The Pitts Special he was flying had just fourteen hours on the clock. Only recently completed, Stefan Karwowski had been unable to resist the temptation to take her flying. Despite more recent experience as a display pilot flying Hunters, Gnats and, perhaps, most famously of all, the Duxford Fighter Collection’s awesome, dark blue, radial engined Grumman Bearcat F8F-2P, Karwowski was at home in the Pitts biplane. He’d spent a season in North American flying them as a member of a top flight aerobatic team. So when, in 1985, after returning home to New Zealand on holiday and to see his widowed mother, the opportunity to practice aerobatics in the Pitts had come up, he had taken it. As he looped and rolled around the skies five miles north of Wanaka airfield, New Zealand’s green mountain peaks and smooth lakes provided the perfect backdrop. he was in his element.
‘Stefan Karwowski was a virtuoso in his field’ claimed the BBC’s veteran Air Display Commentator, Raymond Baxter, ‘ he was to aerobatic flying what Yehudi Menuhin was to music.’ Baxter was not alone in holding this opinion. Karwowski was often described as the best pilot they’d ever seen by his peers.
It was in the blood. Both his grandfathers had been fighter pilots during WWI. His father, Wlodzimierz, after escaping to Britain ahead of the Nazi invasion of Poland, was a decorated Spitfire pilot in WWII before, after the war, emigrating to New Zealand with his wife Pamela where, in 1945, Stefan was born. Eighteen years later, obsessed with flying for as long as he could remember, he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force. His talent was immediately obvious and, during his initial flying training, won a scholarship to the RAF to fly jets. As a student, Karwowski won an Air Force Aerobatic Trophy flying the little Folland Gnat T1 trainer, then being adopted by the RAF’s new aerobatic team, the Red Arrows. Before he was posted to 208, his first operational Squadron flying Hunters in Bahrain, Karwowski was classified by the RAF as an ‘exceptional pilot’, an official recognition that was meted out with vanishing infrequency.
He was certainly the best stick and rudder pilot Nigel Charles had ever flown with. And Charles himself was regarded by his contemporaries as a cut above. The two men met for the first time in the blistering heat of an Omani summer in June of 1975; the first recruits to the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force’s new Hawker Hunter squadron. Charles had retired from the Royal Navy a month earlier. Karwowski, had just realised that he hadn’t got the patience to train as an airline pilot. 6 Squadron had provided them with a mixed bag of jets donated by the King of Jordan and it fell to Charles and Karwowski, before the next five pilots arrived at SOAF’s recently built airbase at Thumrait in Dhofar province in the south of the country, to start preparing them for war. After six years of reliance on the little BAC Strikemaster, it was hoped that the new swept wing jets would bring a decisive new edge to SOAF’s capability.
A ex-Fleet Air Arm Air Warfare Instructor, Charles had long experience using all kinds of weapons and tactics. Karwowski, for all his skill in the cockpit, had little bombing experience, but the Hunter FGA9 didn’t need to carry bombs or rockets under the wing to do devastating amounts of damage. In the nose were four 30mm ADEN cannons that fired high-exposive rounds the size of a toddler’s forearm. And if there was one thing Karwowski had a knack for apart from flying, it was shooting. Aged 14, in his first year at Whangarei Boys’ High School in New Zealand, he won the class shooting trophy. A year later in 1959, he was Junior Shooting Champion. He left school four years after that without ever having been beaten on the rifle ranges.
Before live-firing them in the air, the Omani Hunters’ ADEN cannons tested on the ground. ‘Warlock’, the 6 Squadron armourer, acquired a ground firing rig which, with the help of the station works team he installed on a new hardstanding facing out into the desert. But while it was possible – and great fun – to select the the best of the guns using the test-firing rig, choosing the ammunition was more of a lottery. Also from Jordan, its age was uncertain and it came from various sources. The tracer shells that fired every fifth round had a habit of exploding on leaving the barrel of the gun, on one occasion peppering the nosecone of Charles’s Hunter with shrapnel and missing his feet on the jet’s rudder pedals by no more than eighteen inches. A couple of BAC 1-11’s full of new ammunition bought from France (SOAF was told that 30mm ammunition from the UK would take months to supply) improved the situation, but it was still in short supply. That’s why, when it called for accuracy, Nigel Charles turned to Karwowski.
Tall and dark-haired, with sharp, aquiline features, Karwowski was constantly driven to be the best. He was. But it was never enough for him. As brilliant as he was he was also competitive. But he could always eke a little more out of an airframe on the edge of a stall. Always just turn inside his opponent. As the rest of the 6 Squadron pilots had joined he’d shown them all a clean pair of heels. More than once Charles told his new comrade in arms ‘Look, you’ve got no competition here.’ But that was never enough for Karwowski. He had to keep pushing. And the destruction of a small building with a single accurate burst of fire from the ADEN cannons was just the sort of challenge, Charles knew, that Karwowski, was made for.
From October 1st 1975, 6 Squadron’s seven Hunters began flying cross-border raids against targets in neighbouring Yemen. For a decade or more, the border town of Hawf had provided safe haven for insurgents waging war against the rule of the Sultan in Oman. Artillery emplacements, Anti-aircraft batteries and stores depots were all on the Hunters’ target lists. So too was PFLO’s Political Office, a small stone building near the seafront, identified as a target by the Governor of Dhofar province.
‘You go first’ Charles told Karwowski as the two pilots planned the strike against the enemy building, ‘I’ll only waste my ammunition.’
Rolling in from 12,500 feet into a sixty degree dive, Karwowski flew the Hunter with the same touch and precision that he brought to his display flying. It was stunning. Using nothing more than a WWII technology fixed reflector gunsight on the coaming above the instrument panel, to bring the four ADEN cannons to bare, Karwowski flattened the target. A building ten yards to the north was completely untouched. Charles , his wingman, never had to fire a round.
For their skill and courage while flying 6 Squadron’s Hunters on operations against Yemeni targets, in the teeth of fierce opposition from anti-aircraft fire and Russian-made SAM-7 ‘Grail’ heat-seeking surface-air-missiles, both Stefan Karwowski and Nigel Charles were awarded the Sultan’s Bravery Medal. And, greatly strengthened by the arrival of the powerful new attack jets, SOAF Commanders were able to declare the decade long war against the rebels won within three months of the Hunters entering the fight.
Observers on the ground reported that the Karwowski’s Pitts Special stalled at around 3000 feet. At the moment the little biplane departed, it probably never occurred to Karwowski that he was in such serious trouble. He was too good to simply lose control of an aeroplane he had hundreds of hours flying at the very highest level with the Carling Red Caps Aerobatic Team in Canada. . And, just a month short of his fortieth birthday, he nearly made it. But, after entering the spin, Karwowski recovered too late. And while, he managed to wrestle back control of the Pitts it was too little, too late. There was nowhere to go. His effort to save himself managed only to ensure that he somehow survived the initial impact with the ground. But barely. Two days later, Stefan Karwowski died of his injuries in Christchurch hospital.