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The pilots and the Lituanica

Lituanica was an American/Lithuanian research aircraft that crossed the Atlantic in 1933, and crashed under mysterious circumstances close to its destination, Kaunas, Lithuania.



On June 18, 1932, Steponas (Stephen) Darius and Stasys (Stanley) Girėnas purchased a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker aircraft, serial No. 137, registration No. Nc-688 E from Pal-Waukee Company for 3200 US dollars. Since 1929, 40 units of this model were built. It was a single-engine, six-seat, high-wing monoplane. The fuselage was welded chrome-moly steel tubing covered with fabric. The cabin interior was covered with a sound-absorbing material. The fuselage had side and top windows, with doors on both sides. The wings were of wooden construction, with two spars, also fabric covered. The spars and ribs were made of spruce strips and plywood. The wings had two gasoline tanks with a total capacity of 88 US gallons (333 L). Wing struts were 2/3 wood, 1/3 steel (at the wings) with aero-dynamic steel ribs, fabric covered, giving an additional 47 ft² (4.4 m²) lifting surface. Tail surfaces were made of welded steel tubing. The horizontal stabilizer was of spruce strips and plywood, with the trim-angle adjustable in flight. The landing gear was a curved steel bar with rubber rope suspension. Wheels 30 × 5 inches (762 by 127 mm). The engine was a Wright J6, radial, air cooled, 9 cylinders, 300 hp (225 kW). Funds for the plane was raised from numerous Lithuanian clubs and organizations.[1]

On January 20, 1933, the aircraft was moved to E.M. Laird workshops at 5321 W. 65th St. in the Clearing Industrial District, Chicago, where she was rebuilt and made suitable for the transatlantic flight. New elongated wings were built, with two additional gasoline tanks installed in the fuselage, having 220 and 185 US gallon capacity, each equipped with emergency dump valves. Beneath the pilot's seat a 25 US gallon oil tank was outfitted with 12 cooling tubes. A longer horizontal stabilizer was built. Aero-dynamic wheel pants were installed, and the fuselage received a new fabric covering. A new, higher compression engine, 365 hp (272 kW) Wright Whirlwind J6-9E, ser. No. 12733, had a "speed ring". On March 29, 1933, the rebuild was complete, and the registration number was changed to NR-688E, and the aircraft was painted orange. On both sides of the fuselage scrolls with the names of the sponsors were painted. The aircraft was dubbed "Lituanica" (Lithuania in Latin).


One of the most widely used photo of the pilots

Darius and Girėnas were Lithuanian pilots, emigrants to the United States, who made a significant flight in the history of world aviation. On July 15, 1933, they flew across the Atlantic Ocean, covering a distance of 3,984 miles (6,411 kilometers) without landing, in 37 hours and 11 minutes (107.1 mph). In terms of comparison, as far as the distance of non-stop flights was concerned, their result ranked second only to that of Russell Boardman and John Polando, and ranked fourth in terms of duration of flight at the time. Although Darius and Girenas did not have navigational equipment and flew under unfavorable weather conditions, the flight was one of the most precise in aviation history. It equaled, and in some aspects surpassed, Charles Lindbergh's classic flight. Lituanica also carried the first Transtlantic air mail consignment in history.


10 litas banknote featuring the flight

Even today an ordinary, unprepared plane of this size cannot cover such a distance (Cessna 152, for instance, can fly only 1200 km). The flight was also important from the scientific point of view, exploring the air flows and possibilities of this type of the aircraft. They were the first who officially carried air mail from North America to Europe.

In their last letter, the pilots wrote that either a successful flight or a possible catastrophe would be valuable and significant enough and hence it is worthwhile to fly in either case.

After taking off from Floyd Bennett Field in New York on July 15, 1933, 6:24 AM EDT, Darius and Girėnas in their Lituanica successfully crossed the Atlantic, only to perish on July 17, 0:36 AM (Berlin Time) by the village of Kuhdamm, near Soldin, Germany (now Pszczelnik, Myślibórz area, Poland).( 52°51'11.57"N 14°50'17.78"E ) The planned route was: New York - Newfoundland - Atlantic Ocean - Ireland - London - Amsterdam - Swinemünde - Königsberg - Kaunas (a total of 7,186 km). Due to weather conditions over Ireland, they veered to the north and reached Germany via Scotland and the North Sea. In 37 hours and 11 minutes, until the moment of the crash, they had flown 6411 km (over 7000 km in actual flight path), only 650 km short of their goal — Kaunas.

Possible reasons of the crash

Monument marking the crash site near Pszczelnik

A Lithuanian board of investigation was appointed to determine the cause. It concluded that the pilots were properly qualified, and the aircraft was properly outfitted. They added that the most difficult part of the flight was executed with great precision. The commission concluded that during the crash the aircraft engine was running (the propeller was rotating), and there was enough fuel on board (see [1], for instance).

Some sources mention pilot error, but both pilots were highly experienced. During his career as pilot, Darius had never been involved in any previous accidents. In 1931, Girėnas had won first prize in a flight festival in Chicago for gliding his plane and landing with a dead engine.

According to the board, the catastrophe occurred due to difficult weather conditions combined with engine defects. The crash most probably was a result of failed emergency landing. There were rumors and suspicions in some quarters, that the plane was shot down, having been mistaken for a spy plane, because it flew near a concentration camp. Autopsies of pilots revealed no signs of any bullets.[1] However, not all parts of the plane were returned to the Lithuanian government.

After the crash

On July 19, the German plane "Derluft", carried the bodies of the pilots back to Lithuania. The people of Kaunas met the heroes in great sorrow. The funeral was a solemn occasion and was the cause of official national mourning.

Litas commemorative coin issued for the 60th anniversary of the flight

A few months after the Lituanica tragedy, some prominent members of the Chicago Lithuanian community discussed the possibility of financing another transatlantic flight. This idea was greeted with much enthusiasm, and enough funds were raised during the Great Depression. A faster and more modern Lockheed Vega was purchased from the Lockheed Aircraft Corp., the same model used by Wiley Post in his round-the-world flight, and by Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

The aircraft was christened Lituanica II on Sunday, April 22, 1934. When the pilot originally chosen for the flight unexpectedly resigned in the spring, the Lithuanian organizers turned to Felix Waitkus, and he accepted the challenge. Although he landed in Ireland and not in Kaunas, he entered aviation history for being the sixth pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic.

In 1936 the Lithuanian government decided to build a mausoleum for Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas in Kaunas' old cemetery, that was destroyed after Soviet re-occupation. From then until the present day, the wreckage of Lituanica has been on display in the Vytautas the Great War Museum in Kaunas. At present the pilots' bodies rest in the Military Cemetery of Šančiai, Kaunas.


Monument to Darius and Girėnas
Lithuanian stamp commemorating 10th anniversary of the flight

Chicago's Lithuanian community erected an Art Deco Monument commemorating Stasys Girėnas and Steponas Darius in Chicago's Marquette Park in 1935 where it still stands to this day. Feliksas Vaitkus flight was inspired by the flight and commeorated it with a flight of Lituanica II in 1935.

The flight is commemorated in a movie Skrydis per Atlantą (Flight over Atlantics) (1983). Kaunas's sports stadium, S.Darius and S.Girėnas Stadium where the Lithuanian national soccer team plays its home matches is also named in their honor. There is a tall stone monument near the stadium, the Lithuanian Academy of Sport and the Ąžuolynas Park dedicated to the pilots.

Sculptor Bronius Pundzius has made a relief of the pilots' faces on the Puntukas, then the largest known boulder in the territory of Lithuania in 1943.


Coordinates: 52°51′11.57″N 14°50′17.78″E / 52.8532139°N 14.8382722°E / 52.8532139; 14.8382722



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