Unless you’re an extreme aviation buff or possibly Lithuanian-American, it’s doubtful you’ve ever heard of Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas or know what they did that was of historical significance. But they are indeed pioneers of aviation, and their bid to get into the history books ended tragically on July 17, 1933, exactly 81 years ago today. They are also part of an unsolved mystery in the annals of flight, right up there with the flight of the White Bird or the hijacking of NC13304.
Darius and Girėnas were close in age and had similar lives. Both were born in Lithuania when it was still part of the Tsarist Russian Empire. Both immigrated to the United States in 1910 and lived in Chicago. Both joined the U.S. Army when the United States entered World War I in 1917. And both loved to fly, a skill they learned after the war. In the early 1930s, the end of the first real golden era of aviation stunts, they decided to get Lithuanian-Americans on the historical scoreboard, so to speak, by undertaking a record-breaking nonstop Atlantic flight from New York City to Lithuania. Lindbergh first flew the Atlantic nonstop six years earlier, but since then various aviators tried to push the envelope with new firsts, and the team of Darius and Girėnas followed in this tradition.
In June 1932 they purchased their plane, a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker, and spent the next year modifying it for the epic effort to make it across the Atlantic all the way to their mother country. In fact they named the plane Lituanica, after their homeland. Their modifications were pretty extreme–it’s virtually impossible for a plane this size even today to make a transatlantic flight, but with a specially modified engine and rebuilt wings containing extra fuel capacity, Darius and Girėnas were confident Lituanica could make it. Early in the morning of July 15, 1933, they took off from Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport. If all went well, the next time the Lituanica’s tires touched turf would be in Kaunas, Lithuania. Another first for the pair was that Lituanica would carry the first transatlantic air mail shipment in history.
Despite adverse weather conditions and a lack of modern navigational equipment, Lituanica’s flight went surprisingly well. The plane remained aloft for over 37 hours–an exceptionally long haul for two pilots in a cramped, non-pressurized and unheated cabin. But shortly after midnight on July 17, while Lituanica was over Germany, something went terribly wrong. The plane fell out of the sky and crashed in a remote part of eastern Germany which is now Pszczelnik, Poland. Neither Darius nor Girėnas survived the crash. They had flown 3,983 miles, and were only 395 miles short of their goal.
In addition to being an aviation and sports pioneer, Stepan Darius also helped organize a political revolt in Klaipėda, Lithuania, in 1923, which resulted in that port city being united with the larger country of Lithuania.
What happened to Lituanica? No one is sure. A Lithuanian panel investigated the incident and from examining the wreckage they concluded that the plane did not run out of fuel and it was difficult to tell if anything was wrong with the engine. Both Darius and Girėnas were extremely skilled and competent pilots, so pilot error doesn’t seem likely. They may have been trying to bring Lituanica down in an emergency landing, but it’s anyone’s guess as to what caused them to make that decision. Perhaps the engine was acting strangely. Weather conditions may also have played a role. There were shadowy rumors that the plane was secretly shot down. It was flying over Germany, and the suspicious Nazi regime had only just come to power, but if there was any evidence of a shootdown, it was never made public. Nearly every unexplained plane crash generates rumors of this kind.
Darius and Girėnas were already heroes in Lithuania before the disaster, but afterwards they became legends. Americans also acknowledged their contribution and their sacrifice. There are memorials to the pilots both in Chicago, where they each lived for a time, and Brooklyn, New York, and several memorials in Lithuania. The Lithuanian National Soccer Team plays its home matches in a stadium named for them; Darius was a noted sportsman as well as an aviator and did much to advance team sports in Lithuania. There have also been at least two replicas of the Lituanica made, and one of them successfully completed, in 1935, the epic flight that the original plane never finished. It’s safe to say that Darius and Girėnas will never be forgotten in Lithuania.
But the mystery endures. What caused the premature end of their flight, so tantalizingly close to final success? How would they be remembered if they hade made it to Kaunas? We’ll never know. The sky sometimes holds on to its secrets.