Żwirko and Wigura win the Challenge

Żwirko and Wigura – these two names usually appear in tandem. Most Poles probably know them, as they are both symbols of success and tragedy. Franciszek Żwirko, a pilot in the Polish Army, and Stanisław Wigura, an engineer from the Warsaw University of Technology, formed an aviation duo that filled the people of the Second Republic with pride. On the RWD aircraft constructed in Poland, they achieved numerous victories in sky sports competitions. The pinnacle of their achievements was victory in the Challenge competition in 1932, whose route, crossing almost the whole of Europe, began and ended in Berlin. Żwirko and Wigura's string of successes was soon interrupted by an accident that sank into the collective memory of Poles. On the 90th anniversary of the legendary duo's first place in the Challenge, we present materials dedicated to this feat. To download them, click on the PDF symbol.

Andrzej Olejko, “Zwirko an der Spitze: On the 90th anniversary of the victory of the Polish crew in the 1932 Berlin Challenge International de Tourisme”

In 1929, at the Academic Aeroclub at Pole Mokotowskie airfield in Warsaw, Polish Army pilot Franciszek Żwirko met Stanisław Wigura, a student at the Warsaw University of Technology and designer of sport aircraft. This acquaintance quickly turned into a friendship, which blossomed when Wigura began to learn to fly aircraft under Żwirko’s tutelage. In the years that followed, the pair achieved numerous successes in national and international aviation competitions.

Aviators – heroes of collective memory

In the interwar period, air competitions were far more popular among Europeans than the Olympics. Millions of people followed the struggles of the aviators, their successes were regarded as victories for entire nations, and they themselves became heroes of the collective imagination. The aircraft races, which had only been in existence for a dozen years or so, also demonstrated the strength and achievements of the country’s aviation industry. Żwirko and Wigura, winning many international competitions as a duo, were shown as an example of the power of Polish aviation.

The Challenge

Held every two years, the Challenge International de Tourisme, or International Tourist Plane Competition, was at the time one of the largest aerial competitions in the world. Pilots from more than a dozen countries competed. The competition route was divided into three sections with stops in many European cities.

The take-off in Berlin

The Challenge of 1932 began on 14 August at Berlin Staaken Airport and ended on 28 August at Berlin Tempelhof Airport. Dynamic Berlin was one of the centres of world civil aviation in the early 1930s. The Challenge confirmed the importance of the German capital and especially Tempelhof Airport, which was rebuilt in the early 1920s.

The Polish-German rivalry

In the subsequent stages of the race, crews withdrew for technical reasons. After the last Italian team resigned, only pilots from Poland and Germany took part. The Żwirko and Wigura duo maintained first place in the classification throughout the competition, despite adverse weather conditions during the flight over the Alps and engine problems.

The winners

The fierce rivalry between the Żwirko and Wigura team and the German pilots resulted in the Polish team winning both the individual and team classifications of the Challenge. Many considered this to be a victory for Poland over Germany.

A warm welcome home

Upon arrival in Warsaw, thousands of residents greeted the victorious aviators. The number of fans at the airfield exceeded the expectations of both them and the security services, who struggled to control the crowds. 

A broken streak of success

Franciszek Żwirko and Stanisław Wigura died on 11 September 1932 in a plane crash near Český Těšín in Czechoslovakia. The procession with the bodies of the aviators and the wreckage of the plane was bid farewell by thousands of people all the way to Warsaw. The funeral ceremony at Powązki Cemetery, attended by the Polish authorities and thousands of Warsaw residents, was unprecedented.

The living memory

The memory of Franciszek Żwirko and Stanisław Wigura is still being cultivated. A monument erected at the site of the crash and destroyed by the Germans during World War II, was rebuilt after 1945. The local museum also commemorates the aviators. Żwirko and Wigura still jointly patronise many schools and streets throughout Poland.