Flying to Freedom in a Homemade Airplane

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Eugeniusz Pieniazek had the skills — and had had enough. A well-known pilot in aviation circles in 1960s Poland, he flew gliders in Polish aviation exhibitions in Sweden, but then the Polish security service tried to recruit him. When he wouldn’t cooperate, they started a file on him and refused to grant him permission to fly. He lost his job and his passport — but, crucially, not his pilot’s license.

So here’s the lesson to repressive regimes: Never leave a man his pilot’s license. Because he might build an airplane in his apartment and fly to Yugoslavia.

Look at this industrious Polish engineer, making his own plane — truly a socialist hero!

At least that’s what Pieniazek did back in the day. Using a Continental aircraft engine and parts from different gliders — the tail from a Foka, the wings from a Swallow — he began assembling what would become his escape pod in his 7-year-old daughter’s tiny bedroom in their apartment in Leszno, about 200 miles west of Warsaw. The tail extended into the hallway.

As each component was completed, he lowered it out his first-floor window and then took it to a nearby hangar for storage and assembly. The wooden plane, which his daughter named the Kukulka, or Cuckoo, wasn’t even that secret. It was the first self-constructed plane registered with Polish authorities, and the national media picked up the story: Look at this industrious Polish engineer, making his own plane — truly a socialist hero!

After 26 months, the Cuckoo was airworthy. Pieniazek flew it on short trips around Poland for months — coasting on his newfound fame, above suspicion, likely because his plan was wildly impractical. In that time, he trained 44 other pilots in the Cuckoo, including several women.

Cut to Sept. 13, 1971. Escape day. Poland’s borders were essentially the same as they are today, but they were much more difficult to cross. Once airborne, Pieniazek checked out his options for asylum in a country not aligned with Moscow: To the southwest, beyond Czechoslovakia, the Austrian border was heavily guarded; Soviet pilots were shooting down planes attempting to fly northwest across the Baltic Sea to Denmark; and obviously going east wasn’t an option.

So he opted to fly due south across Hungary to what was then Yugoslavia. Even though it too was under communist rule, Marshall Tito had broken with Stalin and the Soviet Union in 1948, and since then the country had more or less gone its own nonaligned way. But that route meant flying across the eastern end of Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia) as well as Hungary, both part of the Eastern Bloc. Nevertheless, Pieniazek set off in the middle of a storm and never turned back.

Polish media went crazy. Pieniazek’s supporters didn’t know for months whether he’d made it or not, and the country mourned what they assumed was the loss of their pilot hero. In fact, by flying low under the radar and following railway lines — his main navigational tool was a road map — he had managed to land safely just inside the Yugoslav border in the town of Subotica (now in Serbia) after a four-hour flight.

Kukułka   muzeum lotnictwa kraków

The Kulkulka is now on display.

Source Creative Commons

But without a passport, he immediately was arrested and thrown in prison. The Yugoslavian authorities apparently never informed Poland that they’d taken their do-it-yourself airman prisoner.

Seven months went by. Then, one day, the warden simply told Pieniazek to leave (Yugoslav officials held onto the Cuckoo). The airman was taken to the Austrian border, where he managed to successfully apply for asylum in Sweden, leveraging the contacts he’d made there doing air shows a decade earlier.

Once in Sweden, Pieniazek spent two years arranging for his family to join him. As a precautionary measure, two years before escaping, he’d divorced his wife out of fear for her safety, and that meant she was free to enter a sham marriage with a Swede and emigrate with their daughter to join Pieniazek.

Then it was time to grab the last family member: the Cuckoo. “[Pieniazek] became a political refugee in Sweden, but after some time he was able to retrieve Kukulka,” says Jakub Link-Lenczowski of Krakow’s Museum of Aviation. The entire Pieniazek clan drove to Yugoslavia, paid for two years of hangar storage fees and towed the Cuckoo back to Sweden behind their Volkswagen Beetle with the plane’s wings tied on top. The plane sat at the airport for 17 years before restoration and registration had her back in flight condition.

Eventually, both the Cuckoo and Pieniazek ended up back in Poland. After the end of communist rule in Poland, in 1989, Pieniazek returned home to Leszno, where he founded the Experimental Aviation Association and continued to build planes, an underground hero in the aviation world, but barely remembered for his place in Polish history — that is, until his exploits were featured in a 1998 Polish documentary. Then, in 2005, he was the subject of an episode in a national TV series titled Great Escapes. That same year the Cuckoo took up residence at the Aviation Museum, where it is still displayed, painted blue, a chirpy reminder of the time a guy built an airplane inside his apartment so he could fly to freedom.

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