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Arrow Pilots:Jan Zurakowski

Jan Zurakowski

B 1914-D 2004


Jan Zurakowski Jan (Zura) Zurakowski was born in 1914 to an ethnically Polish family in what was then part of Russia. His father was a doctor and once the Soviets seized power, he feared for his well-being, and that of his family since the Communists were eradicating the "intelligentsia." Thus in 1921 the Zurakowskis, posing as peasants, managed to escape to the newly independent Poland. Jan learned to fly gliders in High School and later joined the Polish Air Force. While in flying school, he met Anna. She must have made quite an impression on him (and visa-versa!) since despite the history that was shortly to unfold, they would eventually re-unite and marry once she was able to escape Soviet Poland.

Six months before the Nazi invasion of Poland, and the beginning of WW II, Janusz was posted to a training Squadron on Pzl-7's as an instructor.

When the Germans attacked, Jan was part of a three aircraft formation of the out-moded Pzl-7's trying to shoot down the very fast Dornier Do-17's engaged in bombing operations. The Dorniers simply edged up the power when the Pzl's were spotted and outpaced them. Ever cagey, Janusz learned from the mistakes and began to try to approach the formations alone, to either escape detection, or perhaps hoping they simply wouldn't run from a sole attacker, on a third attempt, Jan managed to close unseen on a formation. He opened fire but the return fire was accurate and he broke off his attack. The Pzl-7, being a trainer, used 2 WW I vintage Vickers machine guns with poor (time-expired) ammunition. By the time he was under fire both of his guns had jammed. While evading the German fire, he cleared both guns (the breeches were inside the cockpit) and managed to again get into a position to fire. He managed to score hits on the last German aircraft in the formation and the smoke trail left by the Dornier indicated he had damaged it. This would be Jan's first victory of the War.

Jan and a good deal more Polish pilots escaped from Poland when the Nazi victory was apparent, to France. Still later, this nucleus of pilots arrived in Britain.

The Battle of Britain

Jan would fly with several Spitfire Squadrons and command 316 Squadron. His intelligence, dedication and skill also meant that he would be used as a valuable liason and staff officer. This certainly undercut his flying hours. Despite these demands, Jan would be credited with 3 destroyed, and 1 probable during the Battle of Britain.

Janusz stated that the early Spitfire's were a very specifically designed aircraft leaving little allowance for other roles, or indeed comfort. (Today we would consider this designing to a single-design point.) An example he gave of this was its lack of a windscreen defroster. On one engagement he had been chasing a Bf-109. The usual German tactic when faced by a British fighter was to dive since the early British Merlin engine carburetors would cut out under zero "G". The Messerschmitt was also somewhat faster at least in the initial portion of the dive. As Jan dived after the German, his windshield iced up completely due to the temperature and humidity differential at altitude compared to lower down. Despite this, he closed on the German to where he could see the wing-tips of the enemy aircraft through the side panels of his canopy, (VERY CLOSE!) and opened fire. The 109 crashed into the sea close to shore.

While serving with 316 (Polish) Squadron as a Flight Commander, Jan met “Spud” Potocki. Jan mentioned during our interview thinking at the time that Spud was easily the best pilot on the Squadron and remembered him later.

Jet Age Test Pilot

Jan's exceptional flying ability ensured he was on the second-ever Empire Test Pilots' course in Britain in 1944 and in 1945 he began testing the Vampire Jet Fighter at Boscombe Down. Postwar he was hired by Gloster's as Chief Experimental pilot on the Gloster Meteor with Bill Waterton, a Canadian from Alberta who was Gloster's chief test pilot being his boss. (Waterton was the first pilot to fly the Avro CF-100.)

Always an enthusiastic aerobatic pilot, Jan was often called upon to do air show demonstrations of the new military hardware. In 1946 he gave a dazzling display of the Martin-Baker MB-5 at the first Farnborough air show earning raves in the press and other media. Not all Jan's experiences were happy however. While demonstrating the de Havilland Vampire for a Russian delegation (and in front of many RAF brass!) Jan experienced a phenomenon that plagued early jets (especially) referred to as the "box". At low speeds, the drag increases rapidly as the angle of attack is raised to provide enough lift. This can soon exceed the power of the engine and only putting the nose down to gain airspeed will prevent a stall. While doing a low and slow pass, partly due to the slow rate of power increase on early jets, Jan entered the box. Quite gently the aircraft, howling at full power, settled the last few feet to the runway and came to an embarrassing and grinding halt. Jan walked away from the not-badly damaged aircraft with an undoubtedly chagrined look on his face. Once can only imagine the grins of the Russians, and scowls of the British!

While test flying the Meteor, Jan also developed the first new aerobatic manoever in about 20 years termed the "Zurabatic Cartwheel". The story goes that sometimes during exceedingly tedious "lectures" and wrangling meetings with the engineers, his mind would drift to aerobatics. A new test of the Meteor ground-attack version involved carrying four bombs far out on wings of the Meteor. Jan realized that with the weight of the engines so far out from centre on the Meteor, that this would cause some interesting effects if one engine was cut while the other was at full power. Taking his slide rule from his pocket, he spun up some numbers and concluded that something unheard of might be accomplished.

He soon put his theory to the test in the air. With a late model Meteor, loaded with these bombs, Jan put the nose down at full power, then pulled to the vertical. Nearing zero airspeed he simultaneously cut one engine, and kicked full rudder into the dead one, leaving the other at full howling power. The asymetric thrust, coupled with the inertia provided by the bomb weight so far out on the wings, made the Meteor rotate on its side through a complete one and one-half turns, ending up doing a cartwheel laterally and pointing down at the ground. Needless to say this was a real crowd-pleaser and gained “Zura” real fame.

Later he met his old Squadron-Mate Spud Potocki who was still in the RAF as a test pilot at Boscombe Down. When he mentioned his new trick to Spud, Spud's reply was something of a reference to cattle excrement. Jan was thus forced to prove the point at the 1951 Farnborough Air Show. That particular display is one of the most legendary performances ever to be witnessed at this world-renowned event. Jan commented to the author that Spud, as an RAF test pilot testing the Avro Vulcan Bomber alongside Avro's Chief Test Pilot, so impressed Avro's boss Sir Roy Dobson with his report on a near disaster, that Dobson worked to have Spud hired. Jan stated that Spud's skill and grace under pressure that saved the prototype. The loss of Avro's only Vulcan at this stage in its development may well have resulted in the cancellation of what became a fine aircraft, and the longest serving of the "Victory" series bombers. He also mentioned that test pilots were paid less than Potocki was making as a new Squadron Leader, or even commercial pilots flying DC-3's for Trans Canada Airlines (TCA, now Air Canada). Spud insisted on a decent wage and thereby did all of the test pilots a favour by improving their salaries.

During his time test flying in England Jan flew most British types and many foreign aircraft. Spitfires of every Mark and configuration, most of the early jets and he did aircraft carrier landing with Seafires, Sea Furies, and most of the American types as well. He also investigated the puzzling fact that the Seafire, although superior aerodynamically to Hellcats and Corsairs, got worse fuel economy. They eventually attributed this to the fact that Rolls Royce had designed the Merlin with too long a piston stroke to bore ratio done by the engineers as a relic of practice brought on by a quirk in the British fuel taxation practice! This poor fuel economy with the Merlin also plagued the Canadiar North Star airliner when it went into service with TCA and some other carriers.

While test flying at Gloster's Jan was involved in the development of the Gloster Javelin. By this time he was becoming increasingly frustrated with the propensity of some engineers to specific test-flights designed not to show the shortcomings of their design, and to assume that test-pilots were something of glamour seeking dullards with little to offer the design process. (Bill Waterton left Glosters later for similar reasons, and one Gloster test pilot was killed due to this problem.) The Javelin brought the danger of this line of reasoning into sharp focus. Jan knew from flying this aircraft that it was unstable in pitch at certain speeds and angles of attack. He also knew that in service, this could easily cost lives. He requested permission to prove this point and was flatly refused. All the test flights were designed to show the plane to be a smooth handling speedy wonder. During one flight with a Javelin equipped with flight recorders and cameras, Jan disobeyed his orders and took the aircraft to 400 kts, and eased back the stick increasing "G" force and angle of attack (alpha). Quite soon the tail was completely blanked by the large fuselage and wing becoming entirely ineffective in pitch or yaw control due to the turbulence and disturbed airflow. He pushed the stick full forward and the aircraft would not respond, continuing its climb right to the stall and resultant spin. As the aircraft spun and fell from the sky, finally, at lower altitude where the air is denser, he was able to recover it. The cameras, and flight recorders and indeed his detailed test flight report and predictions clearly illustrated the problem. To Jan's horror and disgust, the engineers re-wrote his report claiming it was a successful test flight with stall recovery being explored! Jan mentioned to the author his having suggested to the company President that a few hundred pounds more a year would hire them a competent aerodynamicist. Apparently the President wasn't entirely receptive to his test-pilot's advice. Jan soon handed in his resignation and in 1952, secured employment at what was then the talk of the aerospace community, Avro Canada.

To Canada

Contrary to the impression left by the CBC mini-series on the Avro Arrow, Jan Zurakowski was a part of the Avro team long in advance of either the Arrow, or Jack Woodman (who was a fine man and excellent pilot). Indeed Jack Woodman was on the RCAF payroll, not Avro's, and was there only to verify Avro's flight test figures, and to provide the RCAF with an independent viewpoint of the Arrow's progress. Jan did a great deal of the experimental test flying of the CF-100, Avro's second indigenous design to fly after the impressive C-102 Jetliner (the first jet passenger aircraft to fly in North America by several years!). Jan considered the CF-100 a fine design and indeed, to be the most memorable part of his flying career, perhaps due to his important contributions to the development of this aircraft!

The aircraft was also exploring new frontiers in many areas of science and technology. Jan and the other tests pilots' job was to explore the aerodynamic and performance regions. Jan knew this aircraft was capable of exceeding its published “do not exceed speed” of Mach .85. He asked the engineers what would happen if this speed was exceeded to which the reply was a curt "it would become uncontrollable, and besides, the pilot's manual clearly states not to exceed Mach .85.” Jan knew with the high thrust of Avro's Orenda engines, and the sleekness of the aircraft, that eventually a service pilot would exceed this limit. He considered it his duty to investigate the possible result (and probably to find out if Avro engineers suffered from the same problem as Gloster's). At altitude and full power he nosed it into a dive –aiming the aircraft right at an office at Malton where a conference was underway among senior Avro engineers where they were discussing if the CF-100 could possibly break the sound barrier under any circumstances! A sonic boom crashing through the window of this office provided sufficient proof to allow them to adjourn the meeting! He was able to fight the stiff controls and recover the aircraft from the dive. Evidence suggests that the tail was overstressed by this however the aircraft held together in a region where so many aircraft had disintegrated (including some designed to go supersonic). As another example, Jan mentioned having flown a Meteor at Gloster's with a specific shaped bomb that induced such turbulence at normal speed that the control surfaces disintegrated!

Obviously proving the CF-100 could survive “inadvertant” supersonic flight was a bonus for pilots of the CF-100 and the company by showing the integrity of the design. Since Avro was at the time trying to sell a transonic redesign of the CF-100 (the C-103), some Avro executives did not see it that way at the time. On the other hand, the C-103 problems really taught Avro an enormous amount about the area-rule phenomenon, and this held them in very good stead on the Arrow project.

Jan did have the sad occasion to fly an early test CF-100 (testing the ventral, retractable rocket pack installation) that failed in flight. Due some internal explosion (perhaps a rocket that misfired inside the aircraft) his back-seater's seat jammed due to damage to the rails from the internal explosion and he was unable to eject. This is a source of ongoing remorse for Janusz.

Jan also demonstrated the CF-100 at Farnborough Air Show in 1955. It had been scheduled to appear four years earlier but development problems had held things up, as had installation of radar and armament. Even so, the CF-100 was the first foreign-designed aircraft invited to display at Farnborough. The CF-100 was incapable of the Zurabatic Cartwheel due to the close spacing of its engines however a spectacular falling leaf display, and tight aerobatics at low level within the confines of the airfield dazzled the audience. In part because of this performance, Belgium eventually purchased CF-100's. Jan mentioned having spoken to the Belgian delegation at the show and their mentioning that they had been displeased with an American, and a British design they had bought earlier and thought they might have better luck in dealing with the Canadian manufacturer. By the time Belgium acquired the CF-100 (1958) the design was almost obsolete however Jan says the Belgians were very pleased with both the performance, and reliability of the CF-100. RCAF pilots insist it was easily the best (if not only) true all weather/day-night interceptor in Europe in the 1950's and indeed superior in flying performance to most day fighters (except the Canadair Sabres). This was probably the reason NATO asked Canada to augment their day fighter commitment in 1955 with CF-100's to fill a glaring gap in NATO's all-weather and night defences.

The CF-105 Arrow

Jan's name is indelibly attached to the Arrow and indeed was the first and only aircraft Jan would skipper on its maiden flight. Although technically too old for "high performance" flying, (the limit then was 40 years of age) Jan continued flying on the Arrow until he was 44. Spud then took over most test flights.

Jan stated the Arrow handled beautifully. Considering the low wing loading, extremely high thrust to weight ratio and very low drag of the airframe, even when loaded, indicate that the Arrow would have been an exceptionally maneuverable aircraft contrary to the opinion of many “experts.” The famous American test-pilot, Chuck Yeager, is on the record as saying that he felt the delta arrangement made for the most “unsurpassed” manoeuvrability .

Janusz left Avro and opened Kartuzy Lodge with his wife Anna near Barrys Bay Ontario and resides there still. During this period he experimented with canoe, kayak, powerboat and sailboats of his own design and manufacture.

>> Read The Zurapark Dedication <<

© RL Whitcomb 2006




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