How a tiny Polish airport became a key node for Western aid to Ukraine
Daily jumbo-jet landings now eat up the fuel once allotted for a whole week of passenger flights.
RZESZÓW, Poland — Shortly after the U.S. announced snap deployments to Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Michał Tabisz had a shocking realization.
“Jesus, this all is going to come here,” said Tabisz, vice president of Rzeszów-Jasionka airport, the closest Polish airfield to Ukraine’s border. Within hours, they were getting calls from senior Polish government officials.
Since that day, the tempo has hardly eased as what was once a small airport for budget flights has transformed into a key node in Western military support for Ukraine. Its tiny VIP conference room has hosted the likes of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky while jumbo jets stuffed with arms for Ukraine land daily on its tarmac.
The small airport's journey from low-budget holiday flights to major logistics hub bears lessons for the United States, which relies heavily on commercial airlines for its global operations. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, who leads U.S. Transportation Command, has called contractors the “fourth component command.”
In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rzeszów-Jasionka airport was just another node in low-cost airlines’ network, doling out 18-euro flights to locations like London and Manchester to eager Poles and Brits.
The airport, though, had features to recommend it to U.S. military planners. For one, the border with Ukraine is just 50 miles away.
For another, the airport incongruously had a runway long enough to accommodate large cargo planes like the Boeing-built C-17. In a twist of fate, the airport was among the last to host Ukraine’s An-225 Mriya, the heaviest plane ever built. It was destroyed when Russian forces attacked Hostomel airport in the opening days of the invasion.
Tabisz said there was no economic reason for the small airport to have such a long runway, and speculated that it was the product of political decisions made when the airport was operated by a state-run company.
U.S. officials were also familiar with the airport, having used it for an early-February deployment just before the Russian invasion, Tabisz said.
Still, the choice of a civilian airport came with major problems.
Soon after the war started, the airport found itself facing down possible Russian cyber infiltration, forcing it to upgrade its network security.
Tabisz declined to provide specifics, but suggested that Russian attacks were sophisticated.
“I can just say that I am even more convinced in my deep conviction that I had before the war that the Russians are experts in taking the information that they should not possess,” he said.
The airfield was also at risk of a potential Russian airstrike. In the early days of the war, planes defending the border patrolled the skies constantly, their window-shaking sonic booms causing Tabisz’s daughter to ask him why everyday was so loud.
“It really creates an atmosphere of something bad happening,” he said. Some new workers even quit working at the airport.
The installation of U.S.-manned Patriot anti-missile batteries relieved some of the tension, but in the shadows, the airport became the target of surveillance. In March of this year, Poland detained a ring of Russian spies and saboteurs that one Polish outlet reported had targeted Rzeszów-Jasionka airport for surveillance.
More mundane but no less important were the logistical burdens. Eighty percent of allied military aid flows through Poland, much of it through Rzeszów-Jasionka.
As a small airport, Rzeszów-Jasionka’s weekly supply of fuel would be eaten up by a single jumbo-jet. The airport had up to ten such massive planes in a week, with a total of 3,500 wide-body jets since February 2022.
Wide-body jets are large cargo and passenger planes, of which jumbo jets are a subset. Not all carry military goods, with at least some delivering humanitarian goods.
The airport had no nearby railways, so fuel had to be brought in by truck, with as many as 20 trucks arriving daily carrying a total of 175,000 gallons of fuel. Tabisz said Poland’s state oil company had saved the airport by making their fuel deliveries a priority.
The extra work also meant extra employees, chiefly fuel specialists, security workers, and firemen to stand duty during fueling.
Although the airport paid workers with overtime and bonuses, the strain could be intense. Soon after the start of shipments, Tabisz recalled seeing the chief of his cargo unit: “he was kind of pale-grayish.” He hadn’t slept for 48 hours.
Added to the stress was a constant influx of foreign ministers, presidents, and prime ministers, often with just hours of notice. “This is a place where we never expected to host 250 government delegations per year,” Tabisz said. “So basically, we designed it for a few prime ministers who accidentally happen to be around the area.”
One day, both Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U2 lead singer Bono arrived. Tabisz skipped Trudeau to meet Bono.
Passenger flights continue to this day, despite the vast quantities of military aid flying through and rings of U.S. air defense easily visible from the road.
Tabisz also credited the U.S. military as being key to the effort, praising their efforts to make suggestions rather than bark orders. Personal connections helped as well. One American officer even discovered, with Tabisz’s help, that he had roots in the area. Following research, Tabisz and the officer even visited the spot where the officer’s family had once lived.
While the hectic pace continues, some improvements will ease the burden. The airport is planning on increasing fuel storage by 50 percent, and modernizing its runway.
Amid round-the-clock work and fears of Russian attacks, staff were under great pressure.
“People who had full rights to just say okay, it's not not the place I want to work anymore because of my view from the window,” he said.
Both Tabisz and the majority of staff stayed at their posts.
“You can't just leave and say that you haven't signed up for running this kind of hybrid airport,” Tabisz said. “Everything we do helps those on the front line to stop the Russians. It's as simple as that.”