The Ten Bridges of Vilnius


by Jonas Dovydenas

This article appeared in the September/December 1999 Falco Builders Letter.

Jurgis Kairys does the bridges in Lithania.

One thing about travelling in my other country, Lithuania, is that it's so small sooner or later I run into everyone I know -- friends from America, Vilnius friends, distant relatives, and occasionally someone who asks me if I'm the photographer Dovydenas (nobody in Lithuania asks me about my Swing-Wing Falco, except Gandanauskas whenever I run into him, usually at McDonalds in Vilnius).

So I was not really surprised when I noticed Jurgis Kairys standing next to me at the luggage carousel after coming off a plane in Vilnius recently. A week later I ran into the President of Lithuania at a reception in a small town a hundred miles from Vilnius, who, as it happens, is an old friend from my Chicago days.

And -- one more, then I'll get on with my story -- my mother needed a serious operation, so I had to find the best doctors in Lithuania. Out of the team of six, I discovered I am related to four of them. It's like going to the Urbanna Oyster festival wondering if you will find Alfred Scott slurping his way through a bushel of oysters. You certainly will.

Jurgis Kairys

As I started to say, I bumped into Kairys and he tells me he will fly under all ten bridges of Vilnius tomorrow. And he gives me a big, folded invitation with a picture of him in his Su-26. Then he introduces me to the person he's meeting -- Jean Monnet, the former jet jockey, and his lovely assistant Lynda Renwick. They are from Switzerland and maybe Kairys can talk them into organizing a world cup event next summer in Lithuania.

But at the airport I'm thinking, why does this guy, who was the world's champion freestyle pilot in 1990, who was number two in the 1994 Breitling Cup, number three in 1995, number two in the WAC 4 minute Free Style in Oklahoma in 1996, need to fly under bridges? Jeez, I could do that in my ratty Falco.

Of course, Kairys did a bit more than just fly under a bridge: he had a permit to fly under ten bridges, an almost unimaginable achievement. (The average permit if you want to do anything in Lithuania, like, say, borrow a friend's car for the day because yours was kidnapped and you need to collect some money to buy it back, requires 7.4 rubber stamps. A recent experience with remodelling a house in Vilnius has shown me it takes 2.33 days to get one stamp out of one beaurocrat, though once, in Haiti, I spent three days chasing a single stamp for my visa. So there are worse places in the world for red tape, but not many.)

Kairys didn't have problems getting a permit -- the Prime Minister of Lithuania was on the Soviet aerobatic team with Kairys, back in the days when the Empire was administered in Moscow, not Brussels. And before he was PM he was mayor of Vilnius and flew wingman when Kairys flew under the White Bridge in '96. With the right connections the rise and fall of empires is but a momentary inconvenience.

"My '96 flight (under the bridges of Kaunas) was a surprise (gift) to the people of Kaunas. The following year my flight was for the capital city Vilnius. This year I want the world to see what the people of a small country are capable of.... In other countries no one has to fly under bridges... they already have their place in the sun." Kairys' obvious sincerity struck a rusty chord in me. Patriotism is a fine thing, but in America it's either a perversion (like Ted & Jane) or a joke (like Perot). So it's a pleasant surprise finding someone promoting not just himself but something else worthwhile, too.

Like every other private pilot in the world, Kairys has airplane bills to pay. He can't just check his Sukhoi when he travels to compete. His Su-26 is not quite as plastered with logos as a NASCAR Chevy, but it's getting there.

His flight was on Channel Three, live. Sony used the flight to publicize three new, compact video cameras -- one on the fin (which is where I put a Nikon on my Falco), one on the wing tip and one in the cockpit. And to re-broadcast the flight in Japan, where Kairys has a following.

An Audi dealer put a big banner and the new TT Coupe on a high trailer on the White Bridge, the one Kairys flew under four times. The VW logo and cars were glistening on the Green Bridge. Vilnius Savings Bank was one of the sponsors, as was West cigarettes, a Phillip Morris brand. Their banners were tied to the railings. A radio station set up its mobile studio in the middle of the crowd. Its cleverly designed trailer scissored up fifteen feet into the air, unfurling two big banners.

The river Neris winds through Vilnius, its banks about thirty feet deep. The Saturday afternoon was beginning to chill in the pale northern sun. The sloping banks of the river were lined with people, like a stadium built for a contour plowing contest. The staff of a hospital were on the roof in their white garb. Guests of the high rising "Lietuva Hotel" were crowding the balconies, a camera crew was on the roof. They would see a rare sight-an airshow from above.

About a hundred thousand people were waiting for one man in an airplane -- and that man, one of the best pilots in the world, crashed his car on the way to the airport. Pilots say any crash you walk away from is a good crash. Kairy's had the best. The cars were totalled -- everyone walked away. He continued to the airport in one of the escorts. Judging by his flying, a brush with death on the highway does not distract him in the slightest.

Kairys is an important pilot. Patty Wagstaff once said his style was worth studying, but she's only ten or twenty places behind him. Though I'm a pilot I could no more productively study Kairys' flying than understand how gliders work by reading Frati's fascinating articles in the back issues of this newsletter. It's a mystery. I know a lot of work and practice goes into four minutes of free-style acro flown to music, but what does Kairys actually do to achieve his result? I have no idea. He told me once that before you can do what he does, you have to learn to disregard going from -8 to +10 g's every few seconds. Then you can think about your flying. Oh, I'm glad he told me.

I flew the Falco down to Orlando in '94 to watch him compete in the Breitling Cup. All I can say is that it was beautiful and different. The only other pilot whose flying struck me as having a recognizable style was Nikolai Nikitjuk, the Ukrainian. Perhaps that is why Kairys does not do well in standard aerobatic competition. He's different, and you get points off for that. Or maybe he's just bored with repeating more perfectly a figure that has been done close to perfect a million times. The Russians once wanted him to fly with a military aerobatics team. He said no, that's just too boring, turning a jet in ten-mile circles.

The first bridge of Vilnius is about five miles away from the last. Kairys flew under the downriver-most bridge first. Then he flew back and forth, out of sequence. This way he appeared the most number of times over the biggest crowd, which was in the center of the city. In between flying under the bridges he would put on a display of aerobatics. Nothing extreme, but nice enough. He was building suspense for his best shot, billed in the press as the Jaketori Maneuver.

I was standing on the White Bridge, in the center of Vilnius. Monitors were set up to show the views from the cameras on the plane. Apparently there was too much vibration or something, because the Sony cameras would cut in and out. The wide angle close up inside the cockpit showed Kairys intensely scanning and turning, the deadpan expression on his face moving up and down, from side to side as the constantly changing g slammed him around. It was a very special-effects, Hollywood-moment, only it was really happening. Then the screen would fill with snow and shimmering scan lines. Then the view from one of the wing cameras would appear. I think when Sony gets it all together we are going to see Oshkosh playing on national TV.

Radio controlled model airplanes have been hanging by the prop for years, but Kairys was the first to show that it was possible in a Su26. It's a strange sight. The airplane is not flying, not even moving. I saw him in Orlando, in '94, just hanging there, taking a break in the middle of his four-minute routine. Now he would demonstrate a further refinement -- the Cobra, which is what Jaketori means in Japanese. The Russians did it with one of their variable exhaust nozzle MIGs, but no one thought of trying it with a propeller plane until Kairys did it.

Kairys hangs on his prop and helicopters down the river Neris.

He came in slow over the river at an altitude of about thirty feet. The pitch-up was sudden and the plane ran out of momentum almost immediately. Although it was not rising, it was still slowly moving forward along the original line, only at a 90 degree angle of attack. Then it stopped for a few seconds, hanging there. Slowly it went on its back and flew away at a steep angle, going in the opposite direction. I think the crowd clapped. I don't remember. I was trying to figure out what control imputs would get the plane to do that.

Then Kairys was gone and the smoke started to drift away in the darkening silence. A few days later I spoke to him on the phone about what's next. Well, he said, I'm going to Japan for six weeks. I asked him about the mysterious prototype model MAI90 which he picked up in Moscow. What's going on with that? I don't want to talk about it too much, he said. But you have it, right? and are you flying it to find out what it can do? No, I'm flying it to find out what it can't do. I suppose we will never know what the MAI90 can't do, but if we're lucky and there is a World Cup Competition in Lithuania next summer we may see what it can do.

P.S. If any of you Falco builders think now that you know where Gando hangs out you can go buy a Swing Wing Falco Conversion Kit on the cheap directly from him -- forget it. I lied about McDonalds.

When he's not designing swing-wing mods for the Falco, Jonas
spends his time raising money for his favorite political candidates.