Stanisław Nowkuński (1903–1936) – Had he not slipped…
30 July 1936. The beautiful but unpredictable Tatra Mountains have once again shown their might. This time, it was Stanisław Nowkuński, the most talented Polish aircraft engine designer, who lost his life in the mountains. His life was abruptly ended after a fall from Cierny Stit in the Jaworowa Valley.
Two years earlier, the 31-year-old Nowkuński was the talk of the town among all aviation enthusiasts. Many considered him a genius, with a great career ahead.
Warsaw, 16 September 1934. Polish crew won the 1934 Challenge international contest for the second time. It was the most prestigious aviation competition, not just in Europe. Unhampered by inferiority complex, a country that 20 years earlier had not even existed, joined the world aviation elite. Poles owed their spectacular success to the RWD-9 plane, and especially its great engine designed by Stanisław Nowkuński. The aircraft had an unprecedented efficiency ratio and produced one hundred horsepower per every 57kg of engine weight. Such performance was beyond the reach for the British, French or German engineers, who were not even close to Nowkuński’s design. In the mid-1930s, the PZL P.11, the basic Polish army aircraft, became obsolete. The popular PZL P.11 aircraft were first of all too slow. Neither their maneuverability nor great pilot training could make up for their low speed. The Germans were developing their Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters; the British were finishing their work on the Spitfires. Poland needed a fast fighter plane. At the highest political levels, it was decided to design a successor to PZL P.11. Unlike Germans and the British, Poles tried to design a two-seat, utility aircraft that could carry bombs. The aircraft was called PZL.38 Wilk (in Polish: wolf) and was designed to look similar to the successful PZL.37 Łoś (in Polish: elk) bomber. The Łoś had one of the world’s best aerodynamic profiles, so there was no need to look any further. A bigger issue was the Wilk’s propulsion. As a utility aircraft, it was supposed to have two powerful engines that would have different characteristics from those of bomber planes. It was clear who would be tasked with designing the PZL.38’s power units.
The eight-cylinder engine was called Foka (in Polish: seal). Nowkuński began working on the engine in 1934. Many historians believe that it was impossible for the “Foka” engine to achieve the necessary performance parameters. Nowkuński claimed that he would accomplish it. We will never know if he would keep his promise.
The PZL.38 Wilk took off, but its Foka engines were in the development stage. They did not have enough power to meet expectations. However, previous successes made people believe that engineer’s talent would guarantee success. And that was the source of the project’s failure. Sudden death interrupted the work. No one apart from Nowkuński could deal with the technically complicated design. The wolf was toothless. The project failed.
On 30 July 1936, Nowkuński successfully descended Cierny Stit. However, on his way down, he left his camera filters. He climbed back to get them without using a safety rope. On his way down with the filters in his hand he slipped and fell, dying on the spot.
After the great success of the RWD-9 plane, companies from Italy and France were interested in buying a license for the winning aircraft’s engine. That might have been the only case when the countries that produce Fiats and Renaults wanted to buy a license for power units from Poland.
The popular and successful Polish PZL-104 Wilga plane was bought by as many as 21 countries. Its engine has 200 hp while weighing 200 kg. Thirty years older, Nowkuński’s engine fitted in the RWD-9 planes produced 260 hp while weighing only 148 kg!
The 1934 Challenge contest was made up of several parts: quick engine starting, technical evaluation, a short takeoff trial, which required flying over an 8-metre barrier (Poles managed to do it on an 80-metre stretch) concluded with a maximum speed trial. The RWD-9 plane, thanks to Nowkuński’s brilliant engine, was able to fly at the cruise speed in the last trial, because none of the 33 other machines could make up for their losses.
The accident in the Tatra Mountains prevented Nowkuński from starting another project. The designer was tasked with engineering a 1,000 hp radial engine. On the eve of World War Two, the Polish air force was in dire need of such engine… because earlier it lost Nowkuński.