Have You Heard The One About The Polish Helicopter?
June 2003

by Steven Trent Smith

President Bush’s recent visit to Poland reminded me of a trip we made there in 1983 with another world leader– Pope John Paul II. It was JP2's (as we liked to call him) second visit to his native land. And there is one episode that will forever remain my favorite memory of the trip.

We were sent to a place called Nowa Huta, a steel town in the south of Poland, to do a story about the remarkable people there. In many ways it was a routine shoot. What was so memorable was the journey there and back.

CBS had chartered a helicopter to fly us from Warsaw to Nowa Huta. Our unit consisted of correspondent Bob Simon, producer Lucy Spiegel, our government interpreter, Michael, and Martha and I as camera crew. Early in the morning we were driven to a small airport outside Warsaw, where we were met by our pilot, a handsome man in his early forties, wearing a natty blue airline uniform. He spoke no English, but when he was introduced to the women he graciously removed his cap, bowed his head, took their hands in his, and kissed them.

The pilot took us over to our machine, a Mi-2 seven-seater. The aircraft was designed in the Soviet Union, but built in Poland. The ship was like many Western helicopters I’ve flown, standard in every way except the cockpit layout. What was obviously the pilot’s seat, the only one with a stick and rudder pedals, was on the left. What would have been the second pilot’s seat in any other chopper, was on the right and slightly to the rear. And it had no controls– only a seat belt. It was a puzzling arrangement indeed.

As we were loading the gear into the aft storage bin a chap came out of the hangar, walking toward the Mi-2. He was dressed in overalls, and spent a few minutes checking over the ship. The pilot beckoned us aboard, and as we climbed in, so too did the other fellow. The pilot strapped himself into the pilot’s seat; the other into the second chair. Somewhat concerned, I asked our interpreter to find out where the co-pilot was. Came the reply, “There is only one pilot. This man is the mechanic. If the machine requires repair, he will fix it.” A mechanic? We need a mechanic? My greatest fears were realized. Here we were, about to fly half-way across Poland, in a Polish helicopter, accompanied by a Polish mechanic. It began to sound like one of those bad ethnic jokes you used to hear back in the 80's: “How many people does it take to fly...”

It was a two-hour flight to Krakow from metropolitan Warsaw. We lifted from the ground, heading due south. The terrain was mainly hilly farm country. As far as the eye could see there were small green, brown and yellow squares, punctuated here and there by farm houses and small villages.

The pilot employed a unique flying technique. He had been told by air traffic control to keep the helicopter at an altitude of one-thousand feet. And he adhered strictly to his instructions. To be more precise, he kept the ship at an even altimeter reading of one-thousand feet above Warsaw. As we soared over the hills and valleys, the ground rose and fell to meet us, flying straight and level. At times we were fifteen hundred feet above the earth. At other times we were less than a hundred. We all enjoyed the hilltop parts, revealing a close-up view of rural life in Poland. We passed over hundreds of small farms, scattering herds of cows. Farmers tilled their land with mule-drawn plows. There were few cars or trucks on the roads, just old wagons pulled by horses.

As we flew on toward Nowa Huta, producer Lucy Spiegel briefed us on the town’s place in national history. It was built in the 1950's as a “proletarian paradise.” The Soviet architects included every imaginable amenity in this New Town– theaters, shops, parks, gardens, public squares, recreation facilities. The only thing the Marxist planners left out, not surprisingly, was a church. And in Poland, where ninety-percent of the people are Catholic, that was a pretty serious omission.

For many years the Catholics of Nowa Huta did not let the lack of a church prevent them from worshipping. They went underground, meeting secretly in one-another’s homes. Pressure mounted on the government to permit the construction of a real church, and in 1977 Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, consecrated St Mary’s, Nowa Huta's first house of worship. Shaped liked the Ark, and built entirely by volunteer labor, St Mary’s was conceived, as one priest told us, “to give shelter to those drifting in a Red sea.”

In a few days the former Archbishop, now Pope John Paul II, would return to Nowa Huta to consecrate a second church, St Maxmillian’s. Our assignment was to shoot a piece on the town that brought Marxism to its knees.

As we neared Krakow the pilot flew a circle above nearby Nowa Huta and the huge, smokey Lenin Steel Works that employs most of the town’s workers. We crossed over Krakow to land at the commercial airport on the city’s western edge. It was eerie– the tarmac and terminals were nearly devoid of aircraft. Krakow was a city of more than a million people; the airport should have been bustling. We were met there by two local “minders” from Interpress, the Polish News Agency. Boarding a Mercedes minibus, we were driven off toward Nowa Huta.

We photographed the city’s “Soviet Gothic” apartment buildings, a theater, the gardens, the local farmers’ market and the imposing statue of Lenin. Next stop was the more imposing Cathedral of St Mary’s. There we found several weddings being celebrated; the scenes made touching pictures. We drove on to St Maxmillian’s, where hundreds of people worked on last minute preparations for the Pope’s visit. Our story was scheduled to be transmitted back to America on the satellite that evening. As our deadline drew near we returned to the airport.

We loaded the gear into the Mi-2 and strapped ourselves in. The pilot started the twin turbine engines. But we did not lift off. We waited. And waited. It didn’t take long to notice that the pilot was arguing fiercely with someone over the radio. After a few minutes he shut the machine down, grabbed Michael and the mechanic, and hiked back to the terminal. More time passed. Finally the three reappeared, waving a sheet of paper they said we all had to sign. “What is it?” asked Lucy Spiegel. “A passenger manifest,” said Michael, obviously embarrassed by the situation. “The authorities want to make sure that every person who arrived on this helicopter is departing on this helicopter. Please put your name, your title, your home address and your passport number. Sorry.” We filled out the document, even the pilot and mechanic, and returned it to the tower. After the proper checks had been made we were given permission to take off.

We again enjoyed the scenery, and passed around a bag of wonderfully sweet yellow cherries we bought at the Nowa Huta farmers’ market. After just half an hour we began to descend. We were puzzled. All we could see were fields, no airport. As we neared the ground we realized we were landing on a grassy pasture full of other helicopters, including the Pope's impressive white and yellow Mi-8. JP-2 was somewhere nearby, celebrating a mass. When we asked why we were landing, the answer relayed back from the cockpit was, “To refuel.” Why hadn’t we refueled in Krakow? “The city is only thirty-five miles from the Czechoslovakian border. The authorities would not let us refuel for fear we might try to escape.” What's this? Defect from one Soviet Bloc country to another? That was about the silliest thing any of us had ever heard. And some government official, thinking a helicopter full of Western journalists might try, well that was even sillier. We would-be defectors stared incredulously at the pilot. He just shrugged and muttered some apologies in Polish. When we landed, a fuel truck pulled alongside. Our mechanic, pleased at the chance to finally make a contribution to the flight, jumped out to refuel the ship. There we sat, in the middle of this field, in the middle of Poland, permitted to pump only enough kerosene to get us back to Warsaw.

Our troubles at Krakow airport, and the refueling stop, had put us well behind schedule. We landed as darkness was falling. Having spent nearly four hours in the Mi-2, we were glad to be back on earth. We thanked the pilot, who took the opportunity to kiss the ladies’ hands again. We shook hands with the mechanic, thanking him for not having anything to fix. We loaded up our gear, and as we departed, I gave the old helicopter a pat on her tail. She didn’t turn out to be such a bad joke after all– unlike some of the rules, regulations, standards, practices and officials we had encountered that day. By the way, have you heard the one about the guy who stopped four American journalists from defecting to Czechoslovakia?

© Steven Trent Smith

Steve Smith is a cameraman for CBS News and 60 Minutes. He and his wife, Martha, founded Videosmith, a Philadelphia-based company that sells and rents professional and consumer-level video equipment.


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