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Dead to the World

An aviation pioneer, one of the first military pilots, an engineer and inventor; the first person in history to fly an aircraft over the Arctic.

Jan Nagórski – or Ivan Iosifovich Nagorski, which was the name used in official documents for the first 30 years of his life, in Tsarist Russia and later in the USSR – was in every way a remarkable man. Considered dead in the Soviet Union, forgotten for decades in Poland, he led a simple life in an apartment in Warsaw, while his life story is a ready screenplay for a history adventure movie.


Aero Club Man

Alfons Jan Nagórski was born in Włocławek, in the Russian Partition. He had to give up learning after finishing the sixth year of middle school, since his parents were not able to financially support his education. The then 16-year-old Jan became a clerk’s assistant at the local court, at the same time trying to obtain a permit to teach at school. In the fall of 1905, he started work as a teacher and the head of a small school in Krośniewice near Włocławek. However, a teacher’s career was not the peak of his ambitions, all the more since it involved constant surveillance of education officials. He wanted to start learning at the Warsaw University of Technology, but it was impossible considering his modest salary. Instead, he volunteered to join the Imperial Russian Army and applied to the Infantry Junker School in Odessa.

He graduated in 1909, and, as a second-lieutenant, he was directed to the 23rd East Siberian Rifle Regiment in Khabarovsk. In the summer of 1911, after two years of monotonous garrison service on the far eastern borders of the empire, Nagórski managed to pass demanding exams and became a student of the Naval Engineering School in Kronstadt. He spent the last days of holidays before the academic school year in St. Petersburg, where he joined a recently created aero club. He found aviation so fascinating that he started learning at the newly-opened Military Aviation School in Gatchina. In 1913 he was already a holder of not only a diploma in military naval engineering, but also a certificate giving him the then elite title of a combat aviator. He became one of the first pilots of the Imperial Russian Navy and began his service at the Main Hydrographic Directorate at the Ministry of the Navy.

At the beginning of 1914, the government tasked the ministry with organizing an operation to find traces of three Russian Arctic expeditions that set off independently of one another in 1912, and went missing: Georgy Sedov’s expedition to the North Pole, Georgy Brusilov’s maritime expedition to the Pacific via a northeast passage, and Vladimir Rusanov’s expedition to Spitsbergen.

For the first time in history, a search and rescue operation in the Arctic was to involve aircraft, so Jan Nagórski was asked to take part in the undertaking. His task was to prepare the technical part of the expedition and choose a machine that would best suit such an operation. He went for the French Maurice Farman MF-11 two-crew hydroplane, capable of landing on snow and ice. In June 1914, Nagórski personally supervised the production and assembly of the aircraft ordered in France. He also met in Paris with the famous Norwegian explorer of Polar regions, Roald Amundsen, who shared his knowledge on how to act and operate in Arctic regions.

At the beginning of August 1914, the participants of the expedition, divided into three search parties, set off to the north, despite the fact that European powers were at that time already officially in a state of war. On August 16, Nagórski’s team reached the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where they set up camp. Jan, together with his mechanic, Yevgeni Kuznetsov, put together a hydroplane in two days, working out in the open, in fog, rain, and below-zero temperatures. The machine worked perfectly, so on August 21 they took off – it turned out that it was the first ever flight over the Arctic, along the north-east coast of the Novaya Zemlya.

Nagórski and his mechanic performed a total of five search flights until September 13, 1914. They spent over 11 hours in the air, and covered almost 1,500 km over land and the Barents Sea in difficult weather conditions. During one of the flights, Jan reached a point lying about 1,100 km north of the Arctic circle. He was the only one that successfully got off the ground. The pilot of the second team crashed his machine already on the first take-off, and the third one did not even manage to assemble his aircraft.

The whole search expedition ended in a fiasco. Neither Nagórski, nor the ship crews operating on sea were able to find the Russian explorers. The only trace they came across were fragments of Sedov’s expedition’s diary found on one of the islands. On September 23, 1914, the search and rescue operation was declared over.

Double Loop

Having returned from the Arctic, in November 1914 Nagórski started service at the naval air squadron of the Baltic Fleet in Tallinn. He executed missions involving reconnaissance, bombings, and countering German aircraft and airships. At the end of 1915, he became for a short time the commander and instructor of the training squadron of hydroplanes on the Orlica ship.

In the spring of 1916, he became the commander of a combat air squadron stationing on the Baltic island of Saaremaa. He piloted the latest model of the Russian Grigorovich M-9 flying boat, in which he fought many dogfights. During one such clash, he made a remarkable maneuver – pulling the stick sharply, he performed a loop to get his M-9 over the German aircraft that were chasing him. His mechanic-gunner was then able to rain fire on enemy machines. This was the first ever loop performed with a flying boat, let alone bomb-laden. Several weeks later, already at his own base, Nagórski repeated this maneuver, performing a double loop, which was officially recognized as an international record.

Miraculously Rescued

Air battles over the northern Baltic Sea between 1915–1917 were full of terrifying episodes and truly epic moments. One of them involved Lt Jan Nagórski and his onboard gunner. In November 1916, during one of many dogfights, their hydroplane was hit. The damaged machine sank, and both crew members waited for help in the ice-cold waters of the Baltic Sea, getting weaker and weaker from progressing hypothermia. Nagórski, with a wounded leg, was suffering enormously. When they were beginning to lose hope, a Russian submarine unexpectedly surfaced right next to them to refill its air tanks. As it turned out later, the base had not sent a rescue party, since both airmen had been deemed killed in battle and put on the list of casualties.

Despite the chaos of the two subsequent revolutions in Russia, the archives still held the daily lists of the Baltic Fleet personnel losses. On their basis, despite the fact that he returned to service after having been shot down, from 1918 Nagórski would for several decades appear as “killed in combat” in all Soviet papers, biographical dictionaries, and encyclopedias. The situation did not change even after the Bolsheviks took over power in Russia and Nagórski was still formally an aviator in what then became the “red” Baltic Fleet. He did not serve in line, though, but was transferred to the science and training section of the naval aviation command.

Difficult Return

Nagórski never revealed why he remained in the ranks of the Baltic Fleet after the Bolshevik Revolution. One thing is for certain: he was not a communist. Besides, as soon as Poland regained independence, he applied to be discharged from military service and in the early spring of 1919 he returned to Poland. He tried several times to join the ranks of the Polish Armed Forces, i.a. the Naval Aviation Squadron in Puck, but all his applications were rejected. It was the time of the Polish-Soviet War, and his almost one-year-long service in the Red Army probably influenced the decision of the authorities of the Second Republic of Poland. There are also many indications that Nagórski was additionally deprived of a chance to work in civil aviation, as he never piloted an aircraft again.

He settled in southern Poland and engaged in designing and building energy-generating and cooling facilities, applying the knowledge obtained at the Warsaw University of Technology, where he pursued a secondary specialization in cooling systems. After WWII, during which he cooperated with the underground, i.a. as a constructor of explosives, he studied agriculture- and economy-related subjects.

In the interwar period, Nagórski kept only symbolic contact with aviation, cooperating between 1928–1939 with the Historical Commission of the Aero Club of Poland. After WWII, his aviation-related activity was completely forgotten. Nevertheless, the Arctic remained his hobby and passion. In 1955, Nagórski was attending a meeting dedicated to the Arctic, where a well-known explorer, Czesław Centkiewicz, lectured about the history of its conquest. He mentioned a “Russian pilot, Ivan Iosifovich Nagorski, who died in 1917 during the war.” Nagórski waited until the end of the lecture, approached Centkiewicz, and said: “Let me introduce myself – I am Jan Nagórski, the aviator who reportedly died in 1917. As you can see, I am alive. You can touch me if you don’t believe it.” There is also another version of this event, less politically correct in the times of the Polish People’s Republic, in which the appalled Nagórski stopped Centkiewicz’s speech and said: “That aviator was neither Russian, nor is he dead – I am him!”

The news on the first Arctic pilot being not only alive, but also living in Poland, immediately became a sensation. It quickly spread in the press, and resulted in Nagórski’s unexpected popularity, which was a bit embarrassing for him. In 1956, he was invited to the Soviet Union, where he attended many official meetings, but also visited his former friends – the still living companions-in-arms from the times of WWI. He used his sudden fame to popularize aviation and its history in Poland. He organized lectures, participated in conferences and symposia, gave interviews, met with young people.

Unappreciated Exploit

It seems that only at the end of his life did Jan Nagórski fully realize the historical significance of the Arctic expedition he took part in. His flights over the north-west coast of the Novaya Zemlya preceded by almost a decade the arrival of the next aircraft in the Arctic – no sooner than in 1923, a Swiss pilot and explorer, Walter Mittelholzer, basing on Nagórski’s experiences, for that matter, managed to fly an aircraft along the coasts of Spitsbergen. The already mentioned Roald Amundsen, who in 1926 made a pioneering flight in an airship over the North Pole, also drew from the experience of the Polish pilot.

In 1925, Nagórski was contacted by Richard Byrd, who came across one of the reports from the flights over the Arctic. He obtained a lot of detailed data from Nagórski regarding meteorological conditions and other issues crucial in planning a Polar expedition. In 1936, the aviator, unknown in Poland and reported dead in Russia, was finally honored in the USSR. A Soviet meteorological station that existed until 1997 on Franz Joseph Land, was named after Jan Nagórski (“Nagurskaja”). The station was given a new life in 2017 as a Russian military facility, and the grass airfield built next to it was named “Nagurskoje,” in honor of the first Arctic pilot who is up to this day considered as one of their own by the Russians. Unfortunately, Jan Nagórski’s achievements are still little known in Poland, and he himself is again somewhat forgotten.

Tomasz Otłowski

autor zdjęć: arch. rodziny Nagórskich

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