Frank Piasecki: It’s your future…Be there!

Autor: Eva Orlowska

Frank Piasecki receives the National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan, 1986

The title quotes legendary vertical aviation pioneer at the 2005 Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony. Frank Piasecki will be remembered next month at the Polish Aviation Museum in Cracow for his contribution to aviation, family, community and US-Polish business relations.

Honored by President Ronald Reagan with the National Medal of Technology in 1986 and Medal of Merit by Polish President Lech Walesa in 1994, Frank Piasecki’s legacy brings pride both to Poles and Americans. Born to Polish immigrants in Philadelphia in 1919, Frank Piasecki exemplified the quintessential American Dream. At 21, with a fresh B.S. in aerodynamics engineering from New York University, he put together PV Engineering Forum, which before the inventor-industrialist turned 40, became the world’s largest helicopter manufacturer, the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation.

He flew his first helicopter, the PV-2, at age 23. That was in 1943 while holding down a full time engineering job at the Budd company in Philadelphia making bomber turrets. He and college buddies from UPenn would pocket handfuls of scarce parts. During wartime, nuts and bolts were hard to come by. The swash plate for the PV-2 main rotor was retrieved from a junk yard and the tail rotor 90 degree gear box was pilfered from an outboard motor. These were all part time kids who Frank Piasecki rallied and kept corralled, excited and productive for most of their lives.

Frank at his NYU graduation with parents Nikodem and Emilia   Piasecki, 1940

By 1955, “Pi” as he was popularly known, employed 6000, including many Polish émigrés. He restructured with the help of Rockefellers for the interim company Vertol to be acquired by Boeing (today’s Boeing Rotorcraft Systems). The classic serial entrepreneur without delay formed another company, the Piasecki Aircraft Corporation (PiAC) to continue advancing the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) technologies. In time of need, he assisted Boeing in ramping up the production of his original designs for US Army, Marines and Navy.

In 1958, he married a timber magnate’s granddaughter, the beautiful Vivian O’Gara Weyerhaeuser, with whom he shared seven children and 50 years of marriage.

Frank Piasecki’s achievements are countless. His 1945 simple yet radical two-rotor tandem design, so called “Flying Banana”, became the precursor to Boeing’s iconic Chinook and Sea Knight. The Chinook, instrumental in Vietnam, is still irreplaceable in high altitudes of Iraq and Afghanistan today. Late into his 80’s, Piasecki pushed the boundaries of speed, lift, range and safety with innovations like Sea-Bat VTOL drone, Aerial Geep flying car, Ring-Tail high-speed compound helicopter, hybrid heavy-lift aircraft, X-49A compound Seahawk and VTOL unmanned aerial vehicles.

“It’s not science fiction but practical applications that my father never stopped thinking about,” says Nicole Piasecki, vice president of Business Development for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, sipping her Starbucks coffee at 6:30am. “Profitability wasn’t his motivation but doing the right thing. He wanted to use the aircraft to solve real life problems like lifting harvested timber from the side of a mountain where there are no roads or runways. His work revolutionized transport, evacuation, disaster relief, fire fighting, heavy construction and so much more.”
Relaxing some more before an intense day at the Renton office, Ms. Piasecki adds, “Above all, I want people to know what an incredible father he was to all seven of us. He saw his role in life as a teacher to us.”  Now she smiles broadly,  “Like a little army, he had us work after church on Sundays, always asking why and how we could improve. Driven about play as much at work, he was an incredible dancer, musician and photographer. I believe his parents instilled that love, work ethic and confidence in him.”

Frank Piasecki with wife Vivian O’Gara Weyerhaeuser, daughters Lynn and Nicole and sons Fredrick, John, Frank, Michael and Gregory, 1978

Piasecki’s daughter, Lynn Cunningham, a documentary film producer in New York City, remembers her father’s piles of aviation journals, “He never stopped learning and sharing his ideas. When his eyesight failed, he simply assigned his aids to read to him and clip interesting articles to be sent to his children and colleagues.” Ms. Cunningham’s beautiful documentary about her father will be available for viewing as part of the exhibit titled: “Frank Piasecki and Others” opening on May 30th at the Polish Aviation Museum in Cracow.

“It is my brothers and cousin Walter who carry now our father’s vision,” says Ms. Cunningham. “Fred is PiAC’s Chairman and Chief Technical Officer, John is the President and CEO and Walter is a Special Assistant and Graphic Designer.”  Michael and Greg own Dragonfly Pictures Inc. and push the frontiers of vertical lift with UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).

“Our mother and family are delighted to attend the exhibit in Cracow,” says Frank, Piasecki’s son, President of Activ Fiancial Systems. “Dad was proud of his Polish heritage and thought highly of Poland’s deep engineering tradition and technical expertise in the field of aviation. Post-Martial Law, he promoted Poland relentlessly as America’s strategic partner in Europe. Because of his support of Ronald Ragan, George H. W. Bush and the Eisenhower Foundation and his close relationships with General Edward Rowny (Polish-American), Ambassador Strauz-Hupe (founder of Foreign Policy Research Institute) and John F. Connelly (Philadelphia philanthropist with close ties to Pope John Paul II and CIA Director William J. Casey), he was able to open many doors for Poland in the early stage of the transformation.”

Frank proceeds to share his father’s positive impressions of PZL factories in Mielec, Rzeszow, Swidnik and Warszawa-Okecie during their visits in mid-1990s.  “Dad was honored to receive the Medal of Merit from Poland’s President Lech Walesa in recognition of his contributions to US-Polish relations and his direct assistance in obtaining FAA certification for the “Sokol” helicopter,” he says pleased that Poland is reclaiming its rightful place in global aviation.

Krzysztof Radwan, director of the Polish Aviation Museum in Cracow, says, “the public is eager to view the exhibit about Frank Piasecki and other engineers of Polish decent who contributed to the boom of aviation around the world.  Poland has a proud history in this sector, as visitors will see. In the interwar period, Polish aviation experienced the most dynamic growth in Europe. During the Cold War, Mielec factories produced a plane, even two a day. Whereas we often celebrate the pilots, this time we want to honor the engineers who had been a driving force behind many global achievements.”

Polish fighter pilot, who flew Polish squadron bombers in the Battle of Britain, says, “the skills of Polish aviation engineers played a significant role in the outcome of WWII and later in the success of aviation in the UK, France, Canada and USA.” Captain Alexander Herbst, who now resides in Seattle, remembers, “Polish aircrafts made a sensation at the Paris Air Show in 1938. Following the Nazi destruction of the Polish Air Force, a significant number of our pilots and engineers escaped to UK to fight on the side of the Allies in the Royal Air Force and, after the war, emigrated to work for Concorde, Bombardier, Boeing, Piasecki and others.”

Piasecki Helicopter team with landmark innovations: PV-2 and H-21, the “Flying Banana”, 1953

Andrzej Rybka, Executive Director of Aviation Valley in southeastern Poland, says, “The exhibit about the impact of Polish engineers abroad coincides with the recent European Commission Aerodays Conference in Madrid that included our CEO, Marek Darecki, in the High Level Group on Aviation Research. As our homegrown family businesses integrate into the global supply chain with Boeing, Airbus, Sikorsky, Pratt & Whitney and other manufacturers, we develop the competencies that allow us to shape Europe’s Vision for Aviation now and through 2050.

For information about the “Frank Piasecki and Others” exhibit, please, visit Polish Aviation Museum in Cracow,