Jan Nagórski – a pioneer of aviation, engineer and one of the first Polish pilots. He went down in history as the first man to fly over the Arctic. He became famous during World War I fighting Germans in the Baltic Sea as the commander of a seaplane squadron. He was also the first pilot in the world to perform an aerobatic figure called loop in a flying boat. The first time during a dogfight in summer 1916, and then he repeated the feat on the 30th of August 1916 by performing a double loop flying a Grigorovich M-9 flying boat, which this time was duly confirmed.
Nagórski was born on February 8, 1888 in Włocławek, Poland then under the Russian partition, and died on June 9, 1976 in Warsaw, Poland at the age of 88. He was the second son of Józef Nagórski and Aniela of Muszyński family. He had four siblings. His father owned a small farm and a windmill. As a child, Nagórski made friends with the miller and spent a lot of his time at the mill. The miller often offered a place to stay overnight to people travelling from mill to mill looking for bread. “Windmill” stories told by the miller and his guests fired up the imagination of young Nagórski, who dreamed of becoming a traveler and an explorer.
After completion of the primary school, Nagórski went to the middle school (gymnasium) in Włocławek where his education was interrupted after the 6 grade due to lack of money. He started to work as a public servant at a local poviat court and, at the same time, took extramatural examination to become a teacher for four-grade schools. In the beginning of the school year 1905/1906 he took up employment as a teacher and headmaster at a village school in Krośniewice. With his earnings, however, there was no hope to raise enough money to pay the tuition fee required to study at the Warsaw University of Technology. In his desire to go out into the world and also to continue his education, Nagórski decided to study at a military school. In 1906 he passed an extramatural secondary school exam, and was then accepted at the Russian infantry junker school in Odessa.
Following his graduation in 1909 Nagórski got his first assignment to the 23rd Riflemen Regiment in Khabarovsk in eastern reaches of Russia. After spending 2 years at the Amur river living a colorful life in a multinational community, he was permitted to take up exams to the engineering school.
He went to St. Petersburg in July 1911, where he started to study at St. Petersburg’s Naval Engineering School upon successful completion of his exam. At the very time the world was buzzing with excitement over a new invention – the airplane. The very first aeroclub was just founded in St. Petersburg. With a bit of spare time between the exams and the beginning of the school, Nagórski started to study the theory of aviation and became member of the All-Russian Aeroclub.
He commenced practical training under the supervision of the instructor – senior lieutenant Mikołaj Jacuk (Nikolai Yatsuk). Nagórski made his first flight as a pilot 2 months later and soon received the International Pilot Certificate. At the same time, a military aviation school was established in Gatchina. Nagórski applied for admission to the school and with his pilot certificate in hand, he had priority of admission. Soon, he started to study at Gatchina whilst continuing his engineering school education.
In summer 1913 Nagórski graduated from the engineering school with marine engineer’s degree. Simultaneously, he completed his education at Gatchina aviation school earning the title of “War Pilot”. He was one of the first pilots of the imperial Russian navy. He served at the Chief Hydrographic Administration of the Ministry of Navy. 1913 was also a year full of excitement over polar expeditions. Everywhere, people were talking about expeditions to the far North. In summer 1912 expedition led by Georgy Sedov headed for the North Pole, together with two other expeditions: expedition of Georgy Brusilov to reach the Pacific via north passage and the expedition of Vladimir Rusanov aimed to explore the route to Spitsbergen. All three expeditions went missing in the icy land of the Arctic. Sedov’s expedition on ship ”Saint Martyr Foka” was intended to reach the Franz Joseph Land. Then, in spring 1913, Sedov was to set off for the North Pole on foot, and after reaching the North Pole return to Nowaya Zemlya or Greenland.
In 1914 Nagórski was summoned by the Admiral Mikhail Zhdanko and asked to participate in a rescue mission. The expedition was to include three teams. For the first time in history it was decided that an airplane was to be deployed. As an experienced pilot and marine engineer Nagórski’s task was to prepare the expedition and to choose the appropriate plane. He opted for the French two-person aircraft Maurice Farman MF-11, equipped with a reliable, air-cooled 70 horsepower Renault engine with heated carburetor and double cooling system. The airplane could reach a speed of 107 km/h, had a carrying capacity of 350 kg and a flying range of approx. 500 km.
Nagórski commenced with the preparations. Aware of his ignorance of the far North he turned for help to Roald Amundsen, the famous Norwegian polar explorer who, among other things, reached the South Pole in 1911. To his great surprise Nagórski very soon received an answer from Amundsen, who offered to share his knowledge and experience. The admiralty ordered a Maurice-Farman MF-11 airplane in France. On June 3, 1914 Nagórski went to Paris to Farman Aviation Works and Renault factory for a month to personally supervise the fabrication of the airplane and make himself familiar with construction details of the airframe and of the engine. He also completed 18 training flights on this type of airplane. It was also in France where he first met Amundsen, who came to Paris to share his knowledge and experience with Nagórski.
On June 27, 1914 the airplane was finally built and completed. The construction was disassembled, put into 8 boxes and sent to Oslo where Nagórski and Amundsen supervised the preparations for the expedition and loading of the equipment. Finally, on the 13th of July Nagórski’s Farman was loaded aboard the ship ”Eklips” leaving for Murmansk on July 14. There was also a second airplane (Farman Henri) on board to be used by a civil pilot Yevsyukov from the second expedition team. The third airplane – Maurice Farman MF-11 was sent earlier to Cape Chelyuskin from where colonel Aleksandrov was to take off.
On the 2nd of August everyone met in Murmansk, with the exception of the Andromeda crew assigned to search for the lost expedition and provide backup for Nagórski’s flights – the ship was already based in the Novaya Zemlya area . In Murmansk, Nagórski’s airplane was unloaded from ”Eklips” to steamboat ”Pechora”. Here, Nagórski was joined by the assigned mechanic-mariner Evgeniy Kusnetsov transferred from service in the Black Sea Fleet to accompany Nagórski. The commander-in-chief for the entire expedition was Commander Islamov on board the schooner “Gerta”. The search and rescue ship ”Eklips” was commanded by an experienced polar explorer Otto Sverdrup, who accompanied a famous polar explorer and later Nobel Prize winner Fridtjov Nansen in his expeditions. Another member of the team was the Polish physicist Jozef Trzemeski (later brigadier general of the Polish Army) who held the function of the scientific team leader during the expedition. „Eklips” with pilot Yevsyukov on board headed for the Kara Sea to search for expeditions led by Brusilov and Rusanov.
As it turned out later, only Nagórski was able to take off under severe arctic weather conditions and even complete a number of missions. Colonel Aleksandrov had crashed his Farman on takeoff, whereas pilot Yevsyukov decided that flying in arctic conditions was impossible. Some sources report that ”Eklips” departed without Yevsyukov and his plane was confiscated due to the outbreak of World War I in the beginning of August.
Nagórski and Kusnetsov with Maurice Farman MF-11 on board the ”Pechora” set off to Barents Sea on August 13, 1914. On the 16th of August at 9 p.m. ”Pechora” laid at anchor in Cross Bay on the north island of Novaya Zemlya, and on 18 of August boxes containing the aircraft were transported to shore. Next morning, Nagórski and Kusnetsov commenced with the assembly of the plane and completed their work 2 days later at midnight. The assembly was carried out outdoor, in the fog, sleet and temperatures ranging from -1°C during the day to -3°C at night. The boxes which were made of wood boards were used to build a temporary hut.
„Pechora” headed for Franz Joseph Islands leaving Nagórski and Kusnetsov on the island. The ship ”Andromeda” stayed anchored nearby to carry out independent search for the lost explorers. On August 21, Nagórski completed 2 test flights and, finally at 4.30 with Kusnetsov on board took off on the first flight over the Arctic. The route covered the northeast direction along the west coast of Novaya Zemlya. The flight lasted 4 hours and 20 minutes at the altitude between 800 and 1000 m and temperature of approx. – 6°C. According to reports, Nagórski and Kusnetsov flew about 480 km then (in fact, according to up-to-date maps it was approx. 520 km).
Between August 21 and September 13, 1914 Nagórski made a total of 5 flights and several short technical flights, being airborne for over 11 hours and flying nearly 1400 km over land and over the Barents Sea at altitudes ranging from 800 to 1000 m above the sea level under severe arctic conditions, heavy wind, snow fall, sleet, and temperatures from – 6°C to – 9°C . One of the flights ended with emergency landing. This flight was accompanied by the navigator Pospelov, the commander of the ”Andromeda”, which was called for help (arrived after 18 hours) when Kusnetsov fell seriously ill after the second flight. The flights were interrupted twice. For the first time, between the 23rd and 25th of August due to stormy weather and, the second time from the 25th of August to the 11th of September due to malfunction and repair of the engine. During his penultimate flight of 1 hour and 40 minutes, Nagórski reached the latitude of 76°30’N (approx. 1100 km beyond the polar circle).
Nagórski didn’t succeed in finding Sedov, whom he actually knew in person as they met in 1912 during his time at the Hydrographic Administration. He was able, however, to find a deserted hut on Pancrace Island and a tube made of sardine cans containing diary of Sedov’s expedition and Sedov’s letter to the Ministry of Navy. The diary indicated that Sedov’s whereabouts are approx. 15 hours of flight to the north, which exceeded three times the capacity of the aircraft. As it turned out later, Sedov died of exhaustion six months earlier. Sedov’s ship “Saint Martyr Foka” got stuck because of impassable ice near the Franz Joseph Land islands and had to stay for the winter in a bay on the Hoocker island. The food was scarce, the crew was sick with scurvy, some seamen died.
Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to go back, Sedov decided to set off for the North Pole. On the 15th of February 1914 Sedov set off with two seamen, 3 sleds and 24 draft dogs. Soon, on March 5 Sedov died of exhaustion. The seamen buried him on the Rudolf Island where they were able to find food left by an American expedition. After 14 days they returned to the ship severely exhausted with only 14 dogs.
The expedition of Brusilov on the brig ”St. Anna” became icebound near the western shore of the Yamal Peninsula in the Kara Sea and was drifting towards the north to the Arctic Ocean. The crew was helpless and the severe conditions pushed people to a desperate decision. On the 13th of April 1914, after 2 years of drifting with the pack ice and the ship already at a latitude of 83°17’N eleven seamen abandoned the ship and tried to walk over the ice to reach the Franz Joseph Land. There were only two survivors who were rescued by Sedov’s expedition on the ship “St. Foka”. The rest of “St. Anna” crew died. The ship was probably crushed by drifting ice.
The least is known of the fate of the expedition led by Vladimir Rusanov on the ketch (sailing craft with two masts) named “Hercules”. He set off for Spitsbergen on the 2th of June 1912 to look for new coal-bearing areas. At the end of field works, three members of the expedition returned to Russia via Norway. Rusanov, however, decided on his own and without consultation with the Ministry of Navy to set off east to reach the Pacific Ocean via the Northern Sea route. He left a telegram at Matochkin Shar between the south and north island of the Novaya Zemlya, which reached St. Petersburg in September 1912. It was the last to be heard of the expedition. ”Hercules” probably got trapped by ice which crushed the hull, whereas the crew drowned or died of starvation or cold. A pole thrusted into the ground bearing the name Hercules 1913 together with Rulsanov’s personal belongings was found almost 20 years later in 1934 on Popov-Chuchkina Island in the Kara Sea (near the Taymyr Region).
After the last flight, Nagórski and Kusnetsov dismantled the aircraft and on 23 September 1914 set off on board the “Pechora” to return to Arkhangelsk. In the end of October Nagórski arrived in St. Petersburg and reported to highly appreciative admiral Mikhail Zhdanko at the Hydrographic Administration. In acknowledgement of his achievements, Nagórski was awarded the Order of St. Stanislaus, class III and received a gold watch with engraved dedication from the Tsar Nikolas II. This commemorative watch was then lost during World War II – for fear of the Red Army soldiers the watch was handed over to a law firm in Gdynia for safekeeping, but unfortunately couldn’t be retrieved after the war anymore.
After two weeks leave Nagórski was transferred to a combat unit of the Baltic Fleet. World War I had already began. Nagórski asked for Kusnetsov to be assigned to his unit, but the request was declined, just as Nagórski’s request to award Kusnetsov a medal of distinction for highest qualifications and bravery. The requests were probably refused due to the fact that Kusnetsov’s name was on the list of persons suspected of revolutionary activity. On the 5th of November 1914 Nagórski went to Tallinn.
Admiral Nepenin, the Signal Officer-in-Chief, assigned Nagórski to the division of the lieutenant commander Dudorov. After completion of tactical training Nagórski flew to a seaplane battle unit in Eeslaht Bay (approx. 100 km southwest of Tallinn) where together with the assigned mechanic and shooter Kolya Degterov he made reconnaissance flights, went on bombing missions, fought German aircrafts and Zeppelins while flying the same Farman MF-11 he used to fly in the Arctic.
In the end of 1915 in winter, he became the leader and instructor of the flying training school’s seaplane squadron stationed on the only Russian seaplane carrier “Orlica”. After completion of the training in the spring 1916 he got his assignment to a combat unit stationed on the Zerel Peninsula, Saaremaa Island as the squad leader of the second squadron. Together with his new mechanic and shooter Vladimir Prestin, Nagórski fought the Germans on Grigorovich M-5 and later Grigorovich M-9 flying boat from spring to November 1916.
In 1915 the German pilots often tried to avoid airborne fights. Most of Nagórski’s missions involved reconnaissance flights of the highest priority, whereas the bombing missions were considered only a secondary task. Back then, the aviation didn’t pose a real threat to large belted battleships. The airplanes were armed with a few suspended, relatively small (20kg) aerial and depth bombs, as well as small (10kg) manually-dropped bombs carried in the cabin. Even though the bombing caused damage mainly to the deck of a vessel, there had been cases where smaller vessels were sunk.
Having less forces at own disposal in the Baltic Sea and backed up by a several British submarines that made their way through Danish Straits, the Russian Navy adopted a strategy of mine-laying in sea waters. After a partial success of Russians following the attack on Klaipeda and the Battle of Gotland, Germans strengthened their forces in the Baltic Sea in 1916. The Russian Navy was forced into the defensive and blockaded in the Gulf of Finland. The Russians succeeded in keeping the blockade unbroken. In the battle of the Gulf of Finland, they lost 36 battleships, while sinking 53 battleships and 49 auxiliary ships.
In 1916 the Germans strengthened their air forces as well. Having often more than the double military advantage they started to engage in air combat. In addition to patrol flights and bombing missions, the tasks of Nagórski’s squadron included air combat in defence of own military bases and raids aimed at German military airbases. In summer 1916, during one of the attacks on a German military airbase in Angern in a dogfight with two German squadrons defending the airbase Nagórski went for an unexpected manoeuvre. He pulled back the centre stick very rapidly while performing a loop to suddenly find himself flying over the chasing Germans. Mechanic Prestin, equally surprised, started to shoot blindly at the entire formation of Taube aircrafts causing panic among the Germans and disintegration of the formation. The Germans actually thought that another squadron was attacking them. It was the first ever loop performed with a flying boat, moreover, with a flying boat carrying bombs. Some time later, on August 30, 1916 Nagórski repeated the feat in his own airbase and performed a double loop in a Grigorovich M-9 flying boat which this time was documented as the international record.
Upon receipt of a report message about approaching German aircrafts in November 1916 Nagórski and his squadron of 6 seaplanes took off to combat 8 Taube and 7 Albatros aircrafts. Nagórski’s M-9 was shot down in combat and Nagórski himself was wounded on the leg. The bullet-riddled machine sunk, while the aircraft crew waited for rescue in ice-cold water. Unfortunately, no rescue was sent and both men were declared dead. Yet, Nagórski and Prestin were unbelievably lucky. As they were at the verge of losing consciousness due to exhaustion and hypothermia, a Russian submarine emerged coincidently at the surface just next to them. The doctor on board the submarine claimed that 10 minutes later they would have been dead. After a short recovery period in the hospital in Riga they returned to military service.
After his return from the hospital in the beginning of 1917 Nagórski received assignment to lead the squadron of seaplanes in Turku. When Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, Nagórski remained in the service of air forces of the Baltic Fleet, but was transferred to the scientific department of maritime aviation at the Headquarters of Naval Forces. He was the founder and editor of a professional magazine about aviation and held lectures on air combat tactics. Nagórski was repeatedly honoured for his military merits in the battlefield, including the Order of St. Anna, 3rd class with swords. When Poland regained independence in 1918, he asked for dismissal from service and permission to return to the country. In 1919, Nagórski returned to Gdansk where he later met his future wife Antonina Jaroszewicz. Afterwards, he moved to Warsaw to a small, ground-floor flat in Aleja Wyzwolenia street where he lived until his death.
In spite of his efforts Nagórski wasn’t admitted to service in the Polish naval air forces which he wanted to join, leaving his professional knowledge and experience unused. The rejection was probably due to his service in the Red Army forces. Seeing no perspectives of returning to flying, Nagórski engaged in many different jobs and activities. He worked in trade, in the oil industry and was even employed as an engineer and designer of power facilities and refrigerating devices. Further, he graduated from the Warsaw University of Technology with major in cooling and refrigeration engineering, and also studied agriculture and economics. He held various functions in Poviat Starosty in Gdansk and in the Pomeranian Voivodship Office, worked at Telecommunication Work Company, was employed as the chief mechanic and senior designer at Central Administration of the Meat Industry, worked at Dairy Industry Design Office and Fermentation Industry Design Office. He retired in 1958.
Before the World War II Nagórski kept in touch with the aviation community by cooperating with the Historical Commission of the Aero Club of the Polish Republic. After the war his activity as a pilot remained completely forgotten until 1955. It all started with a meeting, one of many that Nagórski used to attend. It was a meeting with Czesław Centkiewicz, Polish writer and explorer, dedicated to the Arctic issues. Centkiewicz mentioned the flights made over the Arctic in 1914 by Jan Nagórski, a Polish pilot who was killed during war in 1917. When the meeting was over, Nagórski stood up and approached Centkiewicz with words: Let me introduce myself. My name is Jan Nagórski, the one who died in 1917. I am alive. You can touch me, if you don’t believe me.
Due to the turmoil in Russia caused by the revolution, in all documents, including the subsequent editions of encyclopaedia Nagórski was referred to as dead. The sensational news of Nagórski being alive quickly spread by the Polish and foreign media. Nagórski was invited to Russia (then: Soviet Union) by the Director of the Administration of the Main Northern Sea Route, Rear Admiral Vasili Burkhanov and the commander in charge of the polar aviation, General Mark Shevelov. In July 1956 Nagórski flew to Moscow accompanied by his wife, where among many official visits he managed to meet his old colleagues. One of the persons he met was the widow of Georgy Sedov.
After his return, Nagórski was very actively involved in popularisation of the history of aviation, he attended numerous meetings and lectures, gave interviews. He wrote two books describing his experiences entitled ”Pierwszy nad Arktyką” (First over the Arctic) and “Nad Płonącym Bałtykiem” (Over the burning Baltic). Nagórski received many Russian distinctions, and one of the polar stations in Franz Joseph Land was named after him. In Poland, Nagórski was honoured with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta for his pioneer activity in the field of aviation, and also received the Badge of Merit of the General Board of Aero Club of Poland for significant contribution to sportive aviation for his subsequent engagement in popularisation of the aviation heritage and tradition. Jan Nagórski died on June 9, 1976 in Warsaw and was buried at the cemetery in Wólka Węglowa.