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Warsaw. 90 years of Okęcie airport

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Although it was supposed to be a temporary airport, it celebrates its 90th birthday on April 29. Both then and now, Okęcie is the largest airport in Poland. The press from 1934 admired its scale and modernity.

The history of the capital's airports begins in 1910. The Warsaw Aviata Society received permission to build an aviation school and an airframe factory in Pole Mokotowskie. There, in the vast areas stretching between today's Niepodległości Avenue and Grójecka Street, for the next two years, training flights took place under the supervision of Aviata. Then the facilities and equipment were taken over by the tsarist army.

In 1915, the troops of Emperor Wilhelm II entered Warsaw. In the following years of World War I until Poland regained independence, Pole Mokotowskie was operated by the German aircraft manufacturer Albatros Flugzeugwerke. The taken over buildings housed a branch of plants producing fighters, reconnaissance and training planes used by the Central Powers on the fronts of the Great War.

In November 1918, Military Aviation Workshops were organized in some of the former Aviata facilities, which were soon renamed Centralne Zakłady Lotnicze. Initially, Pole Mokotowskie was responsible for the renovation of machines imported from Western Europe. Then CZL started their own production.

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The first passenger lines in Warsaw

Since the beginning of the 1920s, the airport at Pole Mokotowskie has served more than just a military function. In 1921, Aerotarg passenger planes landed there. The line established in Poznań was intended to serve participants visiting the first edition of the Poznań International Fair. However, from 1923, the fleet of Aerolloyd (later Aerolot) landed at the capital airport. The planes flew on the Free City of Gdańsk – Warsaw – Lviv route. Then the offer included flights from Warsaw to Krakow and Łódź, and in 1925 the first foreign connection: Warsaw – Krakow – Vienna. The flights were operated by German Junkers F 13 aircraft.

At the airport in Pole Mokotowskie, buildings were built to serve passengers, including a wooden station building with a waiting room, a ticket office and a restaurant. The post office, police and fire brigade also had their branches here.

At the same time, preparations were underway for the construction of military and civilian airports in the area of ​​Okęcie near Warsaw (officially incorporated into Warsaw only in 1951). In 1924, there were reports in the press about the approval of the architectural design of the new airport by the Warsaw City Hall and the Ministry of Military Affairs. However, this project was not implemented due to the unregulated legal status of the land.

According to Tomasz Lachowski in the book “LOT from Okęcie. Air communication on Polish lands 1913-1939”, it was only possible in 1927. Then the Ministry of Communication obtained consent to implement the investment. The official opening of the civilian airport at Okęcie took place after six years: on November 1, 1933. For the next few months, passengers were checked in at a makeshift pavilion. The actual station building was opened on Sunday, April 29, 1934.

“Everything there shines with purity and elegance”

The opening of the new airport was covered in the press at that time. Brief mentions appeared in many newspapers the next day. An extensive report was published by the Katowice-based “Nowy Czas”, whose journalists were guests at the opening.

“Poland's new 'window' into the distant world. A huge, wonderful airport station began its service in the capital yesterday” – read the title on the first page of the issue of April 30, 1934. “A long procession of buses and private cars rushes towards the garlanded green entrance gate to the airport. Long before 10 a.m., the port and the take-off square are filled with a crowd of nearly two thousand people,” described the “Nowy Czas” journalist.

The press of April 30, 1934 widely reported on the opening of the Okęcie airportPublic domain

The gathered crowd was waiting for the most important guest, the then president of the Second Polish Republic, Ignacy Mościcki, who raised the flag and symbolically opened the airport to public use. In turn, as reported by “Kurier Warszawski”, the ceremony was accompanied by “beautiful and truly summer weather”.

“The new port of Warsaw-Okęcie, over which the President of the Republic of Poland raised the national flag, is a complex of large buildings and hangars located in the north and east of a huge, green airfield. The hangars can accommodate even the largest aircraft. They have: mechanically and tightly closed gates, water pipelines and sewage system, smooth floor, good lighting, central heating and petrol and olive taps,” the author of the article said.

He further described the passenger station, which included postal, telegraph and customs offices, a police station, ticket offices, a waiting room, restaurants and toilets. “Everything there shines with purity and elegance,” the journalist admired.

Port Okęcie also had its own radio station “for the purpose of communicating with other aircraft”, a lighting system that ensured safety after dark, and a residential building for the staff.

“Conceived on a grand scale and with concern for the future, today's Okęcie airport is a truly European airport,” emphasized the “Kurier Warszawski” reporter.

There was also an announcement to expand the network of international connections. “For now, the authorities announce that the capitals with which we maintain communication (Vienna, Bucharest, Sofia, Riga, Tallinn) will also include – in addition to Berlin – Moscow and Istanbul, i.e. Constantinople” – reported “Kurier Warszawski”.

The civilian airport was to operate in Gocław

The Okęcie airport was intended to be a temporary passenger airport. Ultimately, only military planes were to take off and land here. The civilians were planned to be moved to the other side of the Vistula – to Gocław. The project of a new passenger airport was created in June 1939. Further work was interrupted by World War II. Pre-war plans did not take into account the proximity of Gocław to the center of Warsaw and the increasing dimensions of passenger planes. Therefore, the old plans were abandoned.

After the war, the Warsaw Aero Club developed on the right bank. The peak of its activity was in the 1950s and 1960s. Concrete runways were never built here. The airport in Gocław remained grassy. Due to the intensive housing development being built in this part of the city, in 1971 a decision was made to liquidate the airport. In 1976, the Warsaw Aero Club moved to Babice. The airport in Gocław was finally closed two years later. What remained of him were hangars and street names in the estate, more or less related to aviation.

Despite its “temporary nature”, the Okęcie airport developed dynamically for the first five years. In the first year of operation, almost 11,000 passengers checked in. By 1939, the capital's airport had six domestic and 17 foreign connections. There were plans to open routes across the Atlantic Ocean. These ambitions were stopped by the outbreak of the war.

One million passengers a year back in the 1970s.

The first bombs on Okęcie fell at the beginning of September 1939. After the occupation began, the Germans (with the help of Polish workers) repaired the damage and restored the port to use. In his book, Tomasz Lachowski points out that the airport became particularly important for the occupier in June 1941, when the Third Reich attacked the USSR. It served as an important transit point. After the fall of the Warsaw Uprising, when the Red Army was pressing west, the Germans began to gradually destroy the port's infrastructure.

Civilian traffic at Okęcie was resumed less than two months after the Red Army entered Warsaw in March 1945. In the first post-war years, the rubble was cleared and the old infrastructure was rebuilt. A makeshift station was also built, which served passengers for nearly a quarter of a century.

In 1962, a decision was made to expand the Okęcie airport. Seven years later, the International Airport Station was opened and served its function until 1992, when Terminal 1 was built.

Terminal 1 opened in 1992Chopin Airport

According to the Chopin Airport website (Okęcie received this name in 2001), the first million passengers were served at the capital airport in 1971. After the opening of Terminal 1, in 1993 there were 2.2 million passengers, and in 1999 – 4 million.

Data provided by the Civil Aviation Office show that throughout 2023, 18.5 million passengers were checked in at Chopin Airport. Meanwhile, 122 scheduled destinations are planned in the summer flight network.

When writing the article, I used:
-Tomasz Lachowski, “LOT from Okęcie. Air communication on Polish soil 1913-1939”;
– Marcin Białas, “Airport in Gocław” in: “Stolica. Warszawski Magazyn Ilustrowany”, April 2016;
– Bronisław Dpowiedz, “Ochota – the center of air transport” in: “The History of Ochota”.

Author:Dariusz Gałązka

Main photo source: LEAVES

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