Ieva is preparing for her fourth year at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, where she studies vocal singing – a discipline requiring plenty of energy and practice. Her brother Lukas is expanding his embroidery business. But these are just small details in the whole picture of this article and Kaunas as a crib for Lithuanian aviation. We visited Ieva and Lukas at the Aleksotas-based aerodrome of S. Darius and S. Girėnas, where this airborne family of Liekis basically grew up. Now, together with neighbours in other hangars, they’re nurturing this aerodrome themselves, taking care of the “small” (as they refer to it), non-commercial aviation of Kaunas.
“Our grandfather Alfonsas Liekis is probably behind all this; at the time based in Šilutė, he was one of the initiators of the sport and construction of hang-gliders in Lithuania. Later, our father – who started flying when he was 13 – continued grandpa’s work, eventually passing on the love for piloting to me and Lukas”, Ieva tells us.
Lukas is flying for a decade now since he was 16, while Ieva began five years ago at the age of 17. She spends her summers at the aerodrome, also often the weekends when she’s studying too. “There’s no cure for this virus, the thirst can only be quenched by actual flying. Whenever I fly less, the symptoms take their toll on me”, the pilot laughs.
Booking a leisure flight in a two-seater ultralight plane over Kaunas is quite popular today – the club typically does around a hundred of these a month (the season is from April to October). Lukas says that most of such bookings are gifts from children given to their fathers who once dreamed of becoming pilots. Foreign tourists also enjoy flying over Kaunas yet so far there aren’t many of them since it’s fairly complicated to spontaneously change a carefully planned day whilst visiting Kaunas. Let’s call it a niche for the future even though the Liekis family tell us that leisure flights are more an affair for the club’s public image than a main source of income.
Ieva flies with passengers more often and notices that they’re most excited about seeing the red roofs of the Old Town beneath them, also the Pažaislis monastery, sunsets and, of course, the Kaunas Lagoon which changes its colour almost every week… What better way is there than to witness all this like a bird does? Around 10% of those who try the leisure flight come back to the aerodrome to learn how to fly…
So if you’re after becoming a pilot of an ultralight aircraft, find Ieva and Lukas: a licence for a two-seater plane can be obtained after a few months of hard work. Then your trip from Kaunas to, let’s say, Druskininkai, will only take 35 minutes. You’ll be able to fly all around the Baltic Sea or even further. Believe us when we say that this will be a totally different holiday compared to the ones whilst travelling with a trailer, car, train or even taking regular flights. Lukas’ personal experience as an aerial-tourist tells us that pilots have an unwritten rule of welcoming each other in a very hospitable way.
There are more tourists like that in Kaunas every year. June saw a runway (1,130 m in length and 50 m wide) being finished here which can now host larger, six-seater planes. So finally people flying such aircraft can receive a positive response to their many earlier requests of wanting to visit the city. For instance, Kaunas had 20 planes from Switzerland landing throughout a weekend this July; they continued their journey by going to Palanga and then Estonia.
However, so far people who land in this aerodrome – which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2015 and therefore is one of the oldest ones in Europe – can’t spend the night here, they have to look for a place in the city. An aero camping is planned to be built next year: it will serve as shelter for those eager to see planes flying in the morning and also those who are travelling with different means of transport yet would like to try this way of camping. Soon a café will be open here, and spaghetti with planes sounds better than any other regular lunch offer we’ve heard of! Tourists and foreigners are amazed that this place is practically in the middle of the city; that’s quite unique in the context of Europe, but aren’t there issues that come with it?
“We do sometimes get complaints from residents about the noise, however the government always replies to those in the same fashion – the aerodrome is a historic object which is over 100 years old and that’s just that”, Lukas explains, showing the new houses not far away from the site – these residents are happy about having an aerodrome as a neighbour, they actually find it romantic. Some people from Aleksotas or Freda even come here to train after seeing the planes flying over their heads.
By the way, the kids in Kaunas can start learning to be pilots when they’re only eight years of age by coming to the Bronius Oškinis school of aviation: they will use special hang-gliders built to fly 15-20 metres high.
We’ve mentioned that the aerodrome of Aleksotas is the crib of Lithuanian aviation, but the local aviation museum – based right here as well – and especially the educators of it will tell a much better story than us. Then there are also paragliders, hot air balloons and acrobatic flights… The 100-year-old aerodrome doesn’t sleep, does it? Not even close.
All photos by Donatas Stankevičius
The article was originally published in the August issue of Kaunas full of Culture monthly magazine. You can read it on ISSUU.