Across the ocean. 50 years of flight connection from Warsaw to Chicago.

advertising banner on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the flight from Warsaw to Chicago

Sleek skyscrapers, a great lake, a deep dish. Blues, Home alone and zippers. An explosive mixture? Not in Chicago! The third largest city in the USA doesn't know the word ‘impossible’. Not only business tycoons and pop culture icons know about it, but also hundreds of thousands of Polish people who have found their heaven on Earth in the capital city of the state of Illinois. It's also our success - from 50 years we've been helping them make their American dreams come true by offering direct flights to the largest Midwestern metropolis. What was the beginning of our adventure with the 'Windy City'? Enter the sky time machine and learn the story of the first flight to Chicago! 1, 2, 3 – let’s go!

First dreams of America

The dreams of transatlantic flights go back as far as the 1930s. Even then, flights to the United States were believed to be the future of air transport. The director of LOT Polish Airlines, pilot Waclaw Makowski, was the greatest supporter of the route network development. He not only persuaded the Polish government to buy American planes adapted to transatlantic service but also made the first attempt at conquering the new continent. He was the one who controlled the modern Lockheed L-14H Super Electra plane that flew from Burbank near Los Angeles to Warsaw in May/June 1938, covering almost 25 thousand kilometres in six days. The legendary route led through South America, Africa, the Mediterranean Sea and Europe, and proved that it was possible to organise a regular air service to the other hemisphere. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the WWII foiled these ambitious plans.

Waclaw Makowski after a successful flight to the United States.
Waclaw Makowski after a successful flight to the United States.
Welcoming of Waclaw Makowski at the Warsaw airport after the flight over the Atlantic
Welcoming of Waclaw Makowski at the Warsaw airport after the flight over the Atlantic | Fot. The National Digital Archives

Chances of return

The negotiations regarding the launch of new long-distance connections restarted at the end of 1960s. Both the international situation and political changes in Poland were supportive. New authorities in the Polish People's Republic were much more open to the world than their predecessors and, in spite of strained relations with the United States, they saw transatlantic flights as an opportunity to develop the national airline. It wasn't surprising as a few million Poles living in America and travelling to the country of their ancestors, often equipped with suitcases full of dollars, were a force that to be reckoned with. More than 750 thousand emigrants from Poland are estimated to have been living in Chicago at that time! Up till then, they only had a passenger ship as the only means of transport available but the length of the journey and the fear of seasickness were significantly reducing the number of those interested in such kind of trips. One could also fly to the USA via London, Frankfurt or Amsterdam but only the launch of a direct flight to the USA made the dream of their return to the homeland come true.

Modern means of transport

As soon as the new routes have been approved, the search for an appropriate plane started. The choice was rather limited: in spite of a few sales offers received from Western European and American producers, a decision was made to purchase Soviet IL-62 Ilyushin planes. These huge machines (53 m long and 12 m high) could contain 168 passengers and as much as 100 thousand litres of fuel, which shortened the duration of the flight and eliminated the number of refuelling stops. Powered by four turbojet engines, they were able to reach speeds up to 850 km/h and cross the hitherto unheard of distance of 8200 km. To adapt these planes to requirements of the American aviation regulations, they were equipped with an automatic pilot, a special navigation computer, UKF and KF radios, transponders and appliances indicating the appropriate deflection of controls on approach. The first purchase arrived in Warsaw on 16 March 1972 and was registered as SP-LAA ‘Mikołaj Kopernik’. A long-term distinguished LOT Polish Airlines employee, Jadwiga Śliżewicz, was chosen as its godmother.

The Ilyushin Il-62 "Mikolaj Kopernik" plane belonging to the LOT Polish Airlines at Okęcie. Airport
The Ilyushin Il-62 "Mikolaj Kopernik" plane belonging to the LOT Polish Airlines at Okęcie. Airport | Fot. The National Digital Archives
Passengers board the Ilyushin Il-62 plane.
Passengers board the Ilyushin Il-62 plane. | Fot. The National Digital Archives
Passenger cabin of the Ilyushin Il-62 aircraft.
Passenger cabin of the Ilyushin Il-62 aircraft. | Fot. The National Digital Archives

On wings like eagles

And it happened: the first LOT plane landed in Chicago on 17 May 1972 after almost two weeks of intense preparations. It was greeted by a numerous group representing the airport authorities, the General Consulate of the Polish People's Republic and the Polish diaspora in America who have listened with bated breath to the first impressions of the flight. There was a lot to remember: not only captain Damian Zuchowski, the first Polish pilot with one million kilometres covered in the air, but also the passengers who were actors from the Syrena theatre were admired. The greatest star of the team, Hanka Bielicka, delivered ‘a bit of smile, humour and song’ from Warsaw. The interior of the machine with its metalwork referring to the works of the plane patron, Nicolaus Copernicus also looked unique - it couldn't be otherwise as the atmosphere of the place was taken care of by Marian Stepien, responsible for the décor of LOT foreign offices. The return flight was equally exciting: the plane chartered by the Chicago Society Club departed for Warsaw with such renowned personages on board as dr Kalina, judge Adesko or Robert ‘Bob’ Lewandowski, the host of Polish programs in the Chicago television, known from his role of an attorney called Wrzesień (September) in the Kochaj albo rzuć (Love or Leave) film, directed by Sylwester Checinski.

Inaugural ticket for the Warsaw-Chicago flight connection
Inaugural ticket for the Warsaw-Chicago flight connection

IL-62 planes operated on transatlantic flights until 1984 when they were replaced with the more modern IL-62M version. These, in turn, were replaced in 1989 by the twin-engine Boeing 767 that used to successfully transport not only longing Polish families but also those in search of new scientific, professional and travel challenges through the Atlantic. As of 2013, one can cross the ocean on board of one of the most state-of-the-art planes in the world: Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Thanks to facilities such as LED cabin lighting, remote-controlled window dimming, increased air humidity and a developed onboard entertainment system, you can feel like in a private heaven from the very first minutes of the flight. And you will experience first-hand the truthfulness of words uttered by the Polish writer and poet, Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski: ‘the most real, breath-taking pleasure is the pleasure of flight’. This is what travelling with LOT Polish Airlines feels like!