A two-time grad is going for a three-peat with his U of A PhD... but that’s only his day job
It’s a good thing the Messerschmitt Bf-109 German fighter plane Lech Lebiedowski, ’03 BA, ’05 MA, is currently restoring in his garage can’t fly because you can bet the lack of a pilot’s licence wouldn’t stop him from trying to get it airborne. And that wouldn’t be a good thing.
The first restoration the 35-year-old graduate student undertook as a 12 year old sort of blew up in his face. Well, not sort of. It did. It was an old Second World War motorcycle that he found in a forest outside of his hometown of Warsaw, Poland.
“It was probably a 1939 SHL military bike,” says Lebiedowski. “But it had no surviving identification marks. It was a quick restoration, not a good one. I had the bike running very swiftly, but it caught fire while I was riding it. The gas tank had a hole in it, and gas was dropping on the ignition wire. The gasoline exploded, and the flames touched my face. After that, the engine and the gas tank were gone, but I was okay and so was the rest of the bike. A month later we were back on the road. For a while I was the youngest kid to ride a motorcycle to school. Naturally, I had no license, helmet or any papers. I had this bike until we moved to Canada in 1994. It will always have a special place in my heart.”
You could say that looking for things to restore or rebuild became something of a passion for Lebiedowski after the discovery of that motorcycle... but you’d be wrong
A Messerschmitt Bf-109 on the ground in Russia in 1942.
“By 12 I had an extensive collection of ‘antiquities’ [his emphasis] that I traded for motorcycle parts. I had good instincts and unbelievable luck. ‘Treasure hunting’ ” [his emphasis again] was and always will be my greatest passion. Restorations and my PhD are only a small side effect of that. Some of my students [he teaches the history of technology] claim that the Indiana Jones film was made about my life. But this is not the case… the film was first.”
Lebiedowski has literally unearthed hundreds of items, from coin deposit boxes to tanks and planes, at first without even the assistance of a metal detector. He’s also spent a lot of time underground in urban explorations, including in Hitler’s underground bunkers.
Lebiedowski heading underground for some more “treasure hunting.”
But his first big restoration project was a Japanese kamikaze plane — a Yokosuka Ohka — that he restored while a U of A undergrad. Where on earth you come up with something like that on the Canadian prairies is something he’ll only say is “a long story. I knew of its existence, but getting it into my backyard was another story. As far as I remember it took me only three months to restore it, but it was mostly body and interior work — easy. I had no garage back then, so I did all the work in my backyard on a picnic table. It’s now in private hands.”
As for the Messerschmitt, he located the wreck in Europe over 10 years ago using a metal detector. Parts of the nose section were the first to come to the surface, and over the years Lebiedowski salvaged more parts. The Bf-109 was a standard fighter of the Luftwaffe and was flown in the Battle of Britain during the Second World War. This one was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft gun at the end of the war in 1945, but no positive identification of its serial number was possible.
Lebiedowski came up with the idea of recreating the missing parts for this Messerschmitt from scratch as a way to productively take advantage of the long Albertan winters. “But,” he says, “I had no idea back then that it would take me over six years of work and many disappointments along the way.”
The Messerschmitt project is almost done and Lebiedowski says that were it not for his PhD work — on the history of science and technology in the Faculty of Arts — he would have completed it by now. He expects it’ll be ready to taxi down a runway in late spring. But it will never fly.
When compared with other Bf-109 restorations currently being undertaken by large institutions his, he says, is a low-budget affair. “I managed to keep it under $100,000. Initially, I was planning to find a space for it in a museum, but the reality of things is that I need money to move on with my other adventures and museums are unable to pay for my work, so I will have to sell it to a private collector.”
As for those other adventures, if he restores another airplane, it will be a Second World War German bomber that he will finish excavating this coming summer. “It will make a fantastic restoration project for it has a full combat history,” he says. And there is the possibility of finding a Tiger tank that, if its location is confirmed, he’ll donate to a museum for restoration. There’s also that continued exploration of Hitler’s underground headquarters for which he’s built a robot to access areas he can’t squeeze into.
“I am hoping to find some more hidden tunnels and chambers,” he says. “I know they are out there but getting inside is another issue… and another adventure.”