"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

A hero met… and met again: Even President Ike thought Mira Slovak a hero in those crisp, clean days of yesteryear

By on April 16, 2018 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments

Editor’s note: This story was published in the March 2011 issue of The Good Life. It is being reposted as there is a new book out about the life of the incredible Mira Slovak.

Mira Slovak was a well-known sight around the Northwest in his WWI biplane.

By Steve Wellman

As a young man of 16, I had my first real job in 1966 pumping gas into airplanes and doing general maintenance at the Bellevue Airfield.

I rode my motorcycle to work every day and thought I had it made earning $1 an hour.

The Bellevue Airfield was to me a place of wonder. You’d come around the corner of one hangar to find a classic Piper Cub or another to reveal a Beechcraft Bonanza. Fabulous stuff. I pumped the clear green aviation fuel into all of them.

One hot summer afternoon in July, we had a special visitor land on our strip and taxi up near the office. The pilot of the shining white biplane had apparently been landing in cow pastures because there was manure on the underside of the wings and fuselage.

There was no mistaking who the pilot was, he’d had his name emblazoned onto the side of the fuselage behind the cockpit: it read “Mira Slovak” in big letters.

His World War One biplane had been beautifully rebuilt with a much larger engine, and the afternoon sun gleamed on the gold leafed standing-lion-with-claws on the tail.

Mira was a real living hero who had escaped from communist occupied Czechoslovakia over the iron curtain to freedom in West Germany in a plane he had commandeered from the Czech airlines. Flying under 1,000 feet to avoid Russian MIG fighter planes, he escaped with his life to find freedom.

He had come to America and had been given a certificate by President Dwight Eisenhower to become a commercial pilot. From that point on, he flew planes for the Boeing family and had become the most successful unlimited hydroplane racer in the world.

He also raced the Miss Wahoo — the hydro and other thunderboats made a visit to Lake Chelan in the fall of 2010.

This was huge for us in Washington State, watching him win races in Seattle, the Tri Cities, Spokane and Chelan.

My boss had greeted him upon landing like the celebrity he was, and after the other gas attendant and I washed his plane — including cleaning off the manure — we stored it for him overnight in the big hangar.

He was my first customer the next morning when he came storming into our parking spaces by slamming on the brakes of his convertible and spitting gravel to a stop. I stood on the office steps in amazement as he leapt from the seat and said he wanted his plane to go flying.

I grabbed the keys and ran to unlock the hangar doors.

We got it out on the apron and he came around the front and told me that I needed to “prop” it for him, as it didn’t have a starter motor. My boss had forbid me to prop any aircraft on the premises because it was so dangerous. But I didn’t say anything to Mr. Slovak — his tone and demeanor left no doubt that I was going to do it.

He pulled the prop around to the compression stroke and told me to pull down hard on it after he got in the cockpit and gave me the signal. I felt the sweat start to trickle down my forehead in the early morning sun.

The cold aluminum of the propeller’s edge felt like the machete it was — just waiting to loosen my fingers from the stumps of my hands if it got half the chance.

Normally, propping a plane was not a big deal if you were experienced and sufficiently big enough to reach up and grab it. I had no experience at all and although I am now full grown to 5-foot, 11-inches and 180 pounds, at that time I was 5-foot, 3-inches and weighed 98 pounds.

He got comfortably set behind the controls, looked over the side and said, “Hit it.” I pulled with all the gumption I could muster and the prop started to spin downward. Unfortunately it stopped completely at the bottom of the stroke. I had pulled myself away from the spinning menace in case it came around to take my head off, but I was as surprised as Mr. Slovak that a quarter turn was all it did.

I couldn’t see his face as he got back out of his plane and came around to the front, but I’m sure he was as surprised as I was to see that the propeller had circled downward only a quarter of a turn and was resting in the vertical position. He seemed to take it in stride and simply pulled the prop back around to horizontal.

When he again gave me the nod from the pilot’s seat, I pulled even harder. At that point I had visions of his mighty engine roaring to life with the sound of a thousand angry bees, the prop spinning so fast it disappeared in a swirling streak of painted color and flashing light, a wave from the brave pilot in his tight leather helmet and goggles, the takeoff, flight!

Instead, there was dead silence. The propeller had spun down to vertical again and stopped. I looked on in mute denial; I couldn’t believe what I beheld. Meantime there was no movement from the cockpit.

I looked around the fuselage to see a man looking around with a searching gaze. I realized Mr. Slovak was looking for somebody, anybody, that is, except me. In 1966 Bellevue was a shadow of its current teeming mass and on that early Sunday morning in summer, people were at home sleeping or getting ready to go to church. In short, there was nobody else.

Mira got out of the cockpit, came around the wing and began a ritual that would repeat itself for the next 20 minutes. For me, time had slowed practically to a halt. I was wet with sweat by then, I felt like I had been pulling on that damn prop for a week. Every time was the same thing: I’d pull down, he’d get out and turn the prop to horizontal get back in and nod to me.

And then, a miracle.

The engine sputtered to life on the next pull and, not to lose the opportunity, Mira pushed the throttle and spun the prop up to several thousand RPMs.

The plane started moving forward. I ran after and watched as it turned onto the runway and accelerated. Within 20 or 30 feet it was airborne, rose to about 20 feet off the ground and headed straight for the end of the runway.

Suddenly, it rocketed straight up and pulled back on itself, like it would flop backward on its top. Before it did, it pivoted back to right side up and headed back down the runway the other way!

There was a reason he painted his name upside down on the fuselage and that was so you could still read his name when he flew upside down. I stood by agape, looking up as Mira Slovak put on my own private air show, replete with loops, barrel rolls, upside down flying and all the rest.

I couldn’t believe my luck. The show lasted for 20 minutes but it lives on in my mind for a lifetime. He finally flew away to the north and out of my life.

Steve Wellman and his hero: Mira Slovak.


 On Oct. 2, 2010, the day after my 61st birthday, I took my family to Lake Chelan to the wooden boat show.

I ran ahead down to the docks and started looking for the original Gar Wood cigarette boat that was supposed to be there. I found it and began looking it over carefully when a sound that I hadn’t heard in a long time dragged my attention to an adjacent part of the marina where an Allison V12 engine had just cranked to life.

Memories of summer days in Seattle at the Seafair hydroplane races flooded my head.

They’re called thunderboats for a reason, and that is because the exhaust stacks on an Allison or Rolls Royce Merlin are very short. When the engines are being started they regularly belch two-foot long flames straight out of the combustion chambers.

Once started, the 12-cylinder roar is as smooth as it is deafening.

I jumped for joy and ran down the dock and over to the hydro pits. To my amazement I saw the Miss Thriftway, the Miss Burien, the Oh Boy Oberto and the Miss Wahoo tied to the docks. I was tingling all over and prevented myself from falling into the cold water of Lake Chelan only by planting my feet wide right next to the Miss Wahoo.

It is far and away the most beautiful example in the fleet. Its shining mahogany deck is a work of art in every sense of the word. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I perused every square inch and came to a screeching halt when I got to two words written in gold just behind the driver’s seat. There it was written: Mira Slovak.

Of course! Mr. and Mrs. Boeing built the Miss Wahoo for Mira Slovak. I immediately went up the dock to the shore to ask someone who looked official if he might actually be there.

On the way I began calculating just how long ago it was that my adventure at the Bellevue Airfield had happened: 44 years. Good God, how old would that make Mira?

A pleasant, official looking guy, busily going about his duties on shore immediately informed me that Mira Slovak had been there and had earlier taken the Miss Wahoo out on the course. When I asked Mira’s age, he said 85.

But, he said Mira had left a little earlier and it was doubtful he’d be back. I was crestfallen. My big chance to meet again one of the heroes of my life had been snatched away from me.

He went on talking about Mira and what a real character he was and then stopped. He pointed right behind us and said, “I was wrong, he didn’t leave. He’s right over there.” Twenty feet away.

For the second time being in the vicinity of Mira Slovak caused life to slow down for me.

I walked over where he was talking to another admirer and I quietly waited my turn. It felt a little like a dream state, unreality mixing with the thoughts of years past in my mind.

He turned to me and I introduced myself and shook his hand. He still had a full head of hair but it was snow white, contrasting with the deep tan of a man used to being in the elements.

And he was now shorter than me, a fact that brought on a further sense of unreality when I had always looked up to him as a giant of a man.

I related the story of propping his original biplane 44 years earlier. We had a lively discussion about that plane and he said that he sold it but since then had bought another identical plane. He liked it very much but this time had a starter installed in it. I had to laugh.

He told me stories of flying that old plane and had once landed it on a street because he was lost on a densely foggy day. That time a policeman had helped start his engine.

When I asked if he had been a little frustrated with me for taking so long to start his plane and he said no, he would never be anything but grateful to anyone who helped him start his difficult engine.

Standing together in front of the Oh Boy Oberto, I had my picture taken with him.

I no longer was in a dream, this was real. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Steve Wellman is a high school art teacher who lives in Wenatchee with his wife, Crystal, the kids are in college and moved away. His current passions are painting motorcycles and road racing them, but he now wants to learn how to drive an unlimited hydro.

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