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Mira Slovak Flying hands free..In addition to driving in competition, Slovak often would take to the sky and stage aerobatic shows with his biplane between heats of the races. He was also active in air racing and won many championships.

Daredevil Pilot Mira Slovak

“An Escape from the Ring of Death”

Mira Slovak, was a hall of fame hydroplane driver, National Champion, and Gold Cup winner. But he was so much more than that. Mira was a freedom flier, stunt pilot, Continental Airlines captain, crop duster, Reno Air Race winner, and Bill Boeing Jr’s personal pilot.

About that freedom-flier thing: Slovak was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up there during World War II. As a young adult he advanced through the ranks of state-controlled Czechoslovakian Airlines to become a captain at age 24.

But he bristled under Communist rule.

In 1953, during the Cold War, Slovak commandeered his Douglas C-47 passenger plane during a night flight from Prague, put it in a steep nosedive, and veered west. He flew below 1,000 feet – evading radar – through Soviet airspace, nervously scanning the moonlit sky for MIG interceptors.

They never appeared. Slovak made it to Frankfurt, West Germany, where he landed and asked for political asylum. When he stepped off his hijacked airplane in Frankfurt, Slovak had no more than two shirts and knew little English beyond “cherry pie” and “coffee,” but he soon picked up “steak” and “I like girls,” Life magazine reported at the time.

In the West, the hijacking was viewed as a blow for freedom against communist oppression in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. It was called “an escape from the ring of death.” If they had failed, the conspirators knew they faced execution.

He ended up in Yakima, about 60 miles southeast of Mount Rainier in Washington where he worked on his English and took a job with Central Aircraft as a crop-duster.

Less than 10 years after defecting (via borrowing a CSA Airline DC-3) from Czechoslovakia to Germany. Mira moved to the US. He flew crop dusters, Then raced unlimited hydroplane boats for Bill Boeing Jr. (Boeing Aircraft). And in 1964 winning the Reno air races in Bill Stead’s Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat. Mira was a 747 Captain for Continental Airlines. At 82 Mira still was delivering airplanes over great distances. Mira died on June 16, 2014.

It was March 23, 1953. At 7:20 pm the plane lumbered down the runway and took off in the direction of Brno, 115 miles from Prague. Once in flight, the pilot turned the controls over to his Communist co-pilot and walked back among the passengers. Two of his co-conspirators then accompanied him up front on the pretext of seeing the pilots’ compartment.

With weapons brought aboard, the escapees overpowered the other crew members and locked them in a baggage compartment. The pilot made his final radio contact over Benesov, and then tipped the ship downward in a steep dive.

Leveling out well under 1,000 feet, the pilot banked the plane sharply toward the west and began the 45-minute hedge-hopping flight to freedom. At any moment they expected MIG fighters to pounce upon them. An attempt was made by Communist passengers to break down the door to the pilots’ compartment. The pilot pulled back hard on the wheel and then shoved it forward quickly. The effect was like hitting a huge air pocket and the lurching plane discouraged further passenger action.

The pilot was Mira Slovak. The daring escape from communist-controlled Czechoslovakia would not be the end of his adventures. He would embrace freedom in America…and America would embrace this charismatic, young Czech.

Mira Slovak in the cockpit in 1976. After flying a Czech Airlines DC-3 to freedom in 1953, he wound up in the U.S. and became a crop-duster, a daredevil aerobatic pilot and a national champion speedboat racer. (Los Angeles Times)

When the pilot with the jet-black hair and movie-star smile asked if anyone would care to come up and see the cockpit, he wasn’t surprised that a couple of his 25 passengers readily agreed. After all, this was the moment that Mira Slovak and his two co-conspirators had been anticipating for two years. Slovak, the youngest captain in the state-run Czechoslovakian Airlines, hated communism and so did his friends. That’s why they concocted their desperate plan to hijack his DC-3, overpowering its small crew and evading Russian MIGs so they could fly to freedom in the West.

Slovak landed at an American military base in West Germany, immediately making headlines as a Cold War hero. But his dramatic 1953 defection was only the beginning.

Immigrating to the U.S. he became a crop-duster, a daredevil aerobatic pilot and a national champion speedboat racer, roaring across waters from coast to coast at nearly 200 mph.

In the air he was a crop-duster, a stunt pilot, Reno Air Race winner, Continental Airlines captain and Bill Boeing Jr.’s personal pilot. In 1968, Slovak piloted a tiny glider powered by a 36-horsepower Volkswagen engine from California to West Germany and back…simply for the adventure.

In 1968 he flew a tiny motor glider with a 36-horsepower Volkswagen engine from Germany to California, crash-landing and nearly killing himself just 19 feet from the runway at his final destination in Santa Paula.

The next year, he made the same trip in reverse, without the near-death experience. Slovak, joked that he was “born chicken, absolute chicken” but loved to fling his hands over his head while flying an open-cockpit plane upside-down 50 feet off the ground.

In 1959 Mira won the President’s Cup Regatta on the Potomac River. President Eisenhower awarded the trophy and Slovak was able to thank him in person. Mira Slovak won nine races in a 12-year career as an unlimited hydroplane driver, including the 1966 Gold Cup on the demanding Detroit River, but the race he wanted to win most was Washington, D.C.’s President’s Cup. Slovak wanted to win that race because the President of the United States presented the trophy to the winner. And he had something to say to Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the height of the Cold War, Slovak was captain and chief pilot of the government-controlled Czechoslovakian Airlines. In 1953 he overpowered his co-pilot and made a below-radar dash during a regularly scheduled flight and landed in West Germany where he requested political asylum. Eventually he made it to the United States, but could not find work as a pilot because he needed a radio operator’s license, which were not issued to non-citizens. President Eisenhower signed an executive order that allowed Slovak to be issued a license.

Miroslav Jan Slovak was born Oct. 25, 1929, in Cifer, a rural area of what is now Slovakia, where his father ran a grain elevator. From early childhood Mira heard about speed and racing in his own home. His father, Jan, was a sports car enthusiast and his younger brother, Jardra, was a motorcycle speed demon at 14. For years motorcycle racing has been a major sport in central Europe, and most of the 7,000 citizens of Leopoldoe were avid fans. Two-wheeled speedsters were the feature of all local festivals, and on the feast of St. Ignatius, when Leopoldoe had its annual fete, the cyclists were the center of attraction. Mira gave little indication, however, that he would one day be a world’s speed champion because he was the only male Slovak for whom racing motorcycles held little appeal.

As Mira tells it, there weren’t many things over which he showed much enthusiasm in those days.

“I was about the worst student in my class,” he relates, “and my mother learned in a hurry that I’d never become a doctor as she wished. I simply couldn’t stand the sight of blood.”

There was, however, one thing which did interest the slight youngster during the period when the shadows of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini began to extend across Europe. That something was aviation. Mira read what he could about airplanes. He even tried to build one in his back yard. Meanwhile, he continued his struggle through formal schooling. He attended a parochial school in Leopoldoe, and then studied languages and history at Hlohovec gymnasium.

World War II, meanwhile, raged throughout Europe, and Leopoldoe did not go unscathed. As a railroad junction, the little city was a bomber target, and Mira and Jardra used to sit in a foxhole near their home and watch the B-17s fly over. No quirk of the imagination could have convinced young Mira that not many years away he would be a personal friend of William E. Boeing, Jr., son of the founder of the company which built those American bombers he now watched in awe and admiration. As the German war machine began to crumble, the eastern front moved closer and closer to Leopoldoe. The Slovaks remember well the Nazi soldiers rushing westward through their town so that, when the end came, they would be prisoners of the British and Americans rather than the Russians.

Unfortunately, the citizens of Leopoldoe could not take up their city and flee with the Germans.

“For us the end of the war brought a great fear,” Mira said. “I remember waiting with relatives and neighbours in our basement as the Russians drew near. We were to learn shortly that liberation would be ten times worse than war.”

With obvious emotion Mira relates the coming of the Red army to Leopoldoe. Women of all ages had to run away or hide from the “liberators” who were like “wild, dirty animals.”

Slovak suffered serious injuries in a plane crash in 1968 and retired from hydroplane racing. He chose to concentrate instead on his career as a commercial pilot for Continental Airlines.

Mira was 9 years old when his country was occupied by Germany during World War II. A friend, David Williams, executive director of the Hydroplane and Race boat Museum near Seattle, recalls Slovak’s remembrances of distributing bread and water to Jewish prisoners crammed into cattle cars on nearby railroad sidings. The trains were bound for labour or extermination camps. His mother also gave him cigarettes to give to the German soldiers guarding the trains. Her thinking was that this would placate them enough so they would not be suspicious of a boy in shorts giving bread and water to Jews, Williams said.

In the cellar of their home, the Slovaks sheltered two Jewish families hiding from the Germans. They had fruit trees and vegetable gardens on their property to produce enough food for everyone, without arousing the suspicion of the local grocer who might have thought they were buying too much.

For the Slovak family, postwar living conditions under Russian occupation were worse than wartime life under the Germans, Slovak told Williams. The Russian soldiers took what they wanted, from whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. For no apparent reason, a Russian officer shot and killed their family dog.

Although his mother would have preferred to see Mira in medical school, she went about the task of convincing her husband that the boy should be allowed to follow his ambitions in the air. It was with the concurrence of both his parents that 18-year-old Mira Slovak became one of 3,000 applicants for pilot training. When the preliminary screening was completed, he was one of 105 candidates accepted.

Poor study habits born of disinterest in early schooling made the going extra rough for the young man from Leopoldoe. To keep up in such difficult courses as meteorology and navigation, Mira used to read by candlelight under a blanket after “lights out” at 10 p.m. Later his mother sent him a small kerosene lamp to reduce the fire hazard during this after-hours cramming.

The two-year training course had run through the first year when one of the blackest days in Czechoslovakian history occurred. When conflicting goals of the too-numerous political parties in the country created a vacuum, the Communists stepped in to take over control, elevating Klement Gottwald to the presidency.

Immediately things changed at the air force school. Instructors who had flown with the British were replaced by those who had flown on the eastern front. Political education became more important than pilot training.

Some of the trainees were dropped from the course for political reasons, but somehow Mira hung on. When graduation day came, the proof that he could accomplish what he really believed in became known. Out of the original 3,000 applicants, only 54 pilots received their wings — and Mira Slovak stood second in the class.

When he was 17 Slovak became a Czech airman. He rose quickly, especially after a Soviet purge of the Czech military in the late 1940s.

He complained publicly about the poor quality of the Russian-built aircraft he was flying, and he was warned by political officers not to criticize anything Russian.

In 1950 Lieutenant Slovak was selected to attend the military air transport school. Upon graduation he was assigned as a pilot with the government-controlled Czechoslovakian Airlines. Within three months he was captain and chief pilot of a plane. The stage was set for one of the most dramatic episodes of his life.

By the time he was 21 he was a captain assigned to the state airline. He also was an ardent, if secret, anti-communist.

“I saw friends disappear, property gone, a place full of betrayal and informers,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1960. “I thought if I stayed I would be shot or in prison. I don’t know.”

As an airlines pilot, Mira was extremely well-paid. This was primarily incentive pay to keep pilots loyal. But he felt a conflict that financial reward would not comfort. On flights to the Scandinavian countries he witnessed democratic living. He heard the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. He remembered his life of freedom before the war. The conflict grew in his mind until at last he knew he had to try to escape communism.

Mira was not alone in the planning. Helmut Cermak, a mechanic at the famed Skoda Munitions Works, and his wife, Hana, thought about details of the escape for months. Several others knew the secret, but fate ultimately prevented their participation in the actual dash for freedom.

Carefully the plans were made. No one was told outside of the immediate escape group. Mira longed to tell his parents, but he knew he couldn’t, first for fear that some show of emotion might reveal the secret, and secondly, because he wanted to relieve his loved ones of responsibility in the matter.

“Of course, I had fear for my family,” Slovak says. “I knew they would be investigated. Yet I knew that they would be proud of me for living up to what I considered an obligation to my country.”

During the final weeks, he visited his parents as much as possible at Leopoldoe. Then, on March 23, 1953, the zero hour finally arrived.

The escape would be made on a scheduled flight from Prague to Brno. Mira would be pilot of the C-47 Dakota which would carry 26 passengers and three crew members. Among the passengers were Hana and Helmut Cermak and Bozidar Medic, a television engineer who was a last-minute addition to the conspiracy.

The escape would be made on a scheduled flight from Prague to Brno. Mira would be the pilot of the C-47 Dakota. Among the 26 passengers were three friends involved in the conspiracy.

Mira Slovak meeting President Eisenhower. In 1959, Mr. Slovak won the President’s Cup at a regatta on the Potomac River, which gained him a White House meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His last hydroplane race was in 1967.

Slovak chose to defect on the night of a full moon — March 23, 1953. After smuggling guns on board and locking his copilot, navigator and flight engineer in a baggage compartment, he quieted frenzied passengers with a bone-rattling dive of more than 1,000 feet. Flying low to avoid detection by Russian fighter planes, he knew he was over West Germany when he saw neon lights.

Now they were locked in the cockpit hedge-hopping towards West Germany expecting MIG fighters to intercept them at any moment. But, the fighters never came and now the lights of West Germany began to appear in the towns and cities below them.

Circling high above an American Air Force Base, Slovak contacted a passing jet and was led down. The escape came to a close when he and five of his passengers were granted political asylum. The next morning headlines throughout the Free World proclaimed the escape. Eventually Slovak made his way to the U.S. The skilled pilot couldn’t land an airline job because, not being fluent in English, he couldn’t read the written flight tests or cockpit gauges.

For over a year Mira had worked closely with the U. S. Air Force, in Germany and in Washington, D. C. For his cooperation during those long months of interrogation, he won permanent residency in the United States.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, Slovak found himself, after World War II, behind the Iron Curtain of Communist oppression. Mira longed for the freedom that was to be found in the West but which was denied to him and his fellow Czechs.

Mira now set upon the task of getting a commercial pilot’s license, but he had no credentials. So Mira found his way to Yakima, Washington where he worked on his English and took a job with Central Aircraft flying crop-dusters. Over in Seattle Boeing Aircraft soon learned of the skilled pilot who had fled Communism. Mira was brought to work for Boeing as a test pilot.

“Everyone was trying to sell,” he told an interviewer. “It was a free country.”

In Frankfurt and then in Washington, D.C., U.S. intelligence officials grilled him for months, said Williams, executive director of the Hydroplane and Race boat Museum in Kent, Wash. In return for his cooperation, the CIA introduced him to Bill Boeing Jr., a son of the aircraft magnate, who made Slovak his personal pilot.

Boeing, owner of a 2,000-horsepower hydroplane called the Miss Wahoo, also thought Slovak would be an uninhibited boat racer.

Powered by World War II airplane engines, the hydroplanes were among the fastest of aquatic vessels, dangerous and vulnerable at full throttle to water swells that could send them hurtling stern-over-bow into the air.

Boeing told Sports Illustrated that Mr. Slovak was the ideal man for such a boat “because he is not foolish. He’s had good training and has a fine feel for the boat.

“I want a bachelor in my boat,” Boeing told a reporter, “not a driver with a distraught wife on shore and a bunch of kids waving Daddy goodbye.”

As a race boat driver, Mr. Slovak was a “savage competitor,” Sports Illustrated noted.

Mira Slovak takes to the skies above Southern California in 1971 to promote the upcoming Labor Day Air Show at Orange County International Raceway. (Los Angeles Times)

In 1956 Boeing convinced Slovak to drive his new Miss Wahoo on the hydroplane racing circuit. Mira had never driven any boat…let alone one of the fastest in the world. But, by 1957 he had gained huge popularity in the sport and his story of escape from behind the Iron Curtain made him an American folk hero. President Eisenhower stepped in and signed an executive order to enable “The Flying Czech” to obtain a pilot’s license ahead of citizenship. In 1959 Mira won the President’s Cup Regatta on the Potomac River. President Eisenhower awarded the trophy and Slovak was able to thank him in person.

The “Wild Czech” was a national champion.

For relaxation, Slovak began stunt flying in World War II fighter planes, doing such tricks as flying upside down just 50 ft. above the ground with his hands dangling down. Soon he was gunning his growling Grumman Bearcat around 50-ft. pylons and, in the suicidal pastime of air racing, flying wing tip to wing tip at 400 m.p.h. In 1964, he became the national champion of that sport also. Cavorting in small planes, says Slovak “helps me unwind and stop being a part of the computer. It makes me a better pilot when I get back to the big planes.” The big planes are the 707 jets he pilots for a national airline whose name, he pleads, must be kept secret. Airline officials are fearful that passengers might feel a little uneasy if they knew that the Wild Czech was at the controls.

From 1956 -1960, Bill Boeing Jr. owned and campaigned Miss Wahoo, named for his wife’s hometown of Wahoo, Neb. Czech freedom flier Mira Slovak. His first victory came in 1957 on Lake Tahoe at the helm of Miss Wahoo. He won the Buffalo Launch Club Regatta and the American Speedboat Championship with Miss Bardahl in 1958. He was back at the wheel of Miss Wahoo in 1959 and won the President’s Cup and the Lake Mead Cup.

On the water, Mira Slovak was an Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame driver and National Champion. He was also the most gracious and charismatic driver of his era. That along with his racing skills made him the most popular driver of his time. It was during this time in the 50s and 60s when Seattle became the home to most of the hydroplane racing teams. Before the Seahawks, Unlimited Hydroplane racing was a big part of Seattle’s identity. The boats and their drivers were household names.

Over the years, he paid a physical price for his nerve. In boating and air accidents, he’d had his teeth knocked out, his face cut open and his kidneys injured. He was burned when his boat’s engine exploded at 195 miles per hour. He broke his back and dislocated his hip. In 1968, he survived an airplane crash at Santa Paula, Calif., at the end of a Germany-to-California motor glider trip.

He once told Life that boat racing scared him, “but it’s the climax of living.”

Mira, you have been an inspiration to many people.

Within a decade Slovak, whose only previous boating experience involved paddling, won three national titles at the helm of so-called unlimited hydroplanes — the fastest racing boats on the water. He also had most of his teeth knocked out, his face sliced open and his kidneys badly injured. When he bailed out of the Tahoe Miss because its engine exploded at 195 mph, he broke his back and dislocated his hip.

“I got to know lots of nurses by their first name,” he said.

Meanwhile, he relaxed with a little flying. He won a championship at the first Reno National Air Races in 1964, flew under the occasional bridge, and sometimes did aerobatics displays over speedboat races when he wasn’t competing.

Mira Slovak retired from racing in 1967 and settled down. He piloted for Continental Airlines and occasionally performed in his stunt plane…flying into his 80s.

By 1968, he had a hangar at the Santa Paula airport, where he sold imported airplanes for many years. When he picked up his single-seat, 860-pound Fournier RF4 motor gilder in Germany, he named it the Spirit of Santa Paula.

With its tiny engine, the Spirit got him — in numerous hops — across the Atlantic. Over the Arctic he admitted to some fleeting anxiety: “I was just hoping that the putt-putt Volkswagen ahead of me was never going to stop turning, and the little airplane never stop flying, because it would be a very long, lonely swim back to Greenland,” he wrote in a journal.

All was well, until the Spirit approached Santa Paula. As some 2,000 people gathered at the airfield for a celebratory barbecue, Slovak was on his final approach when he was caught in a vicious downdraft and crashed into a ditch.

“I fell out of the sky like somebody shot me down,” he wrote. “That’s the last thing I remember.”

He broke his back and most of his ribs. He was in a coma for a week. His recovery took nine months, giving him more than enough time to do another solo run back to Europe for the 1969 Paris Air Show.

Before his illness was diagnosed in 2013, Slovak was planning one more big trip: a flight from California to the Czech Republic in a vintage Bucker Jungmann biplane. “He’d mapped out the route and was quite serious about it,” said his long-time partner Ingrid Bondi, a former Continental Airlines flight attendant who lived with him for 28 years.

Mira had been married and divorced twice but had no children. He and his partner Ingrid Bondi lived in Montecito before moving to Florida and then, to northern San Diego County. Bondi, is his only immediate survivor. She said she met Slovak 64 years ago “as a young girl from Sweden.”

“I liked him, but I knew I would have to be patient,” she said.

At age 81, Slovak drove a Miss Wahoo replica at Seafair. The original boat had been destroyed in a crash decades ago, so Bill Boeing Jr. partnered with three friends to have an exact copy built.

In 2009 Bill Boeing Jr. had an exact replica of Miss Wahoo built to participate in these exhibitions, Slovak provided technical advice.

At age 81, three years before his death, Mira took the wheel of Miss Wahoo once again and turned his last laps in a hydroplane.

He was told to stay below 90 mph. Mira opened it up to over 140 mph. The owners stood on the dock laughing at themselves for thinking Mira could ever hold back. His fans stood on the shore cheering their hero one last time. He had inspired them by living his life to the fullest and they loved him for it.

“Mira being Mira, he asked if he could drive it by himself,” said Williams, the museum’s director. “He drove it just as hard and as fast as in his day. He was spectacular.”

Mira Slovak died at age 84, June 16 2014 at 7:47 AM at his home in Fallbrook, California. He was undergoing treatment for stomach cancer. Mira specified that there be no services and that he be cremated and buried at sea. He also specified that he be buried in the warm Pacific Ocean rather than the cold Atlantic Ocean that he spent so many hours trying to avoid while flying over it. It is our ironic that the time of his death was 7:47. The Boeing 747 was Mira’s favourite transport aircraft while flying as a Captain for Continental airlines.

 


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