Mira Slovak dies at 84; Cold War defector flew to freedom and fame
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. with two shirts and little English beyond “coffee and cherry pie,” 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 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, who 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, died Monday of stomach cancer at his Fallbrook home. He was 84.
Before his illness was diagnosed late last year, 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 longtime friend Ingrid Bondi, a former Continental Airlines flight attendant who lived with him for 28 years. Slovak was a pilot for Continental, retiring in 1986.
Born Oct. 25, 1929, in Cifer, Czechoslovakia, Miroslav Jan Slovak was the son of a grain merchant. During Nazi occupation in World War II his family hid two Jewish families in their farmhouse basement, according to David Williams, who is writing a Slovak biography.
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. 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.”
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.
“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 Raceboat 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
Slovak’s two marriages ended in divorce. He and Bondi lived in Montecito before moving to Florida and then, seven years ago, to northern San Diego County.
When the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum built a working replica of the Miss Wahoo, Slovak provided technical advice.
“Mira being Mira, he asked if he could drive it by himself,” said Williams, the museum’s director. “At 81, he drove it just as hard and as fast as in his day. He was spectacular.”
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