Jurgis Kairys Brings
Home the Cup, At Last


by Jonas Dovydenas

This article appeared in the December 2000 Falco Builders Letter.

The last time I reported to my fellow Falco builders about Jurgis Kairys he had flown his SU-26 under ten bridges in Vilnius. He completed every beaurocratic maneuver in securing permits and amazed an audience estimated at 150,000. It was an astonishing accomplishment -- where in Europe would they let you fly under even one of their bridges? What I didn't know was that he did not entirely get away with it. The tobacco and liquor commissars nailed him for advertising cigarettes: he had "West" and "Prince" stickers on his plane. Lots of them. In its haste to suck up to the eurocrats of Brussels, the Lithuanian parliament had banned all cigarette advertising with no phase-out period, a short time before Jurgis' flight. Guilty as charged, Jurgis was fined 5000 lits ($1,250).

Then things got interesting. Vytautas Landsbergis, the president of Parliament, and fan of Jurgis, paid the fine. He said the words "prince" and "west" were just words, not neccesarily advertising. In a country where everyone still puffs like they were packing to take the next boxcar to the gulag, cigarette advertising seems to me like a take-the-money-and-run proposition. In Jurgis' case, it was take the money and fly. The press ate it up. It was an absurd and poorly drafted law. In fact, the European court had thrown out the EU version as unconstitutional.

But before you blink at the thought of a politician being generous with his own money, consider this: it may have been evidence of an even rarer trait -- a guilty conscience. Though it was bad legislation and he opposed it during debate, Mr. Landsbergis did not keep the bill from going to a vote, as he had power to do, thus preventing it becoming law.

Every pilot has his own personal limits.  For Jurgis, flying
inverted with the fin six inches off the ground or water is his
personal low altitude limit.  "I'm unable go any lower," he says.

That was last year. This year I arrived in October a day after the King of Sweden deplaned from a commercial flight with a couple of friends to shoot ducks somewhere deep in the pagan woods and swamps of Lithuania (Lord knows, there are no forests in Sweden). I came to continue my own shooting of photos of the still visible detritus of the Soviet Union in Lithuania. Then, two days later, Jurgis returned from Japan, triumphant, holding the Grand Prix World Championship Cup in his hands. After ten years of being in the top five unlimited acro pilots in the world, the big prize was his at last. He was front page news. He was a national hero. He was indeed a true and photogenic champion with a knock-out lovely wife and two young sons, one of whom was already doing aerobatics as he was learning to fly.

And in his moment of glory, he announced that he was not going to compete any more -- he was going to run for president of Lithuania. This was a stunning maneuver no one expected nor could quite believe, like the rolling three-sixty he first demonstrated twenty years ago, or the hover, or the cobra. It was absolute Jurgis, and I will get back to it so we can appreciate the genius of the man in full.

The idea of a Grand Prix in aerobatics is not new. The top pilots in that small realm have always felt frustrated by the protocols of competition flying. Jurgis thinks flying the same routines over and over hundreds of times actually keeps pilots from thinking about flight. He would like to change the way judges score a routine. He would like to see the box enlarged or eliminated. He thinks flying to music is the way to go. So when Eric Mueller had a discussion with one of the directors of Breitling at the 15th world championship competition in Switzerland in 1990, the seed was planted in the right place. Many of the directors of Breitling are professional pilots. The idea appealed to them and a decision was made to support an aerobatic competition that would not bore the public with hundreds of pilots boring the same holes in the sky hour after hour.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Grand Prix takes place over the course of a year as a series of four events. Each event has its own winners. The pilot who has the most points after the four competitions gets the grand prize. Prizes are awarded to formation as well as solo flying. In addition, the machines are ranked and their makers awarded a prize. In the competition in Montegi, Japan, in October this year, the Extra, flown by Peter Besenyei was judged to be the outstanding machine. But usually the Sukhois and their pilots are the champs over and over again.

The events are as much an air display as a competition. The show part attracts a huge audience. The competition part determines who gets to dwell on top of the world. The rules are: pick four minutes of music you like, fly to it, impress the judges. The judges have seen a thousand times every piece of your routine done to perfection. So you have to put those pieces together into an aerial dance that never has been seen before. Show that you can fly like a butterfly, or a crow having fun. Display continuity and structure. Invent, if you can, a new maneuver. Jurgis can claim quite a few. Do this four times, and you get to be the world's best pilot. Some of us fly our Falcos pretty well, but we'll qualify as Clark Kent's wingmen before we can reach Jurgis' level.

The 1999-2000 cycle was held in China and Japan. The first event was in Motegi, Japan. Jurgis was in first place flying his SU 26. Victor Tchmal second, Nikolay Timofeev third, Peter Besenyei fourth in an Extra 300S, Kirby Chambliss, the only American at this level, flying fifth in an American-made Edge 540, Klaus Schrodt in an Extra was sixth, Segei Boriak was seventh, Martin Stahalik was eighth, and the lovely Svetlana Kapanina was ninth. These were the contenders whose names appeared in varying order throughout the series.

The second event was held in Zhang Jia Jie in China. The third in Wuxian where due to mechanical problems with his plane, Jurgis had to borrow a Sukhoi 31 from the Czech team. Nevertheless, Jurgis kept his first-place lead. The pilots were also encouraged to fly through a natural hole in a big rock. Kairys flew through it upside-down. There was also talk of flying under a bridge.

Jurgis asked the Chinese officials if the bridge was insured and if anyone had gotten the permits. There were blank stares all around but the outcome was that only Chinese pilots flew under that bridge. The last event was held in Motegi, Japan, in October, 2000. Jurgis was in first place overall. All he had to do to get the grand prize was was not zero out. On the day he was scheduled to fly the ceiling was so low he had to use a back up routine. A day earlier Peter Besenyie had turned in his best performance yet, in good weather. He took first place. Jurgis was second. But overall Jurgis was unbeatable. Back in Vilnius, asked how it felt about winning, he said "I feel like all this has happened before. If I were younger I could feel excited. Now it's part of my job."

Jurgis Kairys likes jokes, driving racing cars, and low level flying. That is what he lists under "interests" on the FAI website. One of his jokes is wearing a blue wig. He looks oddly like a demented Seiji Ozawa as he walks the ramp waving to his amused pilot bretheren. But in the air the cockpit video picks up the bright blue hair shooting straight up as if he were about to collide with a flock of ghosts. Jurgis has his joke and the TV audience has a big, blue g indicator.

Every pilot has his own personal limits. Every fatuous aviation article tell us not to exceed those limits. For Jurgis, flying inverted with the fin six inches off the ground or water is his personal low altitude limit. "I'm unable go any lower," he says. But he does -- when he is able to borrow a Formula 1 car from a friend. His friend is Mikka "The Iceman" Haakinen. Mikka is like Jurgis -- also the best in the world. When Jurgis asked Mikka if he was coming to Lithuania to watch him fly upside down under a bridge, Mikka wanted to know who was going to be there. Jurgis told him there would be over a hundred thousand people, CNN, a lot of Euro channels, and every TV camera in Lithuania. "Of course I'll come," Mikka replied. Mikka landed in a corporate jet, with an entourage, and his own security detail. They were wearing silver Team McLaren uniforms with the West cigarette logo next to the Mercedes star. If Mikka was advertising those horrid coffin nails no weasel deep in his beaurocratic burrow dared to get in the way of Mikka's trajectory. That's the difference between Grand Prix Formula 1 and not so Grand Prix unlimited acro.

It's a difference Jurgis would like to see erased. Formula 1 races have a huge following. There is a mystique about it. The little million dollar cars go round and round, their engines whining in contra-tenor ecstasy. The drivers are exposed to maybe five g's max. The cockpit is tiny compared to what's in an aerobatic aircraft. The driver and car are close to being out of control. The driver who comes closest to not crashing in the shortest time, wins. It translates well into a spectator sport on TV. Moreover, crashes are not always fatal and if on fire, the driver has a minute or so to contemplate life before his fireproof suit begins to melt. Thus, I suspect, many spectators feel it's okay to sort of want to see a crash. Whereas I don't know of anyone who thinks it would be kind of cool if an airplane fell out of the sky during an event. That makes acro seem farther away from the boundary between life and death.

Another problem is that airshows are slow. Huge crowds of people amble about looking at or daydreaming about flying machines. The warbirds come and make the sounds that tranfix us, the Blue Angels fly as one. There is the grazing on carnival food. There is an atmosphere of languor which won't play on TV -- everything is lost in translation. Or, in a typical aerobatic competition, hundreds of pilots risk their lives to fly a more perfect figure, but the pilots and their friends usually outnumber the audience. Ice fishing looks more exciting on TV than watching a hundred snap rolls on top of a loop.

Jurgis and the FAI would like to make competition flying into a popular TV sport. He has seen Mikka's world, and he wants in. He knows going from plus-twelve to minus-ten g's fifteen times in maybe a minute is worth showing to the world. He has been at the center of adulation in China and Japan so he knows aerobatics and show business can mix. Jurgis flew under bridges to get the media's attention. He raced formula cars with his Sukhoi knife-edge 15 feet above a track in Japan. He mounted video cameras on the tail, on the wing, and inside the cockpit. Several cameras on the ground provided continuity. The screen would change from Jurgis' sagging face and lolling head to a view where the earth is where the sky should be, and it looks like a fly-by of the moon in a space craft. Four minutes to music begins to seem like a long time. In China the video went out live and was later re-broadcast. Perhaps a billion people saw Jurgis and the eight other pilots. If aerobatic flight ever achieves the kind of status and budgets commanded by F1 racing, it will be in part due to Jurgis' vision and determination.

Jurgis is an aeronautical engineer, Sukhoi's test pilot, and his own aircraft mechanic. He was involved in the design and performance engineering of the Sukhoi 26, 29, and 31 models. These are the reigning acrobatic machines of the world for the last ten years. If the Sukhois are bears (oops, excuse me) to control, blame it on Jurgis. He had the planes built for pilots at his level. Presently he is working on a next generation prototype. He does not talk about it very much. He told me it has characteristics he doesn't fully understand. During a photo session in a hangar, I saw some fixtures that most homebuilders would recognize. He saw that I saw. "Please don't say anything to anyone. I will bring it out when I'm ready." Maybe when Jurgis is ready to show what the new plane can do we will see the ultimate acro machine -- only Jurgis will be able to fly it.

Jurgis Kairys

The style of acrobatics we see today was developed twenty years ago by Lithuanians Stepas Arishkevichius and Jurgis competing with each other while on the Soviet team, coached by another Lithuanian, Pranciskus Vinickas. When Stepas was killed in an accident, his place was taken by Rolandas Paksas, a young pilot who attracted world attention flying in competition in Australia in 1982. Today Paksas is the Prime Minister of Lithuania (are pilots trying to take over the country? Stay tuned). An early convert to the new style of continuous rolling and tumbling was Manfred Schtrossenreuther, who died in an accident in 1986. Today every unlimited pilot flies in the style promoted by the Lithuanians in the sixties.

It's hard to think about acro without thinking of death by obliteration. I have been in Oshkosh when pilots augered in. I have read the preliminary accident reports that appear every month in Sport Aerobatics magazine. Since 1993, five world class pilots have died. Alexander Lubarets, a Russian, Natalia Sergeieva, the world champion in 1990 crashed in Moscow in 1995, a year later Rick Massagee in a Sukhoi with a defective spar, last year Christian Schweitzer and his son, this summer John Lilleberg, whom I remember from the Orlando Breitling competition in 1996, in a collision with a Learjet. Jurgis has flown for over twenty years in this enviroment of violently flown maneuvers, blind chance and risk calculated to an infinitesimal margin of error. And he has been blessed with luck, the beneficent presence of the hand of fate which let go of Massagee and Lilleberg. There is not a trace of bravado in his speech and demeanor. Personally, I was most impressed with discovering that Jurgis does not take unnecessary chances. That's how I think everyone should fly.

In Japan, practice-flying to Mozart's Concerto in C.

Lithuanian TV has made a video of Jurgis' flying in China. His choice of music was the dreamy and sublime melody from Mozart's Piano Concerto in C, from the movement most of us know as the theme from Elvira Madigan. Except that it is performed on the classical guitar in a way that makes Jurgis' flying seem as languid as a slow motion ballet. The music fits perfectly with the perception of flight from the ground. We see Jurgis in a vertical spiral down, but we don't realize he rolls his plane twenty-five turns in something like eight seconds. The view from the cockpit shows a blur of earth and Jurgis' head tossing from side to side. Another camera shows his tortured face framed inside a perfect helix of smoke receding into space. And we don't believe it. Jurgis is waltzing in the sky. Effortlessly. Flight and music are a single serene expression of one man's vision of where he is in the universe.

He can be forgiven for thinking he has reached and grasped a kind of perfection. But perfection is a moment, not a life. We can replay his achievements over and over, but Jurgis cannot. The man on the screen is no longer there. As a true champion he is moving on, investing the capital of his fame. His flights under the bridges of Kaunas and Vilnius were designed to show his little country to the world. He asked people to come and look at him, and they did. The Grand Prix gives him leverage to say things which will appear in the news the next day. He says he wants to run for president, but first he wants to explain himself.

In any country overloaded with politicians and beaurocrats populism, "peasants with pitchforks", is a scary word. Jurgis sure seems like a populist to me. He was born in Siberia. His parents were taken there in cattle cars to satisfy a political agenda enthusiastically carried out by government employees. Distrust of parties, politicians and their cronies is Jurgis' patrimony. "I have no use for parties. The people don't need them either. I have always said I belong to no party. I want to defend the interests of the people, not the (interests of the) party", he has said in an interview. "In the air you are a maniac, what are you going to be like as President?" asked the press. Jurgis calmly answered "I am going to be the same -- I will know how to calculate the degree of risk. I will not attempt what is beyond my capability, what is insane. He is a patriot pure and simple.

But in politics he will not be waltzing to music with a partner he understands and trusts completely. I wish him well and look forward to the next chapter, hoping that for the good of Lithuania, there is one.

Jonas Dovydenas on the desert somewhere in Nevada