Escape Flight from Prague
by Capt. E.M. Prchal
My story begins in February 1948, when I landed at Prague aerodrome after a three-week flight to and from India. I was returning to a country griped by Communist fear; for in my three-week absence the Reds overnight had destroyed the Czech democracy and transformed the nation into a Russian satellite.
As I stepped from the plane I saw my wife’s haunted face. She embraced me and whispered in mild surprise: “You have returned? I was afraid you would choose freedom.”
This was an introduction to several years of whispering, of secret meetings. of hidden microphones in our rooms, of being hounded by the state police.
Even then, only hours after the Communist putsch, I knew that our one faint hope lay in escaping from Communism. I had no illusions about our future. According to the political conception of this new Russian satellite, I had fought on the wrong side of the world during the past war. I had flown with the RAF after escaping from German-occupied Czechoslovakia in the early summer of 1939.
During those first few weeks of Communist rule in the country. I had plenty of time to recall my war history-first with the French Air Force, then with the British during the Battle of Britain, then flying supplies to blitzed Malta.
For 72 months I had been a refugee from my own land, fighting on foreign fronts for Czechoslovakia’s freedom. Then came the end of World War II and the return to our liberated country.
This time there was no Nazi Army. But the Russians were there, behaving with the same brutal possessiveness displayed by the Germans. The unshaved Russian soldiers “liberated” everything from watches to carpets to men’s dress clothes which they didn’t know how to wear. They violated our women, not sparing young girls who were hardly old enough to play with dolls.
The Red Army was not a liberation army. It was a medieval occupation force.
We were all disillusioned, we who had waited these years for freedom, but we hoped the occupation would be temporary. “It will soon pass over,” we told one another.
I resigned my RAF commission and returned to Czechoslovakia for good, serving for a short while in the Czech Air Force.
And within a few months we thought the situation was getting better. The Russians disappeared from the country. The Russian rulers stayed in the background. in the shadows. We didn’t yet know that they did not need to parade Prague’s boulevards in order to rule Czechoslovakia.
In January, 1946, I left the Air Force to go back to my old job-civilian airline pilot. We started the Czechoslovak Airlines almost from scraps, and within a few months had 35 C-47’s with spare parts. One by one we started service on international lines, meanwhile rebuilding the network of internal airways.
At the end of 1947 we were doing so well that we began negotiations with Lockheed to buy three Constellations for a regular service to India and special flights to the U.S. during the Sokol Festival in Prague in 1948. At the beginning of February, 1948, I left Prague for a three-week flight to India. On my return I intended to leave immediately for the U. S. to take delivery of the first Constellation.
But the Red putsch in Czechoslovakia changed everything. It buried our hopes for a bright and decent future.
I awoke one morning to find that everything I had done during the war was charged against me as behavior “irreconcilable” with the new political concept of my country.
Even my wife was a “criminal type” to the new regime. She had escaped from German-held Czechoslovakia to England, where she worked as a journalist during the war in the Information Department of President Beneš’ office in London. Later she volunteered for the British WAAF and served as an officer at the Czech Air Force Headquarters in London.
Even my three-year-old daughter had a “black past.” Her family background was considered “politically disgusting” she was also British by birth, christened by a Czech Air Force chaplain. Her Godfather was Air Vice Marshall Janoušek, ex-chief of the Czech Air Force in England and now serving a life sentence in the Prague Military prison.
The period of uncertainty and oppression had begun.
The fate of the Czech Airlines itself was doubtful. The Lockheed representatives interrupted negotiations and left Prague. In the first few weeks we thought the airline would be closed down because there were no faithful party members who could replace us if the Reds purged airline flying personnel.
No Czech pilots had been trained during the war and since 1945 there hadn’t been enough time to train a new lot. The newly-trained Air Force pilots lacked the experience necessary for civilian airline flying.
Too, knowledge of English was important. After the war, the American system of airways communications was adopted in Europe and knowledge of English was an absolute necessity for radio contact with the ground.
Then came the order from Moscow to keep the airline at all cost. It provided an important and useful connection between Russia and the free world. Russia itself had no direct air connection with the west and was using Czech Airlines for this purpose.
Immediately, the board of directors and some administrative personnel were purged. But the flying staff was practically untouched though it was strengthened by a lot of new second pilots, wireless operators and stewardesses who had little technical knowledge and no experience. They had two main purposes: to get experience in transport flying so that one day they could take over, and to spy on us. They got orders directly from the Ministry of State security.
We all knew that on trips abroad the stewardesses would listen behind the doors of the captain’s and first officer’s hotel rooms. How often I have caught a stewardess, flung into my room when I unexpectedly opened a door!
These new people were also expected to learn English quickly, especially the phrases necessary for getting clearances and instructions for landing.
From time to time some of the newcomers were put on international lines as experimental crews. The experiments were always failures. If the flying controller on the ground used phrases that the crews didn’t know by heart the meaning was lost. After each of these experimental flights we’d get a protest note from the American authorities, usually in Frankfurt, Germany, about violations of air rules. One day we collected 40 such protests, covering just one month!
So we older crew members were allowed and forced to fly-but the watch on us was doubled. From time to time someone failed to return -home from a trip abroad. These were usually those with English wives who were able to leave the country on their British passports. Every such escape brought new restrictions and precautions. We were grounded from time to time, then allowed to fly again. During one period we were alerted to fly each morning but weren’t told our destination until half an hour before flight time. Our passports were kept in a safe at the airport and were handed to us when we boarded the plane. They were taken from us immediately after we landed back in Prague because, according to present law in Czechoslovakia, no citizen is allowed to keep his passport, which is the property of the State.
Another precaution taken by authorities was to ground all single pilots. The Communists felt more secure with pilots with families, especially with children, who were regarded as hostages. This was one of the most effective weapons. It kept us flying-and returning home.
Meanwhile it was difficult to get spare parts for our planes. Here’s how the Communists managed to solve that problem. The U. S. State Department had banned export of all aircraft parts to Czechoslovakia. So the Communists worked a devious scheme to get American parts for their planes. They found companies or individuals in neutral countries to buy the spares and pay for them in foreign currency. Then our representative in the neutral country would arrange to ship them to an imaginary destination in another neutral country, such as Sweden. That was the hitch. Though the shipment was from neutral country to neutral country, it was always via Prague. And at Prague the parts were unloaded.
In 1949 the Czech Communists almost got four Skymasters in the same way, direct from the United States. Some of their spare parts had already arrived in Europe when the American authorities discovered the scheme and stopped it.
In compensation for loss of the Skymasters, Czech Airlines was allowed to purchase three Ilyushin 12’s. The payment was made in dollars, of course. So instead of Skymasters, we found ourselves with the Russian plane which the Kremlin called the “most modern transport in the world, far ahead of the newest American aircraft.” Only one of our pilots expressed an honest opinion about the Ilyushin 12. He was imprisoned.
Our unspoken opinion of the plane must certainly have been shared by the airline officials, however. Only the most experienced pilots were assigned to fly it. That meant that not a single Communist pilot flew the Ilyushin for the Czech Airlines. Not even superior knowledge of Marx-Leninist doctrine could assist them in handling so difficult and obstinate a plane.
It thus happened that the Ilyushin 12, pride of Russian aviation production, was flown exclusively by ex-RAF “gangsters,” as they called us.
We didn’t appreciate the privilege. It was a tricky business, flying the IIyushin. And there was no future in it. Even if a pilot survived _an accidental crash he would go straight from the wreck to prison for “sabotaging the plane.”
By 1950 Communist terror reached new heights in Czechoslovakia. The situation at the Czech Airlines became unbearable. Scores of secret agents ‘watched our every move at the airport. Secret microphones were installed in our rooms. No one was safe. We never knew, when we returned from a trip abroad, whether a secret policeman would be waiting for us at the airport.
And we couldn’t quit the airlines! The Labor Exchange wouldn’t give us permission to change jobs because leaving employment without consent of the authorities was considered sabotage against the five-year plan. That resulted in being sent to a forced labor camp by the County Council as “personnel loathing work.”
Several times a passenger forced a pilot on the domestic runs to change course for Munich. To avoid this a new precaution was introduced. On every domestic run all passengers were searched for arms before entering the plane. Then two policemen- with loaded pistols rode aboard the plane, one in the cockpit to guard the crew and another in the passengers’ cabin. This precaution was relaxed temporarily in the spring of 1950 and within a few weeks three Czech Airlines pilots (all ex-RAF) flew to Erding in the American zone of Germany with three aircraft, after changing course on the way from Brno to Prague.
Then the terror regime became even more difficult. At the same time inexperienced Communist crews were trained at greater speed in night and day flying in order to replace us as soon as possible.
We knew that if we ever were to escape from Communist Czechoslovakia we must move quickly. We had laid our plans long before, changing them slightly as new situations dictated. I still can’t reveal many of the secrets of our escape.
Night after night we had long conspiratorial meetings, working out details.
These meetings were almost impossible to arrange. All pilots were watched night and’ day. After carefully selecting a secret rendezvous we used countless tricks to reach it unobserved. We knew the walls had ears-and the telephones.
If a fellow pilot wanted to get in touch with me, he would let me know inconspicuously the hour he planned to call. That was a prearranged safety precaution. At that hour I would wait by my telephone.
Exactly on the minute, it would ring. Then it would ring again, and a third time. And it would stop.
Precisely 90 seconds later, the phone would ring again.
Then I would pick up the phone, knowing it was he.
He might say anything to me: “Did you see the football match at three o’clock yesterday afternoon?” Or he might mention a show at a Prague theater-or a cinema. It really didn’t matter. The main thing was the hour mentioned over the phone. During one planning period the actual time of the meeting was the hour he mentioned plus one. Another time it was minus one. We changed the arrangement frequently so it was really hard for a spy to get the exact meaning even if he had the wire tapped.
One of our biggest problems was to find a landing place for the escape plane. That wouldn’t be a problem in the U.S. but in small Czechoslovakia, with its tiny fields of a few acres, the problem was paramount.
For weeks we searched the country in our cars looking for a suitable landing area. At that time all main highways from Prague were guarded by police who stopped every car, asking for Identity Cards of all occupants and for the destination and reason for that particular journey.
We had selected a few likely spots from the air but had to rely on our memories. We couldn’t mark the spots on our maps. Consequently we often failed to find the fields. When we did find them, they were frequently too small or too soft.
And even if we located a field that seemed just right we had to keep a constant watch on it. So many factors had to be considered. We had to know the time different agricultural crops were harvested. We couldn’t have farmers on the field when we landed.
Altogether we set about five D-Days which we had to cancel at the last moment.
Once I got a tip on a small airfield used by a private plane owner before the war. It was about 100 miles from Prague, a bit too far for our purposes. But still I sent two of my friends to investigate. We had heard the field was unguarded.
My friends drove to the vicinity of the field, left their car in a nearby forest and went ahead by foot. Just as they started out of the woods they saw two police guards standing at one end of the strip!
My friends ducked back quickly. If the police had spotted the strangers they would have immediately demanded Identity Cards. The mere presence of an airline pilot in the vicinity of an abandoned airport would be sufficient proof of his intentions. At that time the proof would have been sufficient to send them to a forced labor camp, even if they had just been picgicking! My friends faded back into the forest, jumped into the car and drove away so fast that they broke the machine’s front spring.
Another day we found a big flat clover field not far from Prague. It was shielded by a cornfield which hid it from the road. We set a date for the escape but as D-Day approached the corn harvest started!
The next field we selected was by a plum alley, and as luck would have it the plums were ripe just as another D-Day arrived.
On the afternoon of September 28 1 took a short trip to a spa resort near the Czech border. After landing at the Prague airport the next morning I walked over to the airfield restaurant for a cup of coffee. A few moments later, Captain K–, the company’s test pilot, came in and sat down.
“Got your car here at the airport?” he asked in a loud voice.
“Yes. Why?” I answered.
“I wonder if you’d mind taking me over to the Police Station,” he said. “I’ve got to pick up my Identity Card.”
I knew immediately that the entire conversation was rigged, designed for any secret agent who might be listening. The real reason, I knew, was that Captain K- had something urgently important to tell me. Otherwise he’d never contact me in public. Two ex-RAF pilots talking together would always arouse suspicion.
We drove from the airport to town where I dropped him in front of the brick police station. During the 20-minute ride we discussed everything.
As soon as we got in the car, Captain K– said tersely: “It’s got to be done tomorrow. This is the last chance. J- has told me I’m going to be dismissed on Monday. The order’s already signed.”
I nodded. We had relied on Captain K–‘s connection as test pilot. Without his access to the planes we would be lost.
“Which place will it be?” I asked, “Number One or Number Two?”
“Neither.” Captain K– whispered: “A bright new one. I saw it from the air this morning. We’ll go there this afternoon and take a look. It looked perfect from the air.”
He pulled out a map and pointed to the spot. We decided to meet that afternoon. I would take the northern route from prague and he would take the western, just in case we should be stopped by a police patrol.
Just before Captain K– climbed out of the car, he said: “I’ll meet you behind the village of K–, about 10 miles out of Prague.” The village was in the direction of Mladá Boleslav, the well known home of the Škoda car factory. That would give me a good reason fro the trip: to inquire about spare parts for my Škoda car.
I had no flights scheduled for the next two days because my passport had been sent to the Italian Consulate for a visa for a special flight to Rome on Monday, October 2. It was a general policy that aircrews of the Czech Airlines be given only one-journey visas for trips to all foreign countries except Sweden, England, Belgium and the “people’s democratic countries.”
That was a great help. One of our main troubles had been that we three pilots were never off duty at the same time.
This time everything looked favorable. I couldn’t be sent abroad since my passport was safely in the Italian Consulate. The third member, Captain R–, had left the day before for England and would return that afternoon. He was due to fly to Brussels in the morning but if D-Day was certain we could risk reporting him sick. Ordinarily you couldn’t report sick without really being ill. Every member of the flying staff who was sick had to be reported to the airport police who investigated at his home.
That afternoon I met Captain K– at the pre-arranged rendezvous and we drove to the field, finding it quite easily. It was covered with clover, well hidden from the highway but easily accessible by automobile. The spot was deserted.
We stopped our cars at one end of the field and walked across to measure it by foot. After 300 paces, I said:
“Oh, let’s stop it. It’s surely long enough.” I was approximately in the middle of the field. It was reasonably hard but wasn’t too flat.
“Tomorrow at 10:30,” said Captain K–, “I hope I’ll be able to get the plane without a police escort. In the big furor I might be able to slip out.”
He was referring to festival preparations for the arrival by air of a Russian high official the next morning. The whole airport promised to be upside down by that time.
“Captain R– has instructions about my family. He only needs to know that it’s going to be tomorrow,” said Captain K– “And of course he doesn’t know this new place.” We agreed on the final details and left in different directions.
At six o’clock that evening, Captain R– was due from London. His wife was not in Prague at that time. I drove halfway to the airport, stopped by the road and pretended that I had engine trouble. When R– approached I stopped him. Holding a sparkplug in my hand and pointing to it, I said:
“We’re going tomorrow morning at 10:30. It’s our last chance. I can’t explain things now. I’ll meet you exactly at 10 o’clock at the second crossroad after the village N-. It’s a completely new place. I’ve been there this afternoon.”
R– looked surprised-and excited. I continued:
“Now I’ll put this sparkplug in. Jump in my car and start the engine. Behind the seat is a map. The place is marked by a blot of ink. Now hurry-and give me a ring later, when you have everything arranged.”
Captain R– nodded. “But how about my trip to Brussels in the morning?” he asked.
“You’ll have to phone the airport tomorrow morning and say you’re sick and are going to see the doctor.”
We both knew it was risky business but it had to be done.
That night I didn’t sleep. Shortly after midnight the telephone rang in the familiar way, three times. I looked at my stopwatch. Exactly at the 90th second it rang again. It was Captain R–.
“Sorry to trouble you so late,” he said, “but I want to tell you that I’ll return your battery tomorrow morning. I don’t need it any more. I’ll bring it to the airport. Will you be there at 9 o’clock?”
“Sure,” I answered: “I’ll be there okay.” And I hung up.
At dawn I looked out the window at the sky. It was Saturday, September 30, a beautiful autumn day. The sky was brilliantly blue and cloudless. That didn’t make me feel better because we needed a good cloud cover. They patrolled every day along the borders of the American zone with Me-109’s.
I took a cigarette from my case and my eyes rested a moment on the engraved inscription: “Peace is always better than war, but I go where destiny sends me.”
We had our last breakfast at home. In the bedroom my little daughter still slept peacefully. It was almost eight o’clock.
Suddenly the door bell rang loudly. My heart almost stopped beating as I walked to open it. Outside, two men stood at the entrance. They were dressed in the long leather coats habitually worn by the secret police and they carried the invariable briefcases under their arms.
“This is it,” I said to myself.
“We’re collecting money for war veterans in North Korea,” said the larger of the two men. “How much will you contribute?”
I took a deep breath. The world suddenly seemed much brighter and the sun much warmer.
I reached in my pocket, but could find nothing but change. “Sorry, gentlemen, I have only some change,” I said quite lightheartedly.
They assured me that the amount didn’t matter so much as the good will of the donor. That was the normal procedure. Those who refused to contribute voluntarily to any Communistic subscription were reported as unreliable.
I didn’t want to arouse their suspicion at the last m^ment. so I showed them my “good will” by means of a few coins.
Soon after, I took a long look at my flat – and left for the last time.
I went to a house in Prague where I had hidden my personal luggage, as neither my wife nor I could possibly leave the flat with a suitcase. Then I waited for my family, who were to join me at 9 o’clock.
My wife left the flat with our child, carrying her huge Teddy bear. They said goodbye to the housekeeper, an ardent Communist, mentioning that they would be back shortly. My wife was ostensibly going shopping.
Around the corner she took a taxi to an unimportant square where she switched to another taxi and stopped the driver two blocks before our meeting place. My wife walked to the street where I waited with my car.
At 10 o’clock sharp we were at the prearranged crossroad near the village N–. I stopped the car by the road, pretending to tinker with the engine, and looked desperately for Captain R–.
The road was empty. We were all under a terrific nervous strain. The tension increased with every moment.
I saw a car down the road, a thin trail of dust rising behind it in the quiet morning air. But it was a truck, and it passed without stopping.
Then, on the blue horizon, I saw a small black speck. The time was 10:20, and still no sign of Captain R–. The black speck in the sky grew bigger until I recognized the grey cargo-version of a Czech Airlines Dakota. When it flew overhead and I read the markings, ‘OK-WAA,’ on the wings, my nerves seemed ready to snap.
At that time I had no idea that Captain R–, uncertain about the whole plan because of the completely cloudless sky, had gone to the airport to see if Captain K- was proceeding with the plan. On previous D-Days a cloud cover had been one of the conditions of executing our escape.
Captain R– reported for duty at the operations room and waited for the flight to Brussels. Ten minutes before take-off time he saw Captain K- applying at the office for permission to make a test flight.
Captain R– knew then that the flight was still going according to plan. He rushed to the nearest telephone and rang operations, saying he had a terrific pain in his stomach and that he was going to see the airport medical officer at once.
“I’m about to collapse,” he groaned. That statement was literally true. “Can you postpone the flight an hour or so? I’ll probably be feeling better then.” And with a groan he pretended to drop the telephone without waiting for an answer.
He hurried to his car, jumped in, and started to leave the airport. As he drove out, he heard the loudspeaker blaring his name. “Captain R–, Captain R–. Report to operations immediately.”
He drove rapidly to collect his family, who were waiting outside Prague, and Captain K-‘s family who were waiting at a spot in the opposite direction.
At 10:25 he screeched to a stop at the crossroads where we waited.
Overhead circled the aircraft. Here was Captain R–. No more waiting.
I shouted out the window of my car, “Go to the next village. There’s a tobacco shop on the right hand side. Take the first road to the left. I’ll meet you behind the village.”
Without answering, he was off. I followed him for a few seconds, then took a short cut down another road. We met about a mile behind the village.
I pointed to a nearby clover field. “That’s it! Drive to the bottom and wait for the signal!”
I stopped the car at the rear of the field. Apparently Captain K- had seen us from the air. He banked steeply and signalled by dipping the wings that there were no policemen aboard. We signalled back with a white pillowcase, put on top of the car, that everything was coming along fine with us.
At that moment the plane lowered its wheels and started to land. Just then a man on a motorcycle appeared on the road. His grey-green suit looked like a policeman’s uniform. We froze, hypnotized by the approaching machine. Then we saw that he was a civilian. He must have observed what was happening. Two cars were waiting by the field. A plane was almost touching down.
But probably the civilian was as frightened as we were. He drove past as fast as he could, looking straight ahead.
Meanwhile, Captain K- was making a low approach and the aircraft was virtually suspended on its props. With full flaps she touched the ground with the tail wheel first.
K– applied the brakes and the plane came to a standstill in the middle of the field. There was no wind. It was the most fantastic landing I have ever seen. He taxied to the corner of the field and we drove to meet him.
Captain K– had encountered difficulties which persons in a free country cannot understand, but he had succeeded in getting the plane for a test without the usual police escort and without the crew.
Back at the airport he had told the control tower that he had received a telephone message from the airport’s police section, ordering him to take-off. Captain K- then turned in a written form, which he signed, containing the names of an imaginary crew. He listed only the most reliable Communists as crew members.
Just as the expected Soviet delegate landed and was greeted by government and airport officials, Captain K– got into the plane and started the engines. The airport was jammed with police guards and secret agents. The Captain told the ground crew that he would warm up the engines while waiting for the crew.
“I don’t need you any longer. You can go and see the parade.” he told them.
As soon as they disappeared he asked the tower for permission to take-off. And he got it.
A few minutes later he was airborne without the crew. In his tanks were 500 gallons of gas. At the airport there wasn’t the slightest suspicion.
And now he was standing at the cargo door on the little clover field, helping us climb aboard the plane.
“Hurry up!” he shouted. He was coatless. His shirt was completely wet from perspiration. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.
First went the children, then the wives and personal luggage. AT last Captain R– and I climbed aboard.
The entire loading process took about 90 seconds. I believe it was the quickest aircraft loading job ever accomplished. When we were all inside Captain K- ran forward to the controls. Captain R- was holding the doors where a rubber strip had slipped between the frame and door so it could not be locked. I ran to the cockpit to help K- at the take-off.
At that moment K- opened the throttles. I dumped half-flaps to make the take-off run shorter. We were airborne after about 300 yards.
I took the controls and turned the airplane to 330°, straight to the Russian Zone of Germany, flying at treetop level to minimize the danger of being spotted by fighters.
As a safety precaution against just such an escape as this there was a standing order that every Czech Airlines test pilot had to report his position to the control tower every 10 minutes. After our takeoff, K– called the tower and gave his position report on VHF as 15 miles east of Prague.
“Roger,” said the controller. In another 10 minutes he called the tower again, giving his position as 15 miles south of Prague. Twenty minutes after take-off we were crossing the Czech border, calling the tower for the last time.
“Hello, Prague tower. My position is overhead P.A. beacon. Will you please switch the S.B.A. on? I want to test it.”
The tower answered: “Okay. S.B.A. is on. You are number one to land. Over.”
Captain K- grinned. “Roger,” he said.
We had about 10 minutes to cross the Russian Zone of Germany.
Then came the American zone. We were safe.
Over Frankfurt some American fighters had a look at us and flew escort for about five minutes. From Frankfurt we flew to Brussels and then set course for England. Over the Channel I sent a message to Manston Airport where we wanted to land.
“Hello Manston tower. This is OK-WAA calling. How do you read? This is an escape flight from Czechoslovakia. Repeat. This is an escape flight from Czechoslovakia. Give me instructions for landing.”
The years of terror were now behind us. We had flown from slavery to freedom.
Reproduced from the June 1951 edition of Flying Magazine with kind permission from the publishers