P/sunny
72°
P/sunny
Hi 88° | Lo 64°

Daredevil Pilot Mira Slovak Dies at 84 escaped Iron Curtain during Cold War

Mira Slovak, Cold War defector who flew to fame, dies at 84. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Mira Slovak, Cold War defector who flew to fame, dies at 84. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Under a full moon on the night of March 23, 1953, Czech-born airline captain Mira Slovak took off from Prague in a commercial plane. It was supposed to be a routine domestic flight to the city of Brno. Instead, Mr. Slovak made it one of the more dramatic escapes across the Iron Curtain during the early Cold War.

With a few co-conspirators, he skyjacked the airliner and its 24 passengers. He locked the door to the pilot’s cabin and headed for a U.S. air base in Frankfurt, Germany.

Passengers banged on the door demanding to know what was happening, but Mr. Slovak sent them sprawling in the aisles by steering the aircraft into a pattern of abrupt up, down, and side-to-side movements. They returned to their seats.

Flying at treetop level to avoid radar detection and pursuit from Russian MiG fighters, the plane headed out of Czechoslovakian air space. Once over Germany, he was met by U.S. fighter planes that escorted the Czech airliner to their base at Frankfurt, eventually landing at Mr. Slovak’s intended destination.

In the West, the hijacking was viewed as a victory for freedom against communist oppression in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. The Washington Post called it “an escape from the ring of death.” If they had failed, the conspirators knew that they would face execution.

Mr. Slovak, who died June 16 at 84, was 23 when he defected to the West and spent most of the next 60 years in the United States. He earned his living as a pilot for Continental Airlines, but his escape from Czechoslovakia had given him a taste for high risk and adventure.

For much of his life, his daredevil streak led to his notable side careers as an airplane stunt pilot and aerial acrobat, and as a driver of hydroplane racing boats, capable of speeds up to 200 mph.

He won two national championships — in 1958 and 1966 — as the driver of hydroplane racers. In 1964, he finished first at the Reno Air Races, also known as the National Championship Air Races.

When he stepped off his hijacked airplane in Frankfurt 61 years ago, Mr. 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.

Twenty of his 24 passengers, including a delegation of Communist Party apparatchiks, demanded to be returned to Czechoslovakia. Four remained in the West.

After 10 months of debriefing by U.S. intelligence officers, Mr. Slovak found work as a pilot for crop-duster aircraft in Yakima, Wash. He was “daring and adventurous by nature,” said his companion of 28 years, Ingrid Bondi, and “willing to try anything.”

In an open cockpit, he flew his aircraft upside down, 50 feet above ground, hands and arms flung downward toward the earth. He flew under bridges and under electric power lines. He flew over forest fires, close enough to the flames to feel the heat. A Montana sheriff once slapped him in handcuffs and locked him up for the night for his too-close buzzing of a tavern where the sheriff was relaxing over a beer.

“Stunt flying relaxes me,” he said.

He became the personal pilot for William E. Boeing Jr., son of the founder of the Boeing aircraft manufacturing company, and in the 1950s, he became the driver of Boeing’s hydroplane race boat, “Miss Wahoo.”

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, not a driver with a distraught wife on shore and a bunch of kids waving Daddy goodby.”

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

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.

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 mph. 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.”

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.

He 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 Raceboat Museum near Seattle, recalls Mr. Slovak’s remembrances of distributing bread and water to Jewish prisoners crammed into cattle cars on nearby railroad sidings. The trains were bound for labor 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, Mr. 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.

At 17, Mr. Slovak joined the Czechoslovakian air force, and by 21 he was a captain with Czechoslovakia’s state airline. 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.

He decided to defect to the West, and he planned his hijacking carefully. His mother was his only close relative in Czechoslovakia. He did not know if he would ever see her again; he did, during moments when East-West tensions eased.

Mr. Slovak, who became a U.S. citizen, retired from Continental Airlines in 1986 but continued flying and made several transatlantic trips. In recent years, his favorite aircraft was a 1930s vintage Bucker Jungmann, an open-cockpit biplane used by the Luftwaffe for basic pilot training during World War II.

He was married and divorced twice but had no children. He died of stomach cancer at his home in Fallbrook, Calif., Bondi said.

His companion, a former Continental Airlines flight attendant, is his only immediate survivor. She said she met Mr. Slovak 64 years ago “as a young girl from Sweden.”

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