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On August 4, 1984, at 4 a.m., the slumbering predawn calm over Vienna was rent by a lawnmower-like whine. The sound was initially faint, an irritating mosquito. But it gradually swelled to a raspy, grating two-stroke crescendo raking Vienna’s rooftops.
The racket came from the engine of a Trabant, that reliably unreliable car manufactured not far away in communist East Germany at the plant in Zwickau. The Trabant engine came in hot from the east at around 700 feet, then lazily circled over the sleeping city with no apparent plan. The noisy little two-stroke wasn’t flying solo. Rotating on the engine’s drive shaft whirred a fiberglass propeller. Engine and prop were bolted to the backend of a skeletal go-kart contraption with a hammock-like seat and landing gear consisting of three wheels previously employed by wheelbarrows. A motorcycle gas tank was mounted atop the engine. Holding the entire assemblage aloft in the graying Vienna morning was a 30-foot pair of collapsible hang glider wings.
Recumbent in the hammock seat sat a man wearing an orange-and-black-striped motorcycle helmet.
The man and his flying machine took an aerial tour of the city, casually buzzing the slow-rolling Danube and grand boulevards, then approached Vienna International Airport. He throttled back the whining engine to a loud putter, dropping the go-kart’s altitude ever lower until the wheelbarrow wheels touched down on a taxiway. He maneuvered his aircraft under the wing of a Boeing jet and came to a halt next to a hangar, where the Trabant guttered to a stop, a filthy white ghost of exhaust dissipating into the air. There was a momentary hush. Then someone on the early, early shift at the airport took notice. Uniformed maintenance men ran out of the hangar, waving their arms and shouting in German. The man in the go-kart calmly climbed out of his hammock onto the tarmac. He removed his helmet and held out an expired Czechoslovak passport. In halting English, Ivo Zdarsky declared, “I would like to claim political asylum.”
The first time I met Zdarsky was on March 2, 2022, in Lucin, Utah, a ghost town and former stop on the Central Pacific Railroad. Zdarsky lives out there, alone on the alkali desert as a hermit, his dwelling an airplane hangar. There’s no missing the fact that the desolate West Desert of Utah is a long way—physically, politically, psychically—from the Soviet police state that was Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. Lucin sits on the parched, prehistoric lakebed of extinct Lake Bonneville, surrounded by glinting expanses of salt flats and floating mountain ranges that were once islands, submerged up to their necks in the lake. To find a more Martian landscape, you’d have to fly to Mars. Zdarsky’s path presents a puzzle: By what star did this man navigate from communist Bohemia to utterly remote, uninhabited Lucin? I had read a short account of Zdarsky in a local newspaper titled “The Most Interesting Utahn You’ll Never Meet.” I lived a short two hours away in Elko, Nevada, and I was curious.
I contacted Zdarsky through Ivoprop, the propeller manufacturing company he founded in Long Beach, California, not long after being granted asylum in the United States in fall 1984. Ivoprop manufactures a special type of “adjustable pitch” propeller that Zdarsky designed and perfected. On the Ivoprop website, you can peruse a gallery of small aircraft, boats and homemade flying contraptions—ranging from the marginally out-there to the wildly implausible—all sporting the titular propeller. You can also see several black-and-white photos of a winsome and beaming 24-year-old Zdarsky standing in an airplane hangar surrounded by Austrian security guards, showing off his flying go-kart “trike” shortly after landing in Vienna. His sandy hair is ruffled, and he wears jeans, a loose button-down shirt with a jazzy 1960s print and a pair of black leather boots he was issued while in the Czechoslovak military. These photos capture the first hours of Zdarsky’s life as a free man.
I sent an email to the address on the Ivoprop website, introducing myself as a writer. A guy named Alberto kindly offered to pass along my note, and the next day, my phone rang. It was Zdarsky. I was invited to the “Lucin International Airport.”
The Lucin Airport really is an airport, recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration. On Google Maps, Zdarsky’s hangar-cum-house can be seen snugged into the crossings of several dirt runways on an isolated section of land located in Utah’s remote northwestern desert. Zoom in, and you may even be able to see Zdarsky’s Cessna Skyhawk tied down outside the hangar, as well as his maroon 1992 Chevy Caprice station wagon (one of three he owns). Zoom out, and you’ll see that the airport is positioned on the northwest extremity of a white scar covering much of northwestern Utah. This is the footprint of the extinct Lake Bonneville, of which the Great Salt Lake is one of the last (fast-disappearing) remnants.
It was a bright, bracing March morning when I set out to meet Zdarsky. I drove my pickup west on Interstate 80, crossing the sagebrush-carpeted Basin and Range region of northern Nevada. This is ranching and mining country. A billboard advertised “TunnelRadio.com.” I passed exits for Deeth and Beverly Hills. About 30 miles shy of Wendover, I cut northeast on State Route 233, a two-lane highway that wanders off into Nevada’s hinterlands. Here and there, compounds cobbled together out of single-wides, tarps, pallets and other flotsam, ringed by wire fencing, hunkered in the sagebrush. The old railroad town of Montello, the closest settlement to Zdarsky’s airport, registered a faint pulse. Its streets were strewn with junked cars, yawning washing machines and refrigerators, and the slumped decaying hulls of motor homes slowly filling to the gunnels (I imagined) with rodent droppings.
Out of Montello, State Route 233 hooks around the northern point of the Pilot Range and crosses into Utah. Here, the country starts looking seriously poor—more salt scrub than sagebrush. About ten miles into Utah, I turned off onto a loose weave of dirt roads, the last of which my GPS grandly announced to be “Lucin Airport Road.” It was a barely detectable track in the low scrub. In the distance, I made out what I figured must be Zdarsky’s airport: an unadorned metal building plunked in the middle of a dusty valley. Driving on, a couple of prominent “No Trespassing” signs with cow bones bolted to them suggested that airport management did not appreciate uninvited visitors. I was stopped by an electrified fence with a large steel gate in it, closed. As I sat there wondering what to do next, the gate slowly and silently swung open on its hinges. I had been admitted. As I approached the hangar, a door in its side opened, and out stepped Zdarsky. “And there he is,” I said to myself.
The August morning Zdarsky claimed political asylum in Vienna, he had a momentary flush of fame. Once the maintenance workers understood the pilot in their midst had just escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, they stopped shouting at Zdarsky and instead feted him with Viennese coffee and doughnuts. Police and customs officials were summoned to the hangar. Soon after, an international contingent of newspaper reporters arrived; the next morning’s headlines trumpeted news of a daring “bat man” and “fluchtflieger” (escape flier) who had given the Soviet-backed Czechoslovak authorities the slip. The Statni Bezpecnost (Czechoslovak secret police, or “StB”), however, were not amused. “The communists didn’t really like what I did,” Zdarsky blandly remarked to me on one occasion. In fact, Zdarsky was in real danger. StB agents were known to maintain a low-profile presence in Vienna, and they surely would be hunting for their escaped fledgling.
For the next six weeks, Austrian authorities shuttled Zdarsky around the outskirts of Vienna from one safe house to the next, during which time Zdarsky got his first taste of a non-communist society. He remembers generalities, not specifics. “Everything was different,” he said. “Everything kind of seemed much brighter there. Cleaner. Newer. And happier.” But democratic Europe was not Zdarsky’s destination. He preferred to immigrate to California, ostensibly for its good flying weather but more to the point because “it was as far away from the communists as it could be.” While sorting out his immigration arrangements with the U.S. Embassy in Austria, the Museum Checkpoint Charlie in West Berlin approached Zdarsky; the staff hoped to add his motorized trike to their collection of contraptions people had used to escape the Iron Curtain. and, after a little bargaining, they paid him $10,000 for it. Soon after, Zdarsky was granted asylum in the U.S. Flush with the earnings from the sale of his trike, he boarded a California-bound flight. He has never once been back to Prague, the Czech Republic or Europe.
It was a balmy September in San Francisco when Zdarsky arrived in America. Representatives from the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees met him at the airport. This charitable group of American Czechs and Slovaks was, by its own account, “dedicated to [helping] refugees from communism find freedom in the United States.” The group put Zdarsky up in a hostel and over several weeks offered advice on how he should assimilate into American society. Finding freedom by fitting in, however, was not part of Zdarsky’s plan. He had no more intention of assimilating in America than he had in Czechoslovakia. “They told me, ‘You have to go find a job and find yourself place to live. That’s what you’re supposed to do,”’ Zdarsky recalled. He said he preferred to start his own business. “They said, ‘That’s a bad idea. Most businesses go under. And the aviation business is heavily regulated—people will sue you when they crash.’ I’d had enough of them,” Zdarsky said, “so I left.”
Zdarsky set out to invent his own version of American freedom. He made his way south to Long Beach. There, with some of the money from the sale of his trike, he bought a small motor home. Then (naturally) he built himself a new trike so he could explore California’s Mojave and Sonoran deserts from the air. “I got the motor home and I traveled to places with it. I put the wing on the top, and the trike went on the rear bumper. I was just having fun in general, exploring,” he said. As a vagabonding aviator, Zdarsky flew his trike around Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and even over 14,505-foot-tall Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range, nearly freezing himself in the process. His shoestring adventures in the trike gave him a spectacular, up-close aerial experience of California’s deserts and mountains, unknown to all but a rarified few. Such is the magic of Zdarsky—in just a couple of months, he had a house on wheels, a small aircraft and more freedom than most Americans have ever dreamed of in their lives.
“And then,” he said, “I kind of decided, ‘Hey, this driving, flying and living like that, it kind of costs money.’”
Zdarsky tried working a couple of aviation jobs. By his reckoning, each lasted about two weeks. “I was not an employable person,” he confessed. “I like to do my own thing. So I decided, ‘I’m going to make propellers.’” He had been working on an idea for an adjustable pitch prop, one where the blades could be twisted to sharper or flatter angles. Changing the pitch would optimize aircraft performance, comparable to lower and higher gears on a manual transmission car. He sold the first prop he built at an air show. Then he built two more and sold them, too. Zdarsky had struck a niche. “I actually hit the market right on, because people were still flying with wooden propellers,” he said. Zdarsky’s props, by contrast, were tough carbon composite and made especially for ultralight aircraft, while the adjustable pitch made flying more efficient. “Whenever people tried it, they liked it. I didn’t have a problem selling them.”
Zdarsky’s props spawned Ivoprop. It became, and still is, a successful niche manufacturer in the small aviation market. Eventually, Zdarsky moved from the motor home into an apartment with a hot tub. The trike was replaced by a plane (the Cessna Skyhawk), and he acquired a new toy—a Robinson helicopter—but not before constructing his own experimental synchropter (a helicopter with two synchronized intermeshing rotors).
A few years after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Zdarsky’s parents paid him a visit in Long Beach. They were amazed to find their dissident aviator son had followed up his near-suicidal escape with equally impressive entrepreneurial success. Zdarsky seems to have enjoyed shocking people from his past, like a Czech friend who flew into Los Angeles International Airport for a visit. The friend was rendered speechless when Zdarsky picked him up—not in a car, but in his helicopter. “He didn’t understand why we’re going all the way on the roof until he saw helicopter,” Zdarsky said, still enjoying his friend’s surprise. “And then the next day, we went to the desert, and he got to shoot guns and fly and all that.”
Zdarsky had never seen a desert before touching down in California. But he had seen, many years before in Czechoslovakia, a Western movie with scenes shot in the Colorado Plateau’s Monument Valley. These vistas of the Utah-Arizona canyon country stirred Zdarsky’s imagination with fantasies of riding horseback across the desolate grandeur of the American desert, a lever-action Winchester rifle at his side.
In California, he conjured these cowboy fantasies into being with his own aeronautical twist, flying his helicopter into locations so remote there wasn’t a living soul for miles. “That was the most fun I had—just taking that thing into the desert and landing at abandoned mines, ghost towns, springs and flat-top mountains in the middle of nowhere,” said Zdarsky. I asked him what was so special about the desert. “It’s deserted,” he said with a smile.
Long Beach, however, was not. Two decades of smog, traffic and, above all, “infestations” (Zdarsky’s word) of people ultimately drove him to abandon California in search of somewhere more livable. Yet unlike the streams of Californians who regularly decamp for Salt Lake, Boise, Austin or Reno, Zdarsky’s search for a new home would result in wholesale decamping from society. It’s no accident that the word in Greek for “desert” or “wilderness”—eremos—forms the root of the word “hermit.” And eremos was where Zdarsky was headed. Even among the thin ranks of eccentrics who practice eremitism, Zdarsky was going to do things his way, too. He seems to have had no religious or spiritual motives, nor, like Edward Abbey in the autobiographical book Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, was he pursuing some sort of philosophical purity. Instead, whether he intended it or not, Zdarsky’s profound desire for desert solitude would introduce a new, rare subspecies to the eremitic tribe: the aviating hermit.
In 2007, he zeroed in on a square mile of land for sale with an overgrown World War II-era landing strip and a few dilapidated outbuildings in one of the remotest areas he could find on the map: Utah’s West Desert. He then fired up the Skyhawk and “escaped California,” as he puts it, for Lucin. As with the Czech Republic, he has never been back to Long Beach or Ivoprop, preferring to oversee his company remotely (very remotely) from his airport lair on the Bonneville lakebed.
I parked my pickup on the concrete pad outside the airport, and Zdarsky strolled over. He was wearing an oversized tie-dye T-shirt and a pair of floppy brown velour pants. (He sews these himself; store-bought pants don’t meet his strict standards of comfort.) His thinning blond thatch of hair had a vague rock ’n’ roll vibe, and the overall head-to-toe look suggested someone who had followed the Grateful Dead for a long, long time. “Welcome to Lucin Airport,” he said in a lilting voice, more clarinet than bassoon. His Eastern European accent had a distinct upward inflection and occasional rolling of the letter “R.” But after four decades in the U.S., Zdarsky said, he has forgotten how to speak Czech. When a Czech reporter recently rang up for an interview, it had to be conducted in English.
Zdarsky proved to be a sociable hermit. He willingly gave me the grand tour of Lucin Airport, which is divided by a single wall into two 2,500-square-foot spaces: an open “furnished” room for living and a hangar for planes and his shop. The living area was dark, cavernous and had the stale, smoky, over-warm atmosphere of a casino. There were no windows. A variety of hanging silk-screened tapestries depicting Monument Valley, an enchanted forest and an alien landscape provided a colorful blend of actual and fantastical scenery. “These are my windows,” Zdarsky explained. Dim light beamed from a ceiling-mounted fluorescent shop fixture and an 86-inch TV, which is almost always on. The audio from a program reverberated around the room through a massive surround-sound system, and faint rock music from an undetectable source mingled with the sound of the TV. “Would you like cigarette?” Zdarsky asked, holding out a box of Montegos. Jesus, when was the last time anyone offered me a cigarette? “No thanks,” I replied. He pulled one out for himself, flicked a lighter and lit up. Leaning back in his chair, he exhaled a jet of smoke.
If pressed, I’d call the décor of Zdarsky’s house “freshman dorm meets prepper-survivalist chic.” The furnishings included several large tables made of planks set on cardboard boxes, which contained a year’s worth of freeze-dried meals, as well as a drum set, an upside-down inflatable hot tub repurposed as a circular couch, maps, globes and posters. More cardboard boxes served as bureau and closets. The bedroom was two king-size mattresses arranged on the floor in front of the TV. There were a couple of bookshelves (containing technical manuals, primarily) and a massive desk that served as a computer space, living room and dining room all in one. Zdarsky’s camouflage-print executive chair was parked at the computer, but he kept a few folding deck chairs around for guests, and he pulled one of these over for me so we could chat.
The dormitory analogy extended to the kitchen (a countertop running along the far side of the room), which had no cooking range, just a one-ring propane burner, a microwave and a fridge. Zdarsky owns no dishes, preferring the convenience of disposable plates. Unlike a dorm room, though, Zdarsky’s lair is fastidiously tidy, neat and vacuumed to a fare-thee-well. A kitchen drawer contained a single knife, fork and spoon meticulously placed, exactly parallel and equidistant from one another. This room, like Zdarsky’s homemade clothing, was clearly designed by someone who has perfected his own highly individualistic form of domestic life. There are no bows to convention. In Zdarsky’s carefully engineered world, windows and interior walls are superfluous. Same for furniture, dishes or stoves. Conversely, anything of importance to Zdarsky is maximized. The huge colorful tapestries. The massive TV. Camouflage everything. And, of course, guns.
Arranged on the table just inside Zdarsky’s front door was an impressive display of weaponry. Zdarsky’s arsenal includes a Ruger Mini-14 rifle, a Remington Police Sniper Special, a Maverick 12-gauge shotgun, a Sig Sauer 9-millimeter pistol (to name just a few) and enough ammo to defend his airport against an invasion by, say, Belgium. He never goes unarmed out into the desert or anywhere else if he can help it. Then there’s the stairway leading to a hatch that opens onto the roof, where Zdarsky showed me his sniper’s nest. From this perch, he polices his property for badgers and other invaders. When I asked why badgers were in his bad books, Zdarsky simply replied, “Ever hit a badger hole while landing a plane?” Because the metal walls of the hangar can easily be pierced, even by a .22-caliber round, Zdarsky also keeps a large tub of dirt on the roof, just in case he needs to take cover behind something solid.
Outside of the occasional badger, no invasion of the Lucin Airport has occurred—yet. But Zdarsky likes to be prepared. He knows if anyone’s coming, because two 138-decibel driveway alarms let out an ear-splitting blast whenever a vehicle approaches down Lucin Airport Road. These home security arrangements, like most everything in Zdarsky’s world, involve a blend of shrewd practicality and vivid imagination. Does he really think he will be invaded? “I heard the Russians are thinking about Alaska,” Zdarsky said, smiling. “They think it was not a fair trade. Maybe Lucin is next.” Of course, he’s joking. Mostly. But Zdarsky has seen things that I, with my suburban American upbringing, can’t wrap my head around.
He witnessed the Prague Spring of 1968, for example, when Soviet forces rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush a movement to establish free speech and travel. Seventy-two people were reported killed in that invasion. Zdarsky may have only been 7, but he remembers seeing the Soviet tank stationed outside the window of his family’s home. No bright causal line connects Zdarsky’s experiences growing up in a totalitarian state and his current watchfulness, but there’s room for speculation. Either way, he won’t be caught defenseless at his airport.
Zdarsky explained to me that packing a gun in the Lucin desert isn’t ill-advised, either, considering the nearest county law enforcement officer is over two hours away in Brigham City, Utah. Besides, you never know when you might encounter a mountain lion. Or an unpredictable eccentric.
Zdarsky, incidentally, is not the sole resident of Lucin. He shares this desert with one or two other hermits, as well as the occasional drifter, weirdo and misanthrope. One of them, a man named Russell, lived in a mud and straw kiva-style structure built around a car and had a reputation for shooting at people who approached his residence. There are also survivalist compounds out on the roadless salt flats—Mad Max-like fortifications built of tractor-trailer containers, junked RVs, tarps and other derelict stuff. Who lives out there is anybody’s guess, but somebody does. Zdarsky told me that there’s an abandoned militia camp nearby, too.
Any doubters about the neighborhood’s relative lawlessness should also consider the case of Dylan Rounds, a 19-year-old farmer and one of the area’s most approachable residents, who disappeared last year. After a ten-month investigation, a man named James Brenner, who had previously been convicted on firearms charges and squatted in a trailer about ten miles from Zdarsky’s airport, was charged with Dylan’s murder and the disposal of his body.
The extraterrestrial emptiness of Zdarsky’s world also attracts offbeat artworks. Among the best known is the Sun Tunnels, an installation by Nancy Holt consisting of four massive concrete culvert sections aligned on the desert to frame the rising and setting solstice sun. Then there is the Republic of Zaqistan, a small plot of desert land purchased by New York City-based artist Zaq Landsberg in 2005 for $610 on eBay, where art experiments occasionally appear.
More obscure is the bronze historical plaque out on the salt flats dedicated to the fictive characters Eddgar and Benn. The plaque is part of Kcymaerxthaere, a “storytelling art project” by self-styled geographer-at-large Eames Demetrios, who has placed more than 100 related markers around the globe honoring events that occurred in a “parallel world.” And in the roadless hills south of Zdarsky’s airport stands the Lake Bonneville Guardian, a wooden totem pole painted with a glowering sea captain hugging a bear. This stoic pair gazes off over the dry lakebed—no explanation given, artist unknown.
A single door led from Zdarsky’s living space into the hangar part of the airport. He ushered me through and flicked on the lights. The music was coming from there—alternative rock on SiriusXM. At the near end of the hangar was one of Zdarsky’s Willy Wonka aviation experiments: a CGS Hawk ultralight aircraft fitted with eight tilt-rotor go-kart engines on its wings that allow the craft to both fly like an airplane and hover like a helicopter. He’s been working on it since 2007. It runs, but Zdarsky can’t find engines strong enough to make the thing marketable. The second Chevy Caprice was parked along the back wall, 30 years old and almost showroom new. Down at the far end of the hangar, sporting a snappy camo paint job, was Zdarsky’s main transport: the 1970 Cessna Skyhawk.
The Skyhawk is Zdarsky’s companion, friend, maybe even his alter ego. For more than 30 years, it has given him wings. In this rugged little plane, Zdarsky has ventured as far afield as the Caribbean and Nome, Alaska. Every couple of weeks, the Skyhawk gamely carries Zdarsky on a slightly less thrilling voyage over the shrinking Great Salt Lake to Ogden, Utah, to do his grocery shopping. (His third Chevy Caprice, by the way, is parked at the Ogden Airport.) Man and plane have also been volunteers for the Box Elder County Search and Rescue team and have successfully located missing people (one alive, one not) from the sky. On one occasion, Zdarsky told me that he has to fly the Skyhawk. If he’s grounded too long, he gets “ground sick” (he never gets airsick). “It’s like body needs to eat and sleep, so my body also needs to fly. It’s addictive.” I asked him what would happen if he couldn’t fly anymore. “I would deteriorate. I would need medication. And therapy.”
“Is flying like a drug?” I wondered.
“Yeah, it’s like drugs! It’s dangerous and expensive!” Zdarsky said, grinning, with his typical dark humor. “But if you don’t crash, it’s very healthy.”
We stood around the hangar as I snooped about and examined the planes. Then Zdarsky said:
“Do you want to go flying?”
“You are not afraid?”
“No,” I said.
“All right. We will go flying.”
Zdarsky has had flying on his brain since he was 16 and a Western magazine about hang gliding fell into his hands. Photos of people soaring with the freedom of birds had a seismic effect on Zdarsky’s sense of purpose. He, too, was surely born to fly. He just lacked wings. The obvious remedy to being flightless—buying a pair of store-bought wings—wasn’t available because, like many Western commodities, a hang glider couldn’t be purchased for love or money in communist Czechoslovakia. But Zdarsky’s problem wasn’t merely practical. In Czechoslovakia, no one was allowed to leave the communist Eastern bloc without special permission; aviation was widely illegal, because a citizen with wings was quite literally a flight risk. Without a very rare government dispensation, humans were strictly grounded—at least if they obeyed the law.
After carefully studying the pictures in the magazine, Zdarsky designed and mocked up his first rudimentary glider. There were no stores where he could buy materials, so he scavenged parts from creative sources, including the Prague Botanical Garden, which unknowingly furnished bamboo poles for the glider’s frame. On his first flight, he ran down a hill until, as the glider began to lift, his feet floated off the ground. “I remember the first time I was running, running and suddenly there was no ground to run on. I was flying. I fly like a bird.” Then he crashed.
There were more crashes, followed by improved models. “I made adjustments and started flying better. The last ones were flying pretty good. You can soar them forever if you get good conditions.” As his gliders evolved and Zdarsky started hang gliding in earnest, it was only a matter of time before the authorities caught up with his illegal experiments in flight.
Zdarsky’s first showdown with the law arrived one day when he stood poised with his glider on the edge of a steep drop-off, faced into the wind preparing to launch. A passing car braked to a halt, and a man stepped out, marched across the grass, and planted himself between Zdarsky and the void. The man, some local petty bureaucrat, insisted it was illegal to fly. “He told me that flying is prohibited and I had to have special papers,” Zdarsky said. “I told him, ‘Hey, I got all that.’” The bureaucrat demanded Zdarsky hand his papers over. Zdarsky reached into his pocket and dug out some paper “from lunch or something” and held them out. Just as the man was about to seize them, Zdarsky let go, the papers cartwheeling across the grass in the stiff breeze. “Like every good bureaucrat, he had to chase after the papers!” Then Zdarsky jumped. He sailed off into space, leaving behind the bureaucrat scrabbling around on the ground chasing Zdarsky’s lunch wrappings. The irony still fills Zdarsky with glee. “I gave him lunch papers, ‘special papers’! If you have a bureaucrat, you give them papers and you are OK—that’s how it works, right?”
The problem with hang gliders, of course, is that you must depend on favorable wind currents to get where you want to go. Zdarsky wanted control—to climb and fly in any direction he liked—so he began experimenting with motorized “trike” gliders. He constructed these (there were several iterations) in the communist-era housing block where he lived while studying aeronautical engineering at university. It is no small thing to build an aircraft in a fourth-story walk-up, more daunting still under the nose of an oppressive and zealous totalitarian police state that prohibits flying. I wondered whether his neighbors were suspicious of him toting engines, propellers, wheels and other components up and down the stairs? “Probably,” he said. But no knock at the door came, so progress went on uninterrupted. Zdarsky hadn’t yet crystalized a plan to escape, but as the trikes evolved, his flying took a more serious turn. He began driving out at night, practicing night flight and flying by instruments. He learned celestial navigation. His parents, both government scientists and cautious communist conformists, were alarmed. In highly restrictive Czechoslovakia, DIY experiments with small aircraft had only two probable outcomes for Zdarsky: He would get himself either killed or imprisoned. “They think it’s some kind of complicated way of suicide,” Zdarsky said.
It’s hard to explain how Zdarsky cheated both the communist authorities and death. One fine summer day, as he was buzzing eastward in his trike, someone must have reported an unauthorized flying object. “[The authorities] were chasing me with some jet fighters, or so they say,” Zdarsky recalled. “I remember seeing some jets up high, but I never thought that’s for me.” Low on fuel, he landed on a road and was trying to buy gas off passing motorists when the cops pulled up. The police impounded Zdarsky’s trike but let him off on a tissue-thin story about flying to his family’s house in the Orlicke Mountains. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was heading east, away from the Iron Curtain. “Maybe I was trying to escape to Russia,” Zdarsky offered dryly. This close call galvanized the plan of escape Zdarsky had flirted with for months. “The Czech [StB] already started having some file on me, I found out,” he said. “They were trying to figure out what to do with me.” If he was going to leave at all, the time to leave was now. The problem was, now he had no trike.
Zdarsky opened the hangar’s bay door, and the fierce March light flooded in. He tugged the Skyhawk onto the concrete pad outside. Clad in a voluminous North Face puffer, he did his preflight check, testing the mobility of the rudder, elevators and ailerons, drawing a little fuel out of the tank in the wing to check for water contamination. The Skyhawk’s camo paint job made it the greenest object for miles in the gray and beige desert landscape. We climbed into the cockpit and secured the doors. Zdarsky cranked the engine over, and it clattered to life, the propeller spinning, then fading to a blur. Turning down the dirt runway, Zdarsky opened up the throttle, and with a fierce whine, the Skyhawk surged forward, streaking across the desert. Then, gently, almost lazily, it lifted off. The dun-colored floor dropped away, and we were in bright, boundless space. I was flying. I fly like a bird. I thought I might cry with joy.
For anyone who hasn’t flown in a small plane, a few reflections from a fellow uninitiate. It’s utterly unlike the brain-numbing experience of commercial flight. This little 50-plus-year-old Skyhawk was really nothing more than an oversized kite with a powerful fan attached to the front. Empty, the thing weighs just 1,400 pounds, about the same as a concert grand piano. Nothing on it is computerized. Its steering mechanisms are operated entirely through manual cables, like a marionette puppet. Soaring in the Skyhawk, the wonder of flight is raw and immediate. The whole thing is so simple, so basic, that it’s absurd. It’s Kitty Hawk. It’s a blessed miracle.
We gained altitude, Zdarsky wheeling the Skyhawk through a fierce blaze of Utah sky, skimming humpback mountains that once breached out of the prehistoric lake: Pilot Mountains, Bovine Mountains, Newfoundland Mountains and Pigeon Mountain. Here and there, he drew my attention to the secret wonders of Lucin’s postdiluvian landscape. “See down there?” he asked. “These are terraces from the lake. And that is fossilized coral reef. And over there is crystal vein. I find a lot of pretty rocks there.”
I was half listening. My other half was in a state of flight-induced ecstasy while my stomach lurched from side to side thanks to Zdarsky’s aerobatic 60-degree bank turns. Everything—my life, my long-deteriorating health, my troubles and the ground itself—was reduced to an abstract, mottled beige blur. Our winged shadow raced fathoms below on the floor of the dry lake. Zdarsky took a photo of me on my iPhone, grinning like I’d just mainlined enough dopamine to kill a horse. It’s like a drug—dangerous and expensive—but if you don’t crash, it’s very healthy. This was the closest thing to absolute joy I’d experienced in more years than I’d care to mention. I’ve gone back to that photo many times since. I fly like a bird.
Two months had passed in Prague, and things weren’t looking good. Zdarsky was grounded, his trike was impounded, and the StB was onto him. One risky gambit presented itself: If he couldn’t break the motor glider out of jail, perhaps he could bail it out. Zdarsky’s wafer-thin bargaining chip was that the trike was taking up valuable space in the garage where local police usually parked their cruisers, and now, to their disgust, they had to park out on the street. Zdarsky reckoned that the local cops might be open to negotiation. In the end, a quiet bribe sprung the trike. The Prague police got their garage back, and Zdarsky got his wings.
On the evening of August 3, Zdarsky packed the trike into his parents’ Skoda automobile, along with his backpack and motorcycle helmet. He stashed his expired passport, a compass and all the money he had in his pockets. Not a soul knew where he was going, and he left no note because, “You can always say goodbye later, if you make it.” Late in the evening, he left Prague and drove three hours southeast into Slovakia to a town called Lozorno; here, he exited the main highway and turned onto a secondary road. Somewhere along it, he pulled over near a field—one he had previously scouted. He unloaded the Skoda and left the keys on the dash. Under darkness, he assembled the trike. At about 3 a.m., he donned his helmet, then cranked over the Trabant. The stillness was shattered by its whining clatter and the buzz of the prop. As Zdarsky made his takeoff run down the freshly plowed field, the trike wheels kicked a rock up into the fiberglass propeller with a sharp crack. The prop was dented but not damaged. “If it had been a wooden propeller,” Zdarsky said, “I would not have been going anywhere.” But the gods of flying things were smiling that night. Zdarsky’s trike bundled onward down the rutted field and eased clear of the Czechoslovak soil. He was airborne, and Vienna was just 25 miles off. “On the horizon, you could always see Vienna, glowing in the distance,” he said. “It’s kind of like a beacon.”
Between Zdarsky and Vienna and freedom stood Czechoslovakia’s Iron Curtain, the heavily fortified border zone between the Warsaw Pact states and the democratic West. It was patrolled by the ever-vigilant pohranicni straz (Czechoslovak border guards), who were trained to prevent malcontents like Zdarsky from leaving the communist Eastern bloc. According to a report issued by the Office for the Documentation and the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism Police of the Czech Republic (part of the current Czech government), between the years of 1948 and 1989, 282 people are confirmed to have been killed trying to cross this border, with another 40 killings unconfirmed but probable. Like Zdarsky, most of these people were simply trying to escape to democracy and freedom. The majority were shot, but others were electrocuted by the 5,000-volt border fence or blown up by land mines. A few were mauled to death by the border guards’ trained attack dogs.
Provided the Trabant engine didn’t fail him, fences, minefields and attack dogs were of less concern to Zdarsky than the manned watch towers and a nearby radar tower, which posed formidable threats. A sharp-eared border guard or a radar ping would alert the Czechoslovak Air Force to scramble MIG fighter jets. This is exactly what happened to another Czechoslovak pilot who escaped to freedom, Ladislav “Laddy” Bezák, who had to fly for his life with a MIG in hot pursuit in 1971. While running for the border with his wife, Maria, and four sons in a two-seat Zlin Z-226 training craft, his plane was spotted and intercepted by a MIG 17 fighter jet that fired on him, grazing the cockpit. What saved Bezák was his extraordinary skill as a world champion aerobatic pilot. (His international reputation was cemented by being the first pilot to execute a corkscrewing aerobatic tumble known as the “Lomcovak” maneuver.) To save himself and his family, Bezák threw the Zlin into a series of death-defying dives and tumbles, finally gaining shelter in low clouds and landing safely in West Germany.
Zdarsky’s little homemade trike had no such capabilities; his only defense was stealth. He started his flight low, just high enough to clear a major power line but—with luck—low enough to cruise under the radar’s gaze. But as he neared the border, Zdarsky was well aware that low flying could alert the watchtower guards and might even put him within range of their machine guns. Just before reaching the border zone, he climbed steeply, aiming to place himself within the radar’s “blind cone”—a dead spot overhead where the radar tower was blind and also hopefully out of earshot of the guards below. When he reached cruising altitude, he throttled the Trabant down to a muttering idle. With no power to the prop, the trike quietly glided the rest of the way over the Austrian border at the Morava River. “I could see the river glitter in the starlight,” said Zdarsky. He was over. Crossing the border had taken only 10 or 15 minutes.
On one occasion, I asked Zdarsky if he was fearful during his escape. “I was scared that engine was going to quit,” he offered, referring to the unreliable Trabant. But wasn’t he terrified a MIG would come screaming out of the sky as it had for Bezák and his family? Apparently not. Even from Zdarsky’s very first experiments in flight, cheerful fatalism in the face of peril has been his default setting. On that night, it worked a charm. “I pretty much prepared and executed, and everything went to the plan, so there was really not much drama going on,” he said. Then, as if he’s still a little amazed—“Hey, it worked!” Nearly 40 years on, what Zdarsky remembers is the pleasure of flight and following the stars. “It was a nice, beautiful, warm night in August,” Zdarsky said. “There were stars everywhere. I remember I was using the Big Dipper so I could do a celestial navigation if my compass would fail.”
After many conversations, I still don’t fully fathom Zdarsky’s peculiar form of navigation. But whatever it is Zdarsky flies by—compass, stars or some inner dead reckoning—it apparently always steers him true. It’s an elusive thing, following your bliss. The wonder of Zdarsky is that he actually does this—instinctively and without analysis, explanation or a hint of an apology. In so doing he makes no allowances for convention, societal norms or, for that matter, totalitarian communist regimes. His unswerving sense of direction led him from political oppression to freedom. It led him, by degrees, to invent and live out his own radical experiment in human freedom in the solitude of Lucin. I do not know where it will lead him next. But I suspect if Zdarsky discovers a place where greater freedom is to be had—in this country or another, on this planet or another—he will invent a way to fly himself there.
“They are trying to make me into a fixed star. I am an irregular planet.” -Martin Luther
Andy Rieber is a freelance writer and photographer whose work focuses on people and their relationship to history and landscape. Her writing for the Wall Street Journal, Wired, High Country News, American Cowboy and Craftsmanship has given her a national audience.
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