The man who flew over the Iron Curtain to escape communist Czechoslovakia in 1984 came to America, but delivered the biggest political irony when he fled the blue state of California in 2017, seeking a more libertarian lifestyle in the middle of the Utah desert.
Today, Ivo Zdarsky, 62, jokes that if he had to flee again, for whatever reason, he would fail. He has nowhere left to run to.
We may never know how close we came to nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War, but Zdarsky knows what we can expect if we end up going communist. From his hangar home in Lucin, a ghost town abandoned in the 1990s—population one—Zdarsky shared why and how he escaped. “It’s kind of depressing. They don’t let me do things I like to do,” Zdarsky said in his markedly accented English.
He furnished some examples: “Libertarianism, they don’t like it at all—my favorite.” “They don’t even let you leave. Can you imagine that?” “Once you start engine, like in flying, you’re kind of asking for it.” “It’s not really just the economics, okay? It’s things that they pile up.”
At age 24, Zdarsky was a third-year aircraft engineering student at Czech Technical University in Prague and already something of a freedom fighter, having distributed literature penned by dissident political prisoner-turned-president Václav Havel. This was frowned upon by Zdarsky’s communist rulers—as was Zdarsky’s love of flying. The mounting hassles under totalitarianism were becoming jet fuel for his now-famed air exodus.
Zdarsky’s last straw fell during a joy flight in his ultralight trike to Královéhradecký in the mountains when he flew into some sort of restricted airspace. “You’re not supposed to fly anyway, but apparently I flew through something and they sent like two jet fighters after me,” he said. “But they couldn’t find me because they’re too fast, and I’m going really slow.”
Needing fuel, Zdarsky landed and a gust of wind flipped his flying contraption over, damaging it. “And the police found me and they put the airplane into jail, not me,” he said, adding how the “Czech version of KGB,” the secret State Security (STB), proceeded “working on me to find out more.” The police confiscated his trike, but the industrious student managed to bribe them and collect his wings. But Zdarsky was done.
He would leave everything behind and risk everything by making a break for freedom. “I was always ready. I didn’t make the trike specifically for that, but it was useful,” he said.
Plans for an escape formulated in his mind: It would be by air. It would be by night, otherwise armed guards would surely spot him. “I tried to find out what’s the best place to escape, and my friend—one of them used to work on the radar next to the Iron Curtain,” he said, referencing the Soviet-era border fortified by barbwire, machine gun nests, and mines intended to keep inhabitants in. “And he told me that the radar has a blind spot. If you’re really close to it, it won’t see you. It starts working from certain distance. So I just planned direct route, as direct as possible.”
If ever an exit existed, this was it, though every last detail had to be considered. Zdarsky practiced for his night flight by attempting after-dark takeoffs and landings by the sole light of his car’s high beams, the moon, and the stars. Czechoslovakia’s southwestern border into Austria was to be his route with Vienna his target destination, so he located an empty field nearby from which to launch.
He would carry sufficient fuel aboard his trike to fly right till sunrise and would stow a second compass in his pocket, as he heard of one unfortunate flier who landed short. “He got lost at night or in a fog, or whatever, and he landed back in Czechoslovakia,” Zdarsky said through hearty chuckling, though it surely wasn’t funny for the stray Czech. “It was a restricted area so he was in jail, and his aircraft was in a police museum.”
As the planned night for his escape drew near, Zdarsky had his trike moved to the takeoff site. It was a clear, beautiful summer’s morning on Aug. 4, 1984, around 3 a.m. when Zdarsky boarded his trike, strapped in, and launched himself skyward, bound for freedom. There would be no going back.
He could see Vienna glowing in the distance. “So it’s kind of hard to get lost,” Zdarsky said. “I even figured out which way the Big Dipper or North Star should be.” But getting lost wasn’t the main concern; a possible engine failure haunted him most, but for naught. It was smooth sailing.
Nearing the border, he climbed high so that even if guards saw him he would be far out of shooting range. Then he let the engine idle so as to glide over the border in perfect silence. “It felt great. It was a beautiful night, no turbulence,” he said, adding that his excitement welled as he entered Austria. “I could see the river there glittering in the starlight. So, I know I’m safe now—Well, I had to land somewhere.”
Home free he was, but Zdarsky wasn’t out of the woods. Ideally, he would land on some freeway or parking lot, but “the problem is you don’t see powerlines at night,” he said. So with a map, he managed to navigate to Vienna International Airport, whose aircraft control tower lights flickered, and circled the tower twice before successfully touching down on a taxiway under the colossal wing of a Boeing 747.
The towers were empty, but Zdarsky found a mechanic who proceeded to yell at him, clearly upset by his presence, until Zdarsky opened his mouth and showed his expired Czechoslovakian passport. Then it dawned what he was. A defector!
“Then they were really nice to me,” said Zdarsky, who was promptly met by officials accommodating Czech refugees and the American ambassador. Likely because of the political messaging Zdarsky’s escape presented, fame followed; his story was broadcast by news outlets globally, including the Sunday Express world news desk whose headline ran, “Bat Man Beats Reds in Moon Freedom Dash.” “I didn’t think it was such a big deal, but apparently it was,” Zdarsky said. “Everybody liked it—I mean, except for the communists.”
As the STB were hunting for him in Austria, Zdarsky’s asylum claim to America was expedited, he said. Several weeks in Europe were followed by an extended stay in San Francisco before his eventual settling in Long Beach, where he lived for 17 years. Zdarsky’s Czech neighbors advised him to “get a job” and that his novel idea of starting a business was a bad one. But he started “Ivo Prop” anyway, crafting trike propellers while garnering notable financial success.
California smiled on both Zdarsky and Ivo Prop until about 2000 when the state started losing its luster. The FAA banned the flying of two-seater trikes while thrill seekers increasingly sought drones and videogames over planes. Meanwhile, dreams of a craft with a tilt-rotor, capable of vertical takeoffs and landings, saw the pilot longing for an airfield “in the middle of nowhere.” So, he bought an abandoned airport in northern Utah. And the rest is history.
The man who flew over the Iron Curtain now boarded his Cessna Skyhawk and escaped from L.A.
Seven years on, the libertarian now has it all: His enormous hangar man cave, larger than many people’s entire houses, complete with drum set and super-sized flat-screen TV. His tilt-rotor plane that works, but for the requisite engine installation. His Second Amendment rights, rattling his Belgium FS2000 and 308 sniper rifle in the Utah desert to keep badgers from undermining the homestead. And, above all, his freedom to roam—to explore the rock formations, old Indian caves, and abandoned mines across Utah.
When supplies run low, Zdarsky swings by the store, flying 160 miles to the nearest city—45 minutes by air—where his car is parked at the airport. After running for supplies or groceries, he shuttles home.
Finding freedom in America, Zdarsky now gives back. In 2019, he made headlines again after spotting a motorist stranded in mud near his home from the air. He radioed searchers who promptly had her rescued. A plow reached her SUV in the pass and picked her up.
The man who escaped California is a libertarian. Always was. He just didn’t know the word for it until voting day, perusing the political possibilities: Democrat, Republican, Libertarian. “I figure out that’s actually me,” he said, adding what the “libertarian rules according to Zdarsky” entail, “Not promoting chaos. Don’t hurt other people, also. Don’t take their stuff. Travel free.”
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