Space is the limit

Gustaw Andrzej Mokrzycki
Jerzy Rudlicki
Igor Sikorsky
Frank Piasecki
Zbysław Ciołkosz
Mieczysław Gregory Bekker
Stanisław Wojciech Rogalski

The US largely became a world economic power thanks to the country’s development of the most modern branches of industry, particularly aerospace. After the Second World War, Polish engineers from modern-day Ukraine were active in the development of the most modern aircraft designs. One of these figures was Gustaw Andrzej Mokrzycki (1894-1992), a mechanical engineer and specialist in aircraft flight stability and automatic flight control. He invented an automatic control method for flight stability that was first used on the supersonic B-70 bomber. This system was also used on the B-52, a long-range jet-powered strategic bomber. This pioneering design was considered a great leap forward in the field of automatic pilot technology for both military and civil aviation. Mokrzycki was born in Lviv. He studied there at the department of machine construction at the city’s polytechnic institute. He even defended his PhD at the university. He migrated to the US at the end of the Second World War. In 1951 he was appointed director of the ‘Experimental Department’ of the USAF Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base. After the reorganization of the center, he joined Northrop Space Laboratories, where he worked as a missile control and targeting specialist. Edwards Air Force Base is a United States Air Force installation located in Edwards, California. It is the home of the Air Force Test Center, Air Force Test Pilot School, and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. It also hosts many test activities conducted by America’s commercial aerospace industry.

The Republic Aviation Corporation was one of the most important American aircraft manufacturers of the 20th century. It was based in Long Island, New York. The group was originally known as the Seversky Aircraft Company, which was responsible for the design and production of many historical military aircraft. Among its designers was Jerzy Rudlicki (1893–1977), a Polish pilot and aerospace engineer. He was born and educated in Odessa, Ukraine and is best known for inventing and patenting the V-tail, which combines a plane’s rudder and elevators into one system. One of the most famous aircraft to use this innovation is the F-117 Nighthawk, the first operational aircraft to be designed around stealth technology. Already as a young student, Rudlicki constructed seven sailplanes and received a diploma with honours from the Odessa National Polytechnic University. During the First World War, Rudlicki served as a pilot in the Russian Air Force. He also fought in the Polish–Soviet War in 1920, flying over the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Rudlicki was subsequently awarded the Cross of Valor for his heroics. In the interwar period, he was the chief designer at the E. Plage and T. Laśkiewicz Mechanical Aircraft Plant in Lublin, the first Polish aerospace manufacturer. Lublin lies close to Poland’s former borders with Kyievan Rus’ and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The city attracted Ruthenian and Jewish immigration from the East for many centuries.

His most popular design was the R-XIII Lublin liaison and observation aircraft. In 1945, he began to work with Republic. He ultimately made this move thanks to his acquaintance from the times of Tsarist Russia with Alexander Kartvelli, a Georgian immigrant, and head constructor for the company. Rudlicki also constructed controlled discharge nozzles for the General Electric J85, one of the most successful and longest used military jet engines. Rudlicki participated in the development of the F-84 Thunderjet aircraft, which was a fighter-bomber. The Thunderjet became the USAF’s primary strike aircraft during the Korean War (1950-1953). It was the first fighter capable of utilizing inflight refueling and carrying a nuclear weapon.

 A stamp printed in Ukraine on the ocasion of the Centenary of National Technical University of Ukraine “Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute”, Source: Shutterstock

People from the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also helped to pioneer the development of helicopters in the US. The first helicopter that flew over the US was designed in 1939 by Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972), a Russian–American of Ukrainian background who gained legendary status in the fields of helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft development. Sikorsky was born in Kyiv and lived there until 1912. His ancestors were members of the Ruthenian petty gentry in Volhynia who settled near Kyiv after the Cossack Uprisings in the late 17th century. In 1933 Sikorsky said: “My family, who come from a village in the Kyiv region where my grandfather and great-grandfather were priests, is of purely Ukrainian origin. However, we consider ourselves Russians because it was part of Russia and the Ukrainian people were an integrated part of Russia, just as Texas or Louisiana is an integrated part of the United States”.

Sikorsky enrolled at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute and established the airplane research and production business in the city. In fact, it was in Kyiv in 1909 that Sikorsky designed the H-1, the first helicopter prototype in world history. By the start of the First World War, Sikorsky’s company was flourishing. Sikorsky designed Ilya Muromets, a class of large Russian four- engine commercial airliners and military heavy bombers. His factory started to produce the bombers during the war. They were the world’s first four-engine aircraft.

The aircraft series was named after Ilya Muromets, a hero from Slavic mythology. According to the legend, Ilya Muromets was given super-human strength by a dying knight. He liberated the city of Kyiv from Idolishche, a mythological monster and served Prince Vladimir the Fair Sun. He also defended Ukraine from Turkic nomadic invasions. Attempts have been made to identify a possible historical inspiration for Ilya Muromets. The main candidate is Ilya Pechersky, a monk of the 12th century of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, a key Orthodox Christian monastic complex. Ilya Muromets appeared in sources in the 16th century written by Filon Kmita, a Ruthenian aristocrat from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania whose fiefdom was located in Chernobyl, Ukraine.

Igor Sikorsky & Comdr. Frank A. Erickson, USCG, Sikorsky Helicopter HNS-1, Source: Wikipedia

After the Russian Revolution, Igor Sikorsky fled his homeland and arrived in the US. In Stratford, Connecticut he established Sikorsky Aircraft, which is still one of the world’s leading helicopter manufacturers today. Sikorsky’s legacy is remembered fondly in the US and Ukraine. In 2011, one of the streets in Kyiv was renamed after Sikorsky by the city council at the request of the US embassy, which opened its new office on the street. In 2016, the National Technical University of Ukraine “Kyiv Polytechnic Institute” was named after Sikorsky, its former student. Finally, in 2018 Kyiv city council officially changed the name of the airport in Zhuliany to Igor Sikorsky Kyiv International Aeroport.

The second helicopter that took off in the US was designed by Frank Piasecki (1919-2008), an American aviation pioneer. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into an immigrant family. His father came from a small village located near Hrodna, present-day Belarus, while his mother migrated to the US from Eastern Galicia. Piasecki pioneered various ‘tandem rotor’ helicopter designs and created the ‘compound helicopter’ concept of vectored thrust using a ducted propeller. In 1940 he founded Piasecki Helicopter Corporation, a designer and manufacturer of helicopters located in Philadelphia. He was ousted from the company in 1956 and launched a new company, Piasecki Aircraft, which is also based in Pennsylvania. Today the company is managed by Frank Piasecki’s sons. The company succeeded in various bids organised by the US armed forces. After the Second World War, Frank Piasecki hired Zbysław Ciołkosz (1902-1960), a prolific Polish-American aircraft designer. He graduated from the Lviv Polytechnic Institute and in the interwar period worked at Podlaska Wytwórnia Samolotów (PWS), a Polish aerospace manufacturer based in Biała Podlaska. This historical city of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is today located in eastern Poland. In 1937 PWS established its Lwowskie Warsztaty Lotnicze (LWL) division in Lviv. Ciołkosz designed several aircraft for PWS, including the first Polish passenger plane.

Polish engineers were also engaged in the design of lunar roving vehicles that were used during the American space program’s exploration of the Moon. In fact, many of these figures became key rivals. Mieczysław Gregory Bekker (1905–1989), a Polish engineer and scientist, contributed significantly to the design of the Lunar Roving Vehicle that was used by the Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 missions. Bekker was born near Hrubieszów in Chełm Land, which was inhabited by Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians. In the interwar period Bekker became a leading specialist in the design of military and off-the-road locomotion vehicles. He was also the inventor of a new engineering discipline called “terra-mechanics”. During the invasion of Poland in 1939, he served in a unit of the Polish army that retreated to Romania and then moved to France. In 1942 he accepted an offer from the Canadian military to work as a researcher. He eventually obtained the rank of lieutenant colonel. He left the military in 1956 and migrated to the US. He worked as assistant professor at the University of Michigan and as a researcher at the Army Vehicle Laboratory in Detroit. In 1961 he joined General Motors (Detroit), where he was responsible for the construction of lunar vehicles for NASA’s Apollo program. General Motors regularly competed with Grumman, a leading American producer of military and civilian aircraft during the 20th century. This group was based in Long Island, New York. At that time, Stanisław Wojciech Rogalski (1904-1976), a Polish engineer and aircraft constructor, was involved in the development of Grumman’s lunar vehicle project. Rogalski’s family originated from Ternopil, Eastern Galicia and he attended a gymnasium there. He gave lectures on aircraft construction at the Lviv Polytechnic Institute. In 1926, together with Stanisław Wigura and Jerzy Drzewiecki, he founded the RWD construction company. The group took its name from the first letters of the founders’ surnames. In 1949, he emigrated to the USA following the war. Between 1954 and 1968 he was also a professor at Princeton University, New Jersey.