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Museum not yet ready for take-off

  • 2000-05-18
  • By Darius James Ross
Ever since the first hand-me-down bi-planes appeared in Lithuania after WWI, Lithuanians have maintained an on-going passion for all manner of flying machines. The Lithuanian government recently followed this spirit by handing over an abandoned Soviet-era airport on the outskirts of Kaunas to the country's Aviation Museum and Archive. In existence since 1982, the museum finally has the appropriate digs for displaying some of its more than 13,000 exhibits, 15,000-volume library and 35 helicopters, gliders and airplanes.

Truth-be-told, a lack of financing is preventing the display of most of its more interesting exhibits. More than 30 aircraft are sitting in an old hangar on museum grounds until it can afford to weld them back together and have them repainted. For now, the visitor is limited to viewing a one-room display of three airplanes as well as hundreds of photographs and other odds and ends - trophies, uniform insignia, flight jackets and models. A curiosity is the collection of miniature wooden aircraft designed by Petras Motiekaitis, who set Soviet records for speed and distance in the 1970s at competitions where designers were only allowed identical rubber bands for propulsion.

The high point in Lithuanian aviation history was from the mid-1920s to the beginning of WWII. Independent Lithuania's Air Force was not satisfied with importing all of its planes and engineered and built its own fleet of reconnaissance aircraft of which the ANBO IVL was by far the most successful. This was no small feat given Lithuania's small population and nascent, largely agrarian economy. Its designer, Antanas Gustaitis, won Europe-wide recognition for his achievements.

Visitors to Lithuania will also notice the many streets and schools named after Darius and Girenas. Stepas Darius and Stasys Girenas, two Lithuanian-American immigrants, who were acquaintances of Charles Lindbergh, occupy an important place in the country's historical consciousness. In 1933 they attempted to fly a modified single-engine airplane nonstop for the 7,186 kilometers from New York to Kaunas.

Although the exact nature of their demise was never ascertained, it is widely believed that the Nazis shot them down over present-day Poland with only 650 kilometers left in their flight. Had they made it, they would, at that time, have placed second in the world for distance and fourth for the amount of time spent in the air. To this day, they are considered martyrs of a young Lithuania and, despite the tragic nature of their death, are symbols of hope and achievement. A full-scale mock-up of their airplane, Lituanica, is waiting to go on display in the museum once more funding becomes available. Following Soviet occupation, Lithuania's air space became extremely restricted due to its proximity to the West and the private operation of aircraft was forbidden. But Lithuanians irrepressible love of flying soon found another outlet in the establishment of dozens of glider clubs, a form of aviation less frowned upon by the authorities. Kaunas' Prienai manufacturing facility became the leading supplier of fiberglass gliders to the rest of the Soviet Union.

Today's generation of Lithuanian flying enthusiasts are continuing the tradition. Present Vilnius mayor and future presidential hopeful, Rolandas Paksas, is well-known for his love of flying - an activity that contributes greatly to his image as a fearless and self-assured leader. Last autumn, stunt-pilot Jurgis Kairys set a Lithuanian record by flying under all of Vilnius' 10 bridges over the Neris river, the lowest one only six meters above the water.