For over 150 years, Milwaukee has been home to a large community of people of Polish descent. The Milwaukee Polonia Project hopes to show the interweaving, intertwining family trees that resulted in this community. It is hoped that, eventually, all the families can be connected to one another. The Milwaukee Polonia Project is also a means to explore our common history and celebrate our shared heritage.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Featured Profile #45 - John G. Kaminski

John G. Kaminski (1893 - 1960)

The next time you visit the terminal at General Mitchell International Airport take a look at the old "pusher" plane located in the concession area.  It is a replica of a plane built in 1911 by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company of Hammonsport, NY.  It is called a "pusher" because the motor is mounted behind the pilot and faces backward, pushing the air away from the plane.  It is a fragile contraption made of baling wire, bamboo and cotton fabric.  The steering mechanism is primitive.  The pilot is in a harness and turns the plane by leaning either to the right or left of the open seat. Like all planes of that era, it could be a death trap.   If something went wrong, the engine coughed out, a propeller snapped, the wind blew a little too hard, then the plane would hit the ground, usually pilot-first.  This was the plane flown by Milwaukee native, and the first Polish-American aviator, John G. Kaminski.

John Kaminski at age 19, from Milwaukee Journal, May 22, 1913
John Kaminski was born on the Eastside of Milwaukee to Stanley Kaminski, a grocer, and Mary (Erdman/Ertmann) Kaminski.  Growing up, one of his favorite pursuits was to go down to the lakefront and watch the soaring seagulls.  He told his grandfather that one day, he was going to fly like them.  John was just shy of ten years when the Wright brothers shocked the world by showing humans how to fly.  Suddenly, his dream of soaring like the gulls became a possibility.

By 1911, John had made his way to San Diego and the Curtiss Aviation School.  When he graduated in 1912, his pilot's license was the 121st issued in the world, and he, reportedly, became the youngest person licensed to fly a plane. (Kaminski often told people he was only 16 when he got his license, but he was really 18.)  Returning home, he became the first licensed pilot in Wisconsin, where he recorded other "firsts."  For example, when he bought a Curtiss Pusher in 1912 for $5,000, he became the first Wisconsin resident to own a plane.  (That craft, named "Sweetheart" was lovingly restored by Dale Crites of Waukesha and Earl Cox of Hartland, and is now on exhibit at the Experimental Aircraft Museum in Oshkosh. There is a replica is at the Smithstonian in Washington.)  When he touched down with that plane two miles north of North Lake, he became the first pilot to land in Waukesha County.

John G. Kaminski, from
Back in those days, human flight was still awe-inspiring.  People would travel miles just to have the privilege of watching another man fly.  After graduation, John spent three years flying with the "Three Ring Aerial Circus."  He was often hired by State Fairs and such to take his plane on short flights so that the people in the grandstands could watch.  For example, in May, 1913, a large crowd gathered in Akron, Ohio to watch Kaminski fly.  Even though strong winds kept Kaminski on the ground through most of the day, the crowd waited patiently.  At five o'clock, Kaminski decided he couldn't disappoint the crowd.  Against the advice of his helpers who warned that the wind was still too strong, Kaminski took off.  When he was still low in the air, the spectators could see him being rocked in his open seat by the high winds.  Somehow, he managed to control his plane and take it up to 5,000 feet.  Then he shut off the engine and let it glide back to earth.  Although the spectators had waited long to see Kaminski fly, they probably considered it well worth the time.

High winds played the part in another Kaminski adventure.  This is how he recalled it:

From Milwaukee Journal, September 2, 1939
Another July 4th flight did not end so well.  In fact, it resulted in one of his closest calls.  It occurred on July 4, 1914 in Tomahawk.  As John related it:

At Tomahawk, I had to take off directly from the street in the heart of the city. My first flight in the morning went off without mishap. In the afternoon, however, a stiff wind sprang up and blew sand and dust around. The city fire department was called out to wet the street and lay the dust. As I started my machine, it began to skid on the wet pavement. I had intended to fly above some high tension wires which crossed the street about a block away. Because of the wet pavement which caused my plane to skid, I saw that I would have to get under the wires. Both sides of the street were lined with people watching the exhibition. As I hit the street intersection traveling at about 70 miles per hour, a cross wind caught my plane and swerved it toward the crowd of spectators. In order to avoid plunging into them, I banked my plane and hit a telegraph post with my left aileron and plunged my nose into the ground. I was knocked unconscious but was soon revived with very little damage to myself but quite a bit of damage to my plane.   (A photograph of his wrecked plane and other Kaminski photographs can be found on the website of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

In addition to flying for large audiences, John would also earn money by taking individual passengers up in his plane.  He charged $25 for such flights, which was a princely sum in that era. Besides having the cash, the passengers also had to have nerves of steel because there was no passenger seats on the plane.  The passengers had to sit on the wing and just  hold onto the struts for dear life.

Kaminski prepares to take a passenger for a ride in Akron, Ohio.
Women passengers had to have their skirts tied.  One time Kaminski forgot to do this, and it nearly ended in disaster.  As Kaminski described it:

Her skirt flew over her head and she was screaming bloody murder.  She was afraid to let go of the struts to put her skirt down and I was afraid she would smother.  I tried to pull the skirt down and the ship, which was very difficult to handle with the unevenly balanced load, started to spin.  I quit my skirt-pulling and managed to save us.  I can't tell which of us was the most embarrassed.

Another "first" for Kaminski was the first successful hydroplane ascent from McKinley beach. (He thus really did emulate the gulls that he had admired as a child.)  He accomplished that on October 11, 1914 in a test flight for an exhibition that was to be held the next Sunday.  The hydroplane he was using for that flight was already reputed for being jinxed.  The first owner of the plane had been Art Smith of Fort Wayne.  He had used it to ferry away his sweetheart in the first elopement ever by airplane.  Unfortunately, the escapade ended badly when the plane crashed and both lovers wound up in the hospital.  The plane was then purchased by Albert (or Harold) Jensen of West Allis. He repaired the plane and tried to fly it, but in his first flight he got no further than 100 feet before he struck a factory building.  When he got out of the hospital, he again repaired the craft. Several attempts, and several crashes later, Jensen decided that for the Milwaukee exhibition, he was going to have Kaminski fly the plane.  On the day of the event, several thousand people crowded the lake shore to watch.  Kaminski had planned to take off, fly to Bay View and then return. Unfortunately, the jinxed plane held true-to-form.  According to news reports of the time, the steering mechanism failed on take-off and the out-of-control plane rammed the Milwaukee Yacht Club pier. Fortunately, neither Kaminski nor the plane must have been damaged badly, because shortly after the accident, Kaminski vowed to try again the next week.

According to Kaminski, the closest he came to disaster occurred during an exhibition when he was performing stunts.  Here's how he told the story:

I was doing an exhibition loop at 4.000 feet when my motor died.  I could see a patch of green and I circled down toward it.  But it turned out to be a peach orchard, not a meadow.  The trees were in rows 35 feet apart.  My wingspan was 26 feet.  

I made it between them without touching one.  Before I could brake, I was out of the orchard, and I managed to stop in a front yard - right in front of a porch on which sat a nice old couple.  They never turned a hair.  They'd been watching the stunts, they said, but hadn't expected me to drop in to visit.

As can be garnered from these numerous stories, flying back then was a risking business.  The mortality rate was exceedingly high.  In a newspaper article in October, 1914, Kaminski said that only he and another individual were still flying from the graduates of his flight school class.  In a little over two years, seven classmates had died and four had retired from flying.

From Glenn H. Curtiss: Aviation Pioneer.  [Note:  Floyd Barlow had also been born in Wisconsin.]
But somehow, through luck, or skill, or a combination of both, John kept flying.  In 1916, John began training military pilots to fly and in 1917, he joined the Army.  He served throughout the war with the 7th Aero Squadron in Panama. (A photo of him in his military uniform and craft can be found in the UWM archives.)  Unfortunately, John's eyes started to loose their acuity.  John secretly had prescription flight googles made.  This allowed him to keep flying, although it made some wonder why he wouldn't let anyone else wear his googles.  While still serving as a military pilot in 1919, John's eyes were accidentally splashed with gasoline which further damaged his eyesight.  That put an end to his flying career.

John returned to Milwaukee, and he married Nellie Jazdzewski.   He joined the post office, serving in the motor vehicle service department.  He spent 36 years working there and retired as a supervisor.

A wedding photo of John G. Kaminski and Nellie Jazdzewski,
courtesy of Donna Ryterske and Rosemary Ryterski
But John had one more flight in him.  Back in 1912, the gamblers were betting that the remainder of John's life could be measured in days, not decades.  He ignored them all, and made a prediction, both about his life, and the progress of flight.  Back then, his planes cruised along at 50 mph with a 50 horsepower engine.  He wrote to a friend, and predicted that,"By the time I am 79, I'll be flying 500 miles an hour in a 500 horsepower plane."  At least part of this prediction came true.  In 1955, at age 61, John was taken up in a jet fighter that boasted a 3500 horsepower engine.  As the plane cruised along at 550 mph, the pilot handed the controls to John.  He was filing once again.

John died at his home in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1960.  His bones now rest in St. Adalbert's, but my guess is that his soul is soaring in the clouds.

Relation to Nearest Featured Profile - Jennie (Saskowski) Fons (Featured Profile #9):  No near relationship.

Path From Nearest Featured Profile:   Jennie (Saskowski) Fons > mother, Josephine (Peksa) Saskowski > brother, John Peksa > wife, Katarzyna (Suchala) Peksa > sister, Anna (Suchala) [Luczak] Ryterski > son, Edward Ryterski > wife, Helen (Jazdzewski) Ryterski > sister, Nellie (Jazdzewski) Kaminski > husband, John G. Kaminski


"1912 Biplane Still Flying Show Circuit,"  Gettysburg Times, November 4, 1966, pg. 19

"Copy of Air Pioneer's Plane Lands in Smithsonian,"  Milwaukee Sentinel, December 21, 1991, pg.7

"Dream Airplane," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 13, 1995, pg.

"Flight's End,"  Milwaukee Journal, July 17, 1987, pg. 38

"Historic Plane May Beat Hoodoo," Milwaukee Sentinel, October 17, 1914, pg. 10

"Hoodooed Machine in More Hard Luck," Milwaukee Sentinel, October 19, 1914, pg. 11

John G. Kaminski at

"John Kaminski, Milwaukee, Was Youngest Licensed Pilot in World," Milwaukee Journal,      September 2, 1939, pg. 8.

John Kaminski - Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame Inductee

"Milwaukee Flier is Now in Panama," Milwaukee Journal, June 3, 1918, pg. 6

"Pilot Hydro-Aeroplane Over Lake Michigan," Milwaukee Sentinel, October 12, 1914, pg. 8

"Replica of First Plane Goes Aloft," Milwaukee Sentinel, July 16, 1974, pg. 3

"State's First Pilot Tries Out Jet," Milwaukee Sentinel, August 17, 1955, pg. 8

"Veteran Pilot Back for a Visit," Milwaukee Sentinel, September 1, 1959, pg 7.

"Welcome to General Mitchell International Airport" - self-guided tour hand-out

"Young Milwaukee Airman Undaunted." Milwaukee Sentinel, May 22, 1913, pg. 4.