Of Pilots and Ironworkers
by Jonas Dovydenas
Last May Jurgis Kairys emailed me that he wanted to come to the states to look at two unfinished kitplane projects. He wanted a faster plane in addition to the Cessna that he kept in Vilnius. One project was in New Haven, the other at St Mary's airport, near the Pax River Naval Air Station. I enthusiastically volunteered to fly him to each place. New Haven is 30 minutes away, St. Mary's is a little farther, and it has been a familiar waypoint to me on the way to many Oyster Fly-ins over the twenty years of flying my Falco.
When Jurgis arrived the weather was not good, and he had to drive to each place. But it was good enough to take the Falco up and around Pittsfield and Berkshire County. It was a short flight, but both of us enjoyed it. We flew straight and level, enjoying the scenery as we chatted about the Falco. Then I did a fairly steep 360 degree turn to demonstrate one of my favorite qualities of the Falco: it shudders before it stalls in a turn. Then I suggested he could do some aerobatics.
He declined firmly. "I am not familiar with this airplane."
At first I thought it was an odd remark, but it was not. I realized that Jurgis is under a strict, self-imposed discipline not only when he is competing, but he has disciplined himself never to break the rules that are important to him, and he never does. Even when it doesn't seem that it would matter. We have known each other for many years. I have flown with him in his YAK-52. I have watched him in his car, and he drives like he flies. But now he was with me, in a plane whose condition he knew nothing about, with a pilot whose skills he was not sure of, and he was not wearing a parachute.
What seemed to me at the time a non-issue I understand now goes to the heart of how he has been able to fly for so long without making a mistake, now in his 60th year.
Think about that. I did, and I realized I had embarrassed myself. I have survived several aerial bombardments in Germany when I was a kid; I have photographed in combat zones in Afghanistan, and I lived to talk about it not because of any skill I had, but pure good luck.
Jurgis has been the top unlimited aerobatic pilot in the world many times and luck, I say this with confidence, had nothing to do with it. He and his fellow Lithuanian pilots brought aerobatic flying down to ground level in the seventies, when they roared onto the international scene as part of the Soviet team not because they were lucky, but because they are good.
I have seen him practice his inverted cobra maneuver with the tail several inches off the ground. It is not luck that gives him the confidence to do that. It was his perfectionism and training and confidence that makes him able to fly without making a mistake. Once, while competing, his propeller shed one of its three blades. He reacted instantly by shutting down the engine before it ripped itself off the firewall. He then made an easy dead-stick landing. Maybe he was lucky, but I would say he made his own luck that day.
As I was starting to write about Jurgis I received an email from John Rukavina, an ironworker who installed the twin TV antennas on top of the John Hancock building in Chicago in 1969. As it happens I was hired by RCA to photograph that installation.
1969: Jonas and the risk-averse John Rukavina on the top of the John Hancock building in Chicago.
John and I became friendly and one warm, calm, Sunday afternoon he took me to the top of the west mast. We were belly to belly on top of a 20" tube, 450 feet above the roof, a few feet less than 1500 above the sidewalk. John shifted his weight a little. The mast moved a little. Some fifteen seconds later it moved again, the other way. The shove had travelled down the antenna and came back up to give me a little shiver. We caught our breath, enjoyed the view, took some photos and then climbed back down the several hundred feet of open rungs, down a ladder to the roof inside the 10 foot wide, 100 foot high steel tube, upon which the antennas were secured.
That was in 1969. Now, John was telling me he was going to lift an antenna to a mast on top of the Willis building, formerly the Sears. A TV crew was going to cover the lift and someone was making a video about his working life. It was going to be a helicopter delivery, something John hates because he thinks it's very dangerous, with too many things not under his control.
John is my age. He is 72. Like Kairys, he's a perfectionist, and he has never had an accident on any high iron he set in place. When a reporter asked him if he wore a safety harness, he replied that you only needed a harness if you were going to fall. That logic made the reporter's head spin for quite a while. The idea that you can do your work without making mistakes was a bang on the reporter's brain. And to most of us ordinary mortals. But not to John and not to Jurgis. Their work is mistake-free, or they die.
Kairys really taking a risk -- he has to go home.
That does not mean that Jurgis and John are above living dangerously. Jurgis Kairys's flirtation with extreme hazard can be seen in the photo of him after winning a competition in Japan. Those sirens look good to me too, but I can also imagine the frying pans flying around, aimed at him in the Kairys kitchen when he returns home to his lovely and patient Penelope (whose real name is Birute).
John tied a Romney for President banner to the mast he set on the Willis building that day. And he told a reporter that he would jump off a bridge if it would help Romney win the election. That took real guts because John knew what would happen. You can imagine what happened. And it did. But John's response was that he put the banner up for a candidate he supported in a free and democratic election in America, a free and great democracy. And he pointed out that he unfurled an American flag on top of the tower, above everything. He did that on behalf of all Americans, regardless of their politics. His statement was, hey, this is a free country and don't try to change it.
In John's defense I quote another (in)famous Chicago dissenter "guilty as hell, free as a bird, America is a great country." I would say that John is a philosopher indeed. And if he finds the right bridge to jump off I'll be there beside him, beside myself.
Here is what Jurgis told me about his flight in my Falco.
Flying the Falco was very impressive. I liked it how the plane energetically pulled away from the runway. We took off faster than I expected. In the air the plane was a pleasure to control, stable in flight, quite fast and nimble. It looks small, but inside the cockpit it is comfortable and there is room for everything. Everything in the cockpit is right and necessary. It was well thought out and built twenty years ago but today it is still reliable and without shortcomings. I realized that the Falco I was flying was Jonas's trusty, pleasant and beautiful friend.