Polish Engineer Revolutionizes the Jet Engine

One day towards the end of last year, I read in the Plain Dealer that Professor Wiesław Binienda, Chairman of the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Akron, was recognized by NASA for his achievements in the area of composite materials and their application to jet engines.  At first, I did not recognize the name, but after a while… – yes, of course, this is about the husband of Maria Szonert, who wrote the book on World War II and writes in the American and Polonia press, our friend from the editorial board. The same day in the evening, our editor in chief called:

“Did you hear about Professor Binienda?”

“Of course, I did. He received an award from NASA.  And not only just a paper. The award was rather measurable…”

“Then you have a job to do. He will be our next representative of Polonia featured in the Forum.”

I started to stumble that I have no clue about engineering, not to even mention some composite materials.

“That’s even better,” he replied. “Most of our read-ers don’t have a Ph.D. in science either. It’s going to be easier for you to write about it in the language of a regular person.” And that is how, almost coerced, I found myself in the office of the Chairman of the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Akron.

Professor Binienda began by modestly arguing that his achievements were no different than those of others; that in the United States, engineering is the easiest field in which we can be successful; and that there are many Polish professors. Of course, there are. But not all research brings about exceptional results. Professor Binienda works on the application of composite materials to jet engines. This technology can revolutionize the entire aeronautic industry.

To illustrate and to make the scientific idea easier to grasp, here is how it works:  in the airplane engine, fan blades rotate at the speed of sound. The entire external enclosure of the engine serves as a containment of these blades in case one of them accidentally separates.  Such separation easily destroys the entire engine and can cause an airplane to crash. This sequence of events was responsible for the airplane crash in which our widely admired singer, Anna Jantar, was killed. A blade separated from the twin engine, damaging three engines and a hydraulic system. As a result, the pilot had only one engine left and was unable to land. The rest we know.

Heavy and strong engine enclosures are made of steel.  Professor Binienda works on an engine enclosure made of very light material called graphite fiber that is stronger than steel.  This innovation promises greater security and significant economic benefits for the airline industry. A lighter airplane means less fuel and more cargo. I had a hard time believing in graphite fiber’s exceptional strength, which to the untrained eye looks like a strip of carpet. However NASA not only accepted Professor Binienda’s proposal but also honored him with an award for achievements in applying composite materials in jet engines. The army also expressed interest in his work for armor application in airplanes and vehicles.
Professor Binienda’s path to the University of Akron had not been easy, and the NASA award honoring Professor Binienda does not decorate his office wall by coincidence.  All this is the result of hard work and dedication, not only his own but also his entire family. He emphasizes the role of his wife who always supported him in his academic endeavors with her hard work and understanding.

“In December of 1982,” Professor Binienda recalls,” guilty of innocence as it was back then during Martial Law, we found ourselves on the plane destined for Montreal pursuant to some summary proceedings.  New York was next.”  With a light smile, he recalls holding his three-year-old daughter in one hand, ski and horseback riding shoes in the other hand while standing together with his wife on the foreign soil, utterly at a loss, without a clue what to do next.

At the time he was asked to leave Poland, Professor Binienda was in the middle of his doctoral program at the Warsaw Polytechnic, in the Department of Automobiles and Heavy Duty Machines. As many of his friends, he joined the Solidarity and from that moment on the events started to unfold without his control.  He was accused of stealing weapons. Until today he doesn’t know what weapons and from whom, but in the climate of those days no one was audacious enough to look for answers to such questions. The charges were never dropped. Thus considering the well-being of his family, he accepted the “suggestion” to leave the country.  Today the University of Akron, NASA, and American technology make good use of his engineering talent.

His first contact with the American reality was, like for most of us, shocking.  He painted walls and his wife also worked very hard. They quickly set aside some money for his first semester to resume studies.  He began studying at Drexel University in Philadelphia and immediately proved to be worthy of financial support. He completed his Ph.D., received an academic position at the University of Akron, and subsequently was granted tenure.  Four years ago, he was appointed a Chairman of the Civil Engineering Department. To succeed in engineering is not that difficult in his opinion because engineering schools in Poland represent very high standards.   Thus, he encourages young Polonia engineers to challenge themselves against the common wisdom that says: “Why? For what? This is America, and only dollars excite us.”

“I would like to help Polonia youth to get a good education,” says Professor Binienda.  “At first the feeling of putting time off to study and going into debt for a higher education is uncomfortable. It is important to overcome this fear and to realize it’s worth the effort. A Polish engineer is better educated than many Americans.  For those interested in the doctoral program, a Master Degree from Poland is a prerequisite. Then all you need is to pass the English language exam, and you are off!  The rest—the diagrams, numbers, computer projects are the same, whether you are in Poland or the United States.”  All those interested in continuing their engineering education are welcome to contact Professor Binienda for advice, opinion, and help.  He can be reached at (330) 666-7251. Dear prospective engineers, don’t miss this opportunity!  I can’t resist whispering the hint…

When asked about the contact with his students, Professor Binienda admits with regret that there is never enough time. Throughout the first part of the semester he learns the names of the students. By the time he masters the names, the semester is over. He recalls a funny incident a couple years ago. At the New Year Eve Ball in a remote and not very well known place, the orchestra suddenly stopped and the leader of the band dedicated a song to Professor Binienda. Completely surprised, Professor Binienda strained his eyes to finally recognize his former student.  “It was a very pleasant surprise,” he confesses.

Professor Binienda loves his work, his students, and his inventions.  His day is more than full. Getting up at 6:30 AM, first coffee, than he takes his son to school and begins his day at the university: meetings, lectures, etc. He also travels to NASA for meetings, usually returning home late in the evening. He guards rather closely the details of his private life. I didn’t learn much about it.  Although… I did find out that as a wedding present, he gave his daughter a sixty-hour recording of his reading of Teutonic Knights and With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

“Where did this idea come from?” I asked.

“I hope the younger generation will preserve their Polish roots,” he replies. “Had I been a child, I would like to listen to my grandfather. Maybe my future grandchild will also want to listen to their grandfather and think:  Since Grandpa recorded this, maybe he wanted to tell me something.”

Professor Binienda does not have a positive opinion about Polonia, unfortunately. “It’s divided, constantly fighting, lacking any sense of solidarity and community.  Everybody wants to be the President, only the soldiers are missing.” No need for any comment, right…? We can examine our conscience.

Thank you, Professor Binienda for talking with me, for your patience in listening to my illogical questions about the engines, and for your thorough and tolerant answers.  On behalf of the Forum and on my own, I wish you further success in your work, further recognition in the American scientific community, more great inventions, a lot of satisfaction, and many smiles.

Agata Foremska
Translation  Maria Szonert

Forum, 2/2005