to be distinguished from the background by a gray surface, the width of which is defined as 1/6th of the dimension of the frame stripes of the checkerboard.

Team Iskry – Polish Air Force Aerobatic Team with their checkerboards on. Image Credit: sierż. Patryk Cieliński | Combat Camera DO RSZ

Noteworthy, the Polish law does not envisage any option of using low-vis markings on the Polish military aircraft. However, back in the past markings as such were used in case of the W-3 helicopter that was operated by the Polish GROM special forces unit.

A symbol which is similar, but not identical to the original checkerboard, is also used by the Border Guard aviation. It is a roundel, divided into four fields, identical to the ones in case of the military checkerboard. The whole round symbol is placed on green, square background. The Border Guard is a civil service, and thus it cannot utilize military markings. Back in the past similar symbols were proposed to be used in case of aircraft used by other uniformed services, with the background color being the differentiating feature. Police was to use blue, and fire service was to use red background. However, besides the border guard, the symbols in question were never used. Paradoxically, the Border Guard checkerboard features the historically original color layout.

Polish Border Guard’s Stemme motor-glider, wearing its own, checkerboard-based symbol – Image Credit: Marcin Parzyński

And finally, another interesting fact worth of mentioning is that during the Sochi Winter Olympics, Kamil Stoch, a Polish ski jumper, with an authorization issued by Czesław Mroczek, the Deputy Minister of Defense, used the checkerboard on his helmet, also winning the Olympic ski jumping competitions on Feb 9. and 15.

We hope that this article brought you closer to knowing the history of the Polish Air Force. Expect the next episode in February.

Written with Michał Wajnchold.

Top Image Credit: Michał Wajnchold

Polish F-16 Jets during the 10th Anniversary photo sortie back in 2016 – Image Credit: sierż. Patryk Cieliński | Combat Camera DO RSZ