Lithuania in the News
30th September 2007
International Recognition for Pioneering Lithuanian Aviation
Feliksas Vaitkus. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Vaitkus’ airplane after landing at Ballinrobe.
Photo courtesy Lietuvos Rytas.
Today September 30, 2007, a memorial will be unveiled in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, in Ireland to commemorate the landing of the airplane Lituanica II, piloted by the American Lithuanian Feliksas Vaitkus after a solo crossing of the Atlantic in September 1935. His plan had been to fly to Kaunas, Lithuania, but after terrible weather conditions, fuel shortage forced him to an emergency landing in Ireland, damaging his airplane in the process. His was only the sixth successful solo flight over the Atlantic Ocean. Vaitkus was born in Chicago to Lithuanian parents, three years after they had migrated from Lithuania. The unveiling of the memorial will be on the 100th anniversary of Vaitkus’ birth. This event will be the first in the "Lithuanian Days in Ireland 2007" festival, which will take place in a number of cities in Ireland, including Dublin. For the ceremonies in Ballinrobe a large Lithuanian contingent will be in attendance, together with the defence minister Juozas Olekas.
Darius and Girėnas with Lituanica.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia
The name of Vaitkus’ airplane Lituanica II was in honour of the first Lituanica, which had been piloted two years earlier in July 1933 by the intrepid pioneering Lithuanian aviators Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, in a journey from New York to Kaunas. Unfortunately they did not reach their destination and their airplane crashed by the village of Kuhdamm, near Solden in East Prussia, Germany (now Pszczelnik, Poland), killing both pilots. Their epic non-stop flight of 37 hours and 11 minutes had covered 6411 km, and was only 650 km short of their destination. Their flight was the second longest non-stop flight in distance and the fourth longest in duration up to that time. Had they succeeded in reaching their destination, it would have been the longest non-stop flight to date. There has always been controversy over the reason for Lituanica’s crash, with rumours that it was shot down by the Germans persisting to this day.
The 10 Litas banknote, with Darius and Girėnas
on the front and Lituanica on the reverse side.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Wikipedia states: "Although Darius and Girėnas did not have navigational equipment, and flew under unfavourable weather conditions, the flight made by the airmen at that time 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." No wonder they became heroes in Lithuania, with their memory honoured on the 10 Litas banknote.
It is remarkable that a small country like Lithuania could have inspired and achieved such pioneering aviation deeds. But the story does not end there. Aviation continued to be of fascination and importance in Lithuania, in both the civil and military spheres. Few people appreciate just how large the Lithuanian airforce was immediately before World War II. It had about 50 planes of all types, which may seem like a small number, but extrapolated to a country the size of say Britain, it woud have amounted to an airforce of about 1,000 planes - quite a substantial number for that time. What is even more remarklable is that about half of them were of local design and manufacture - and this in a country which at that time was primarily agricultural!
In the civil area, gliding and ballooning have always been popular pastimes. Lithuania has also been very strong in aerobatics, producing such remarkable aerobatics world champions as Jurgis Kairys (See SLIC News Archive 09/04/07 & 18/03/05). It is no coincidence that the NATO airbase for patrolling the airspace above the Baltic States is located in Lithuania (in Zokniai, near Šiauliai), as is the flight control centre (in Karmėlava, near Kaunas).

Further information: "Mayo Advertiser" 21/09/07 23/09/07,     www.lzinios 27/09/07