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, 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.
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.
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.
Growing Up In Czechoslovakia
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, Mira grew up with a fascination for aviation. He also grew up in interesting times. As a boy he watched war and occupation by Nazi Germany be replaced by communist take over. Nevertheless, at age 18 Mira found an opportunity to fly. In 1947 the newly established Republic of Czechoslovakia advertised for young men to fly for the country’s air force. Of 3,000 applicants, Mira was one of 105 candidates accepted. Two years later Mira stood second in his class of 54 graduates.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Coming To America
For over a year Mira 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.
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 and as the personal pilot for Bill Boeing Jr.
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.
In 1960 my father stood on the shore of Lake Washington to watch the Seattle Seafair Race. Miss Wahoo was the fastest qualifier and favored to win. From his vantage point near the north turn my father watched the six boats thundering towards the start line. But Slovak had mis-timed his start. He went past the start line reaching top speed, but trailing the entire field. The boats were now out of view as they raced to the south turn of the three-mile oval course. The crowd waited for the boats to reappear as they would race up the back stretch to the north turn.
They came into view…now five of them. Where was Miss Wahoo? My father looked from one boat to the next but couldn’t find Slovak. Then someone shouted, “There’s Wahoo. Behind the roostertails.” The five boats were spread out along the back stretch. The crowd couldn’t see Miss Wahoo but they could see her roostertail streaming higher than the boats in the foreground as Slovak raced up the outside line passing one boat after another. Now entering the North turn he was in second place and closing on the leader.
The cheering on the shore had grown to a roar. The crowd could still only see Miss Wahoo’s roostertail streaming higher than the lead boat as they raced through the turn. Then Wahoo came into view as she thundered around the outside of the lead boat’s tight line. There was an audible gasp by the crowd on the shore as no one had ever seen a boat corner at such a speed.
But the water in that corner wasn’t smooth. The outside sponson of Miss Wahoo found a hole, the sponson dug in and Miss Wahoo flipped doing a barrel roll. There was a tremendous geyser of water. When it cleared there was the wreckage of Miss Wahoo and a Coast Guard rescue helicopter was plucking Slovak out of the water unconscious and drowning. He was taken to the hospital with broken ribs.
Slovak did not need to pass that boat in that corner. The heat was five laps. He could easily have caught the boat going down the front straightaway. But that was not how Mira Slovak drove. He always pushed to the edge. Slovak had three serious hydroplane accidents, the first in Seattle in 1960. In 1963 the Miss Exide exploded on Lake Cour d’Alene. In 1966, he tried to break the world speed record in the Tahoe Miss and the boat exploded at 195 mph. Mira bailed out breaking his back and dislocating his hip.
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.
In recent years some of the vintage hydroplanes have been restored and they have exhibition races at the events throughout the Northwest. In 2009 Bill Boeing Jr. had an exact replica of Miss Wahoo built to participate in these exhibitions. 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.
This article was edited from source material including:
The 1959 APBA Gold Cup Official Regatta Programme by Bob Karolevitz
Jon Osterberg’s Blog Mira Slovak makes final flight home posted by Jon Osterberg June 19, 2014
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