A friend of mine passed away Monday, and because of that the world is now a little less kind and exciting.
Mira Slovak, 84, was a hall of fame hydroplane driver, National Champion, and Gold Cup winner.
But he was so much more than that.
Mira was a freedom flier, stunt pilot, Continental Airlines captain, crop duster, Reno Air Race winner, and Bill Boeing Jr.’s personal pilot. And he was perhaps the most humble and gracious racer I’ve ever met.
About that freedom-flier thing: Slovak was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up there during World War II. As a young adult he advanced through the ranks of state-controlled Czechoslovakian Airlines to become a captain at age 24.
But he bristled under Communist rule.
In 1953, during the Cold War, Slovak commandeered his Douglas C-47 passenger plane during a night flight from Prague, put it in a steep nosedive, and veered west. He flew below 1,000 feet – evading radar – through Soviet airspace, nervously scanning the moonlit sky for MIG interceptors.
They never appeared. Slovak made it to Frankfurt, West Germany, where he landed and asked for political asylum.
Eventually Slovak made his way to the U.S. The skilled pilot couldn’t land an airline job because, not being fluent in English, he couldn’t read the written flight tests or cockpit gauges.
He ended up in Yakima, where he worked on his English and took a job with Central Aircraft as a crop-duster.
Bill Boeing Jr. learned of Slovak and hired him to be his personal pilot. And Boeing, smitten by hydro hysteria like many Northwesterners, convinced Slovak in 1956 to drive Boeing’s new Miss Wahoo on the race circuit. Slovak had never driven a boat but quickly flashed the same skill driving Wahoo that he’d shown as a pilot.
Boeing urged Washington senators Warren Magnuson and Scoop Jackson to help Slovak get his radio-operator’s license and earn U.S. citizenship. President Dwight Eisenhower stepped in and signed an executive order on behalf of “The Flying Czech,” who had become an American folk hero.
That’s why Slovak was so elated to win the 1959 President’s Cup Regatta on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. President Eisenhower awarded the trophy, and Slovak was able to thank him in person for earlier intervening on his behalf.
Slovak won National Championships aboard Miss Bardahl in 1958 and Tahoe Miss in 1966, the year he also won the Gold Cup for owner Bill Harrah. Slovak also flew exhibitions as a small-plane stunt pilot, something he even did in between heats at hydro races.
Slovak crashed a few times. He flipped Wahoo at Seafair in 1960, and in 1963 his new Miss Exide disintegrated at 150 mph in the Diamond Cup on Lake Coeur d’Alene. Slovak broke some bones and woke up in the hospital “spitting teeth like Popeye,” he said. He also suffered serious injuries when he crashed his stunt plane in 1968.
Altogether, Slovak notched nine victories in his hydro career and was inducted into the Hydroplane Hall of Fame.
I got to know Slovak in August 2010, when our vintage (1962-65) Miss Bardahl team traveled to Coeur d’Alene for an exhibition to help revive the dormant Diamond Cup race. Slovak also was there as a special guest, still a local celebrity having won the 1966 Diamond Cup.
I found Slovak to be personable, funny, gracious, and humble. He took time to talk with everyone and posed for countless photos. My favorite was one I took of him holding a photo of his 1963 Exide crash. He’s making a face as if to say, “Who, me?”
The next year, at age 81, Slovak drove a Miss Wahoo replica at Seafair. The original boat had been destroyed in a crash decades ago, so Bill Boeing Jr. partnered with three friends to have an exact copy built.
Seeing Slovak throttle Wahoo to 140 mph on Lake Washington was my Seafair highlight that year.
Slovak later shared memories with me several times that I included in my book Dragon Days, about 1960s hydro racing. He told me he too was writing a book, about his life adventures.
“We've been working on it in Czechoslovakia,” he wrote in 2012. “The Communists opened the archives about my escape, so now I can really see the true story of what happened. Very interesting. It was a miracle that we made it. I have an excellent writer there, we’re gonna specialize mostly in aviation. And we even got an offer already to make a movie out of it.”
I don’t know if Slovak’s book ever got finished.
Toward the end of his career, Slovak piloted Boeing 747s for Continental Airlines. And coincidentally, when he passed away Monday at his home in Fallbrook, Calif., the time was 7:47 p.m.
A man of faith, Mira has made his final flight home.
Go with God, my friend.