Books & Gear
A race to freedom: The Mira Slovak story by David Williams www.fonthill. media £25. Hardback 380 pages with black & white illustrations
Runwaymap app and books on RAF100 (again); a flight to freedom; and glacier photography;
The tale of Mira Slovak’s life would read like a fiction thriller were it not true. Born in Czechoslovakia, his childhood was normal until the Nazis invaded. His parents had a grain store, situated by a rail line, where trains to Auschwitz were sometimes stopped to allow other traffic to pass. His parents sheltered two Jewish families in their home, at great risk. With the Russian ‘liberation’ things became even worse, and the noose of communism tightened.
Although he wanted to fly, at fifteen Mira became an apprentice engineer, living away from home, and was then one of the first to apply for pilot training for the new Czechoslovakian Air Force. He excelled in both theory and practice (initiating an ongoing love for Bücker aircraft) but was forced to become a member of the Communist Party to continue his training. Opting to be a transport- rather than fighter pilot, as the flight opportunities were better, Mira made good friends but also had his first experience of the Party’s political officers within the ‘enlightenment branch’ of the Czech military, when one of his friends was arrested in the night and simply disappeared; he had been informed on by another ‘friend’. As further purges removed senior personnel, at twenty Mira was promoted to captain. Shortly afterwards, several former Free Czech Air Force veterans, flying for Czechoslovakian Airlines (CSA), defected with their families to West Germany and Mira was transferred to CSA to help fill the gap. He began flying domestic flights before being trusted to fly to destinations outside Czechoslovakia. One such flight proved pivotal. In danger of flying into the mountains as the aircraft was icing up and couldn’t maintain altitude, Mira’s unusual solution to make each engine backfire in turn to clear the intake of ice should have brought praise; instead, once safely on the ground, he was severely chastised for calling the aircraft a ‘piece of Russian crap’ to the controller. Mira decided he had to leave Czechoslovakia. It took over a year for his plan to come to fruition and he could not tell his family so they could genuinely claim not to know his intentions, even though it meant perhaps never seeing them again, and maybe opening them to punishment. He smuggled his air force pistol on board and, with several co-conspirators, overpowered his co-pilot and radio operator and kept the loyal communists on board out of the cockpit. Flying below the radar, he was aware that Migs had been scrambled to intercept (and perhaps shoot down) the DC-3. He landed at the Rhein-main US Air Force base in West Germany, where he and five others claimed asylum. From then on, his life was transformed. He was free, and astounded at the colours in the USA and available food, having lived in a grey, food-shortage communist world for so long. He was extensively debriefed by his US handlers and helped to get the relevant licences to enable him to fly in the USA. Initially this was crop dusters – until he was permitted a radio licence (by act of Congress!) – and he then had the good fortune to be employed by Bill Boeing Jr as his private pilot, flying him around the country in a variety of aircraft. Boeing also introduced him to unlimited hydroplane racing, a rather dangerous sport at which he proved very capable, although he lost many friends and rivals along the way in serious accidents. The boats were powered by WWII piston engines – Allisons and Rolls-royce Merlins – and exceptionally powerful.
Mira eventually became a captain for Continental Airlines and was also one of the first pilots to race at the inaugural Reno air races in the 1950s. He was later able to buy the Bücker on which he trained and he also flew a Fournier RF4 across the Atlantic – twice!
This review merely scratches the surface of what was an eventful and interesting life, full of adventure and danger, and always lived to the full.