I THANK GOD FOR LIFE
A journalist of the Polish Television , Krzysztof Tadej, talks with the captain Jerzy Makuła
Jerzy Makula is one of the best pilots in the history of Polish aviation. He has been the champion on acrobatics seven times, has won a silver medal in this category four times and has been the team champion eight times. For 38 years he was a pilot of passenger airplanes for the Polish Airlines LOT. At present he is a chairperson of the Polish Air Club. In an interview for the weekly ‘Sunday’ he tells us about his love for flying, his way to successes, the most difficult moments during his flights and about what is the most important in life.
KRZYSZTOF TADEJ: - Have you ever been afraid during your flight?
JERZY MAKUŁA: Being responsible for passengers and crew, I often felt respect. But it was not fear. A pilot should not be afraid. It may be paralyzing and result in not making decisions.
At the end of the year 1982 you were supposed to fly from Wrocław to Warsaw. It seemed that it would be a short ordinary flight. However, something unexpected happened.
Yes, it did! At that moment I was just stressed. The flight was really untypical. The plane was hijacked.
Who was the hijacker?
One of guards. At that time there used to be lots of cases of hijacking. People were unhappy about the regime then, some of them could not travel from Poland and decided to do this desperate move. Therefore we had body guards flying with us. In our flight there were two of them. The first one was in the front, between the cockpit and passengers’ cabin, and another one at the back of the plane. And just the first one decided to hijack the plane. Soon after the take-off he entered the cockpit with a bullet. We saw that he could unprotect it at any moment.
How did you react?
I was the first officer in that flight. On the left side there was a captain, and between us there was a crew mechanic. I turned back to the hijacker and noticed that beside the bullet he had a gun. I joked if he could let me hold it as I had not been in the army and I wanted to see what a gun looked like. He got very angry. I saw some fuss and changing colours on his face. He demanded on a flight to Western Berlin. He forbid using communication devices. He targeted his weapon at us and we realized that those were not any jokes.
Did you inform controllers about what was happening?
I did not manage to. But they noticed it very quickly. After the take-off we should have flown towards Trzebnica, and then change the direction to Warsaw. They saw that we had flown in another direction. Later, when we were analyzing the flight, we were wondering whether we could behave differently. For example, if there had been clouds, it would have been possible to invent something in order to mislead the hijacker. During the bad weather he would not see the land, there is no reference point and he will not see what direction we are flying to. But nothing like that could be done. The weather was beautiful and sunny. The flight lasted about 20 minutes as the distance between Wrocław and Berlin is not big.
After a few minutes there was another stressful situation.
There appeared military planes. They were behaving aggressively. They were flying towards us very close. We have arranged signs among us, pilots, thanks to which it is possible to communicate without words, for example, the sign ‘Fly with me’. When there appeared one fighter and then another one, pilots were giving one another these signs. According to the demand of the hijacker we were not reacting. Those were very stressful moments. We knew that pilots could be ordered to shoot down our plane. Therefore, when the fighters were flying closer to us, we were slowing down our speed maximally, so that they would pass by us, and after a while we were flying much more quickly. Doing such maneuvers we managed to fly through the area. When we flew to the area of NRD, military planes appeared there as well. But we had already known Berlin and it was clear that we were not endangered by shooting down. Then the hijacker began to get angry.
He thought that we would deceive him and land in Eastern Berlin. I had to explain him that in a while he would see Mercedes cars, not trabants or wartburg cars. When we landed, along the taxiing road there were beautiful ambulances and a fire engine. the aggressor calmed down a bit. When we were taxiing very slowly at the end of the runway, he jumped out through the open door of luggage lock onto the ground of the airport. At that moment another guard began to shoot at him.
What was the final of the hijacking?
The hijacker wanted to get to RPA and according to later information he got there. We spent a lot of time on reporting on that situation. But the whole matter ended well, nobody was injured. Passengers were behaving very calmly, which is the merit of the whole crew who was giving needed information in a calm and substantive way. It should be so during every flight.
In response to questions concerning the characteristics of pilots you often add one more characteristic: one should make quick decisions.
When piloting a plane, it is often necessary to react quickly, not thinking too long why a problem appeared. If a pilot does not do so, the consequences may be tragic. I experienced such a situation in the beginning of my adventure with aviation.
During the take-off by Czapla….
I was taking off with the usage of a winch. At the low altitude, maybe 20-30 m, when a glider was flying at the angle of 45 degrees, a line burst. If I had not reacted quickly, I would have fallen onto the ground and results might have been tragic. I directed the glider down so that it would catch a bit air and it would be possible to steer it. I managed to survive. But my reaction had to be quick. Since then I have been self-confident.
You often said: ‘My way to successes is overcoming difficulties and problems’.
Beginnings were really hard. But every failure made me gain new experiences. When instructors were unpleased, or when I did something wrong, I was trying to analyze it very thoroughly. Those experiences turned out to be the basis of the success. We can have a few trainings, get to know theory very well and pass all necessary exams, but that is not all to be a good pilot. The first failures during flights were a lesson for me, what mistakes I should avoid during the next flight.
You would have hardly become ….a miner instead of a pilot.
I learnt at a miners’ technical school. I worked under the ground for a year. I dealt with transport to places where coal is extracted. I am glad about that time of my life. I know how hard miners work. I think that a lot of people are not aware of this matter. They do not know what effort it is, how difficult conditions are under the ground. Going down under the ground I dreamt of flying and becoming a pilot.
Your love to aviation began in your childhood, didn’t it?
In the fourth and fifth year of the primary school I read a story about a glider which landed on a field. Before that I had not known what a glider was. Another impulse was information on TV that my uncle, Edward Maukla, had become the world glider champion in 1963 in Argentina. When I was 12 years old I used to made models of airplanes and I dreamt of flying. I wanted my models of airplanes to fly as high and long as possible. I managed to win a competition in making models of airplanes. An award was a flight by An-2 plane. I flew with my parents. When I saw the land from the top, I had tears in my eyes from happiness.
You worked for the air company LOT for 38 years. Have you experienced unusual situations during flights, apart from the hijacking?
There were a lot of pleasant moments, for example a wedding on the board of a plane, when we were flying to Bangkok. On the board there was a priest and an official of civil status office. Because the flight was long, lasted nearly 10 hours, the wedding was a great attraction for passengers and they were reacting in a very friendly way. But there also happened difficult situations. Once I landed on the airport in Newark above which there was a violent storm. In the air tens of airplanes were flying and there was a lot of traffic. When we were landing, the storm appeared above the landing way. In the end of our landing attempt we saw a wall of water and after a while nothing was visible. It was necessary to go around again. Unfortunately, I was touched by the storm, the airplane got turbulences and it was very unpleasant. Beside that the airplane got damaged from the stroke of thunder. But after a while we got control of the situation and everything ended happily.
You often use terms: ‘We got control of the situation’, ‘we managed to do it’.
Aviation is a team work, not only a pilot’s actions. Everybody has got tasks to do and all of them are very important. During a flight for many hours, a lot of situations happen which flight attendants must control. Somebody gets ill, somebody is afraid of flying, somebody has drunk too much alcohol and is insulting passengers…The way in which they will solve the problems influences the further stage of the flight. I never forget about mechanics. Somebody said about them that they are ‘grey roots of colourful flowers’. A lot depends on them. What can a pilot do if an airplane is defective? I often emphasize that every successful flight is our common success.
On 31 July 2016 you were flying a plane with an unusual passenger – pope Francis. It was a flight from Cracow to Rome, when the Pope was returning from the World Youth Days in Poland.
A wonderful, unforgettable, unusual flight. I must admit that I was very thrilled. When I was greeting the Pope, I was reading words from a sheet of paper. Before that, greeting known people, I had always spoken calmly, but at that moment I was not. When we took off, I decided to do something unusual for the Pope. I knew on which side he was sitting and I made a circle above Cracow, at the low altitude – 900 m. I wanted the Holy Father to see Wawel again, as well as Błonia and Campus of Mercifulness in Brzegi where he had celebrated the Holy Mass for the youth. It was a nice surprise for the Pope. Later, for the second time, I did something unconventional. During the flight a press conference began on board. Unfortunately, it was getting longer and we were flying relatively fast. I informed controllers in Austria that I would do fly round near Graz so that the plane would be longer in the air by 10 minutes. I wanted the Pope to be able to finish the conference. Later, after landing, on Internet there appeared a lot of entries by people from various countries of the world, who had been observing this flight. They were wondering what had happened in Austria. Some of them were writing about a defect of the plane, others – that the Pope wanted to see the Alps. But I could not keep the plane up so high! Having landed, the Holy Father came up to us and thanked us. Then he blessed us, saying goodbye.
You have never concealed being a believer.
I did not have any reasons to do it. I think that one should not demonstrate their faith in an exaggerated way, but concealing it is not right.
Does faith help you in your flights? Did you use to pray before flights?
During competitions by gliders I always prayed. I used to say: ‘God, help me. I do not want to disappoint anybody!’. This prayer always helped me.
What future will it be for the civilian aviation? A lot is said about more advanced computerization. You even often said about an anecdote that in the future there may be only one man and a dog in the cockpit. A dog in order to prevent a pilot from touching anything.
Certainly, it is a joke! However, it must be admitted that at present coordinating air traffic would be impossible without computers when there are so many planes. 20 years ago, above the Atlantic, during an hour there were about 500 planes. And today ten times more! A man is and will remain necessary. The fact that after the take-off we turn on an auto-pilot, does not change the situation. We have a lot to do. It is impossible to plan, predict or program everything. For example, pilots decide how much petrol must be used, what weight of a plane should be and what to do up high when a plane is too heavy and should not land. We also make decisions what to do in unexpected situations when a passenger gets ill or when weather conditions change suddenly.
In 2017, regarding your age, you got retired. At present you are a chairperson of a Polish Air-Club. Don’t you get bored now? Are you a happy man?
It is necessary to get prepared for everything. I knew about this moment a few years ago. Knowing myself, I was aware that having retired I could not do nothing. But I also looked at life in a realistic way. It is impossible to realize some plans or dreams. For example, I will not fly to space. I am aware that something will always end and it is necessary to slow down the pace of life. This is life. On the other hand one cannot give in.
I am proud that the members of the air-club, to which 7 thousand members belong, elected me as its chairperson. They trust me and think that I will run the Polish Air-Club as well as I can. I want to share my knowledge and experience with the youth. There is different joy that I am still needed in the Polish Airlines. I am concentrated on looking for young pilots and training them. The fundament of my happiness is my family. I have four sons. Three of them chose aviation and the fourth one, Wojtek, is becoming the master of photography. He takes sport and wedding photos in various countries of Europe.
And what your wife?
My wife was a flight attendant. We met during a journey long time ago. When our children were born, she brought them up. Looking at my wife, children and everything which happened to me I feel satisfied and happy. I thank God for my every day and my life.
Translated by Aneta Amrozik
Niedziela 40/2018 (7 X 2018)