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Idzikowski's Flight

An interesting chapter in Polish aviation history involves transatlantic flight. By 1928 pilots had successfully flown planes nonstop from North America to continental Europe. But the feat had not been accomplished from Europe to North America, in the east to west direction, either solo or accompanied. It was a more difficult route to fly, going against the prevailing westerly winds.

Read earlier article about Polish Aviation History

Major Ludwik Idzikowski, a 36 year old Polish Air Force officer stationed in France, became interested in making the attempt. He had served with the Kościuszko Squadron in the Russo-Polish War, a group which included several American fliers. The Polish government agreed to buy a French plane for the flight, and 35 year old Major Kazimierz Kubala was chosen as Idzikowski's navigator. In August 1928 the two men took off from Le Bourget airfield near Paris, headed for New York, 3700 miles and 40 to 45 hours away, with Idzikowski in the pilot's seat. All went well until almost the midway point when an oil leak developed. Idzikowski decided to turn back and crash landed the plane off the coast of Spain where the fliers were fished out of the water by a German ship.

In 1929 the two Poles were ready to try again. They were the center of international attention when on July 13, in a new plane they named the Marszalek Piłsudski, they took off again for New York from Le Bourget, Idzikowski once more at the controls. However, this time they had competition. Forty-five minutes after the Poles took off, a plane carrying two Frenchmen, Dieudonne Coste and Maurice Bellonte, also left the field for the same destination. The two crews knew each other well and had traded notes and information. It was a friendly rivalry.

The early hours of the flights went well, but after 1600 miles the Frenchmen decided to turn back. Strong headwinds had caused excessive fuel consumption and the plane could not reach New York by their calculations.

The Poles continued on but not for long. Just north of the Azores Islands in the eastern Atlantic, about 1600 miles form Paris, their engine began malfunctioning and they decided to make an emergency landing on Fayal Island. Kubala radioed ahead to make sure the airfield was ready. But the plane was so troubled it couldn't make it to Fayal. Idzikowski had to bring it down on the first island he sighted, Gracios, which had no landing field. He came down in a crop field and hit a low stone wall, causing the plane to flip. A group of islanders rushed to help the downed, unconscious fliers. They managed to pull out Major Kubala, but before Idzikowski could be rescued the plane burst into flames, killing him.

A large group of Polish Americans that had gathered at Roosevelt Field outside New York City to welcome the fliers was grief stricken when they received word of the tragedy. Poland was plunged into mourning. It was front page headline news on both sides of the Atlantic, for in the 1920s attempts at aviation records drew great interest.

A funeral mass was held on Gracios Island and Major Idzikowski's body was placed in a vault. The next day a Polish schooner took the body on deck and with the slightly injured Major Kubala, headed for Poland. On August 17 an elaborate funeral was held for the deceased flier and he was buried with honors at Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery.

Kazimierz Kubala continued serving with the Polish Air Force but he eventually emigrated to Brazil where he died in 1976. The east to west Atlantic crossing, which Idzikowski hoped to accomplish for the honor of Poland, was completed in 1930 by his rival, the Frenchman Coste.

Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal

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