Books & Gear

A race to free­dom: The Mira Slo­vak story by David Wil­liams www.fonthill. me­dia £25. Hard­back 380 pages with black & white il­lus­tra­tions

Pilot - - CONTENTS - JA

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.

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