The history of aviation in Małopolska is the beginning of aviation in the world

Aircraft in front of the hangar
It was in Małopolska that humanity probably took to the air for the first time in history, where one of the first permanent airfields in Europe and the first Polish military airfield were established. From here the balloon Polish Star was to ascend to the stratosphere. Małopolska is full of sensational aviation memorabilia.

Odporyszów. Humanity’s first flight through the air

Probably the first human flight in the world took place in Odporyszów near Tarnów. Jan Wnęk, using wings he constructed, covered about 3 km in the air, launching from the tower of the local church.

Wnęk (1828–1869) was a self-taught man born into a family of serfs, a man of extraordinary talent. He was, among others, an excellent woodcarver and a talented sculptor, and his works can still be seen in the church in Odporyszów. Wnęk’s sculptures are extraordinary works, full of expression, extraordinary realism, sublime features, gestures, and shapes. They can be viewed in the local museum

According to accounts, Wnęk was fascinated by flying since childhood. He built a platform on the tower of the church in Odporyszów from which he started flying on a device similar to today’s hang glider. These flights, at various distances, confirmed the validity of his observations and designs. He made the discovery of rising air currents used in modern times by, for example, gliders.

After many years of study, he took his first long flight on 19 May 1866, and dedicated it, as an extremely religious man, to the Virgin Mary. In front of almost the entire village, he threw himself from the church tower and soared, flying about two kilometres.

He repeated these flights several times until one of them ended in a fall, with serious injuries that could have caused his premature death. This all happened some 25 years before the flights of Otto Lilienthal, considered the pioneer of world aviation. Unfortunately, Wnęk’s achievements are not sufficiently documented.

Krakow. One of the most valuable collections of aircraft from the early 20th century

In Krakow, in the area named Rakowice-Czyżyny, one of the world’s oldest military airports and one of the oldest permanent airfields in Europe was established in 1912. It became the first Polish military airport even before the official declaration of independence in 1918. This is where the first military aviation unit was formed. It was also here that the later heroes of the Battle of Britain received their training. Here, over this airfield, the first air skirmish of World War II took place. The site of the former airfield, later turned into a civil airport and closed down in 1963, now houses the Museum of Polish Aviation, one of the biggest museum attractions in our region, and according to a CNN ranking, eighth on the list of the world’s best aviation museums.

The museum’s collection comprises more than 200 exhibits. Some of the most valuable are machines from the first decades of the 20th century, from the collection of German Third Reich high official and head of the Luftwaffe, Herman Göring. The aircraft are displayed in a modern hall built in the shape of an air wing, as well as in the open air, where you can see civil and combat aircraft, in some cases the last examples of machines that no longer exist, including the most comprehensive collection of Polish helicopters. Our attention should be drawn to a special exhibit, one of the most famous combat aircraft of World War II, the Supermarine Spitfire. It is a machine of the British Royal Air Force, and it was in these planes, among others, that Polish airmen fought in England.

Polana Chochołowska. In a balloon almost to space

In autumn 1938, a Polish balloon named Gwiazda Polski (Polish Star) was to reach the stratosphere, breaking the American altitude record. It was almost 120 metres tall, and let us remind you that St Mary’s Church is only 81 metres! The global race to the stratosphere began in the early 1930s. On 4 April 1932, a man broke the 10,000-metre barrier for the first time. The American balloon reached an altitude of 13,158 metres above the ground, meaning that it rose into the stratosphere. More records were set, but after the aircraft reached an altitude of 14,500 m, the technical capabilities of the machines were exhausted. The only option was a balloon equipped with a sealed capsule that would protect the crew from the cold, lack of oxygen, and pressure. Capabilities already existed both to control such balloons and to transmit the data they recorded. After a brief domination of unmanned balloons in the mid-1930s, manned trials began again. The great race had begun. The competition included Americans and Russians, as well as Auguste Piccard – a Swiss man who dreamt of reaching not only the upper layers of the stratosphere, but also the deepest parts of the oceans. On 11 November 1935, the Americans broke another record. Captain Albert William Stevens, flying in the Explorer II balloon, reached a ceiling of 22,066 metres and photographed the curvature of our globe for the first time.

The Poles intended to build an even bigger balloon. Did they have a chance? The Polish attempt was a simple consequence of the development of our industry, our technical potential, and the great capabilities of our scientists. We also had, after the Americans and the Belgians, the best balloon pilots in the world. The Polish high-altitude balloon was to have a volume of 124,788 cubic metres and a weight of only 1,300 kg (this was possible thanks to Polish silk production technologies and ways of rubberising it) and a shape different from that of previous balloons.

The launch was set for 14 October 1938. The place – one of the most beautiful valleys in the Tatra Mountains – Chochołowska Valley. Target altitude: 30,000 metres! It was a nationwide event. Around 100,000 people bought tickets to see the preparations, but they were more like contributions for the development of the project. According to the press, around several thousand spectators gathered in the valley. The Polish Post Office printed a special stamp, and Polish Railways launched special trains bound for Zakopane.

Prior to the evening launch, crews began filling the balloon with hydrogen from several hundred cylinders. Observers from the hostel terrace watched the balloon’s shell rise. Meanwhile, the halny foehn wind, which had been building up for some time, had gained in strength. The pumping crew was having increasing difficulty in holding on to the shell. The danger of it being ripped away, damaged, and accidentally igniting the hydrogen was growing. With a heavy heart, they decided to stop filling the canopy and release the gas. That is when the disaster occurred. There was a spontaneous combustion and an explosion. Part of the balloon was consumed by the flames. Fortunately, there were no casualties and the gondola was not affected. The attempt was postponed until autumn 1939, but the ascent attempt was prevented by the war. A plaque commemorating the event was installed on the hostel building.

Traces of major catastrophes

On the night of 16–17 August 1944, the inhabitants of Krakow’s Podgórze district were awakened by a powerful noise. As reconstructed by, they could see a burning rectangle low in the sky, disintegrating in flight, attacked from Krzemionki by anti-aircraft artillery. These were the last moments of the four-engine Liberator bomber aircraft of the Royal Air Force. The last moments of the crew of Capt. Wright, whose mission was to carry out airdrops for the Warsaw Uprising. The aircraft began to disintegrate over Grzegórzki. The tail turret fell on the coal yard of the municipal slaughterhouse (now the Kazimierz Gallery area), other parts of the plane fell into the Vistula River, and most pieces of the Liberator fell between Lipowa and Dekerta Streets. The event is commemorated by the name of Bulwar Lotników Alianckich (Allied Aviators Boulevard), where a monument – a life-size model of the plane – is to be erected.

When the Warsaw Uprising broke out in August 1944, the Allied air forces, taking off from its base in Brindisi and travelling over 1,300 km, dropped weapons and supplies to the insurgents. Many machines were downed over Poland, including Małopolska. The famous Liberator, the model of which is exhibited today in the Warsaw Uprising Museum, is the aircraft that was brought down over Bochnia. In the last 20 years, all the sites where Allied machines crashed have been located. All these places are marked and have tourist paths that lead to them.

Here are some of these sites:

  •  In Łysa Góra (Dębno municipality), a Liberator from the 31st Squadron of the South African Air Force crashed on the night of 16/17 August 1944, shot down by a German fighter. The South Africans were returning from a flight over Warsaw. The plane exploded in mid-air; the entire crew was killed.
  • Wadowice area. On 3 September 1944, over Zygodowice near Wadowice, German anti-aircraft artillery shot down the Hell’s Angel, a US Air Force B-24 Liberator bomber. In 1991, the Obelisk of the American Aviators was unveiled to commemorate the death of 6 crew members and the civilian victims of the disaster.
  • Podhale. A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortess bomber crashed after a rough fight with fighters in Koniówka, Podhale. The commander, Lt. Everett J. Robson and four airmen were taken prisoner. Five of their colleagues were rescued thanks to the heroism of local residents
  • Dąbrowa Tarnowska. On 5 August 1944, a Halifax bomber flying from Brindisi with an international crew, carrying medical supplies for Warsaw, was shot down by German fighters. A plaque dedicated to this event is located in the church in Odporyszów.
  • Gorce – on 18 December 1944, an American B-24 Liberator bomber flying from Italy with a mission to bomb a German refinery in Oświęcim crashed near the Pańska Przehybka Pass. Nine airmen survived the crash; the pilot was killed.

See the aerial traces in Małopolska.

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