British historian and essayist Peter Frankopan opens his recent book The Earth Transformed (an attempt to write about the human experience and our impact on our only planet—yet) with a witty quote by Voltaire:
“Three things exercise a constant influence over the minds of men: climate, government and religion.”
Few people would probably agree more with Voltaire (and Frankopan, who tries to condense the story of everything, something others, like Bill Bryson and Yuval Noah Harari, have done from a more encyclopedic or New-Agey speculative perspective, respectively) than those who succeeded in evading from forced serfdom.
Environmental constraints have defined our species since the beginning, and the very idea of individualism and self-reliance can’t escape the tragedy of our species: we are social animals (“animals of the polis,” said Aristotle) and depend upon the constraints of our environment, the society and time we are living in, and the main beliefs that we share with others in a process of shared imaginaries that phenomenologist philosopher Edmund Husserl called “intersubjectivity.”
The myth of the noble savage
Two Sundays ago, an article published by the New York Times confronted our technical society with the fate of an uncontacted tribe in the Brazilian Amazon decimated down to two members, a middle-aged man and his young nephew. They are the last Piripkura standing, an indigenous group that once occupied a vast territory. As the authorities decide whether to protect 1,000 square miles for the tribe to survive, there are little prospects of indigenous women nearby venturing into the demanding and unpredictable ancestral ways.
Reading such an account of the Piripkura, some of us recall the tender 1955 memoir Tristes Tropiques, a first-person depiction of the relations between a Western scholar, the then-young French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the tribes encountered in the Amazon. The book, a travelogue of sorts, sets the symbolic beginning of the methodological current of structuralism.
Over 250 years before Lévi-Strauss trip to the Amazon in the late 1930s and later memoir, which he confessed to have almost dismissed, Jean-Jacques Rousseau deepened the Western stereotypes of the “noble savage,” or the idea that men were innocent when in their ancestral habitat, becoming morally corrupted by complex societies, one theory already elaborated by Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century. With Montaigne, the European conception of society already acknowledged that individual liberty and social bonding required a civilization.
Rousseau’s idea of social contract tried to harmonize individualism and collective expressions. Later on, especially with German idealism in the nineteenth century, the concept of collective identities gravitated around particularities of culture (Nationalism), class (Marxism), pseudo-religious groupthink zest, or some sui-generis blend of them. Romanticism, on the other hand, idealized our individual drive. If the nineteenth century set the tone of modernity, the twentieth century was the big field experiment of individualist and collectivist tendencies. And, from our vantage point, it’s easy to forget how recently the fate of people’s lives was decided by the side of the ideological divide their countries had fallen into after World War II.
Eastern Bloc: keeping people “free” by force
People in liberal societies, though menaced by the war, never experienced existence in a planned society in which each member had to aspire to their assigned part as a cog in a hypothetically prosperous machine. Others weren’t as lucky and experienced the Gulag or the “Cultural Revolution” (not “cultural,” not a “revolution”). For such societies, individual “freedom” wasn’t “necessary.” Not surprisingly, a lot of those who suffered such a constrained existence disagreed with this perspective.
Such is the case of individuals from Soviet satellites who tried and succeeded in abandoning the Eastern side of the Cold War because they believed in individual freedom and shared the democratic values that were guaranteed (albeit imperfectly) on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Citizens living in the USSR and its Eastern Europe satellites had to conform to the official message of shared “freedom” and “prosperity,” a message delivered by State-controlled propaganda, especially after the uprising of the civil society from several countries in the 50s and 60s, which caused purges and an exodus of intellectuals to the West.
Meanwhile, after World War II and until the 1970s, Western societies benefited from a period of economic prosperity, personal freedom, and relative equality, as well as real upward mobility (French economist Thomas Piketty argues that only big wars and societal upheavals pave the way for eras of prosperity across the board since capital gains based on savings and investment give way to productive growth).
Given the environmental factors surrounding societies in Soviet satellites, sports and scientific committees from the East spent much of their resources surveying elite athletes, scientists and intellectuals to prevent their escape when visiting events, conventions, or invitations abroad.
On the other hand, the only escape that ordinary citizens could find was rogue, Quixotic evasion, usually by abandoning highly monitored life routines and crossing hermetically guarded borders in an era lacking mobile communications.
Ivo Zdarsky, the man who flew over the Iron Curtain
Consider the biography of Ivo Zdarsky, a citizen of Czechoslovakia with one expired passport who managed to escape the Iron Curtain in a Flying Go-Kart, taking off in secret and landing hours later at Vienna’s International Airport. It was August 4, 1984, at around 4 AM, pre-dawn over the Austrian capital’s rooftops, when Zdarsky woke the city up with the lawnmower-like sound of his DIY plane, made with the salvaged engine of infamous East Germany’s utilitarian car Trabant Tramp.
Suppose Aesop’s proverb is accurate and, in Nature in general and humans in particular, necessity is the mother of invention. In that case, Ivo Zdarsky is the poster child of how perverse incentives (i.e., living in an oppressive regime and feeling one has little to lose when risking one risky escape) can propel ingenuity and inventiveness to fly to freedom, literally in this case.
Who would be pushed otherwise to build an ultralight aircraft out of spare parts and beat-up composites to fly over a hundred kilometers in a pitch-dark night, if not to avoid detection in a highly militarized border zone, knowing that the prize is landing hours after in the capital of a democratic society?
Unlike Germany, which had been split after WWII between the Soviet Union on one side and the Western Allies on the other, a last-minute agreement at the Yalta Conference prevented Austria from following the same destiny, which turned the country into the only Central European nation officially neutral and permeable to the political soft power of both blocs.
In reality, few doubted that Austria had fallen on the right side of late 20th-century history by being allowed to develop a market economy and consolidate a democracy that lacked the direct influence of either superpower. And Ivo Zdarsky knew that flying into Austria in his makeshift aircraft meant abandoning the Eastern Bloc for a long time, if not forever. Few could conceive in the summer of 1984 that a mere five years after his inspiring escape, the Soviet Union would politically implode, the Berlin Wall fall, and Eastern European countries would create their own liberal democracies.
Can a real story be too wild to be credible on a script?
Why Zdarsky adventure flying from communist Czechoslovakia to Vienna in a homemade flying machine that he mastered to the extent of landing safely at Vienna’s airport didn’t turn into a blockbuster movie is something beyond comprehension. Perhaps his story sounds too unbelievable to engage an audience in search of credible plots for real-life stories. Sometimes, reality can be too fantastic.
Why the success of Post-Apocalyptic movies of the time, propelled by the shock of the 1973 oil crisis, such as the Australian film Mad Max (1979), when you can have the real story of a flying machine (Trabant engine connected to a fiberglass propeller, go-kart with hammock-like seat, three wheels salvaged from old wheelbarrows), manned by a Pop-Quixote on a stripped motorcycle helmet, jeans, a colorful shirt, and the closest thing the young, skinny pilot could find to pilot boots?
Not that Ivo Zdarsky’s biography was suddenly interrupted or turned boringly predictable after his escape. An individualist influenced by the pop culture he now could consume freely, he eventually settled in the US, turning his interest in makeshift aircraft into Ivoprop, an individual business headquartered in Long Beach, California, specializing in composite propellers “for homebuilt and ultralight aircraft.”
Unlike, say, stunt professionals who captured the imagination of middle Americans of the era like Evel Knievel‘s failed motorcycle jump over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, Ivo Zdarsky’s flying Go-Kart didn’t only work effectively but accomplished an even more incredible feat —and wonderfully connected to the geopolitics of its time. Nonetheless, Zdarsky fell into relative obscurity when other migrants from Central Europe thrived, pulling off their own version of the American Dream, like small-town Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger (13 years older than Zdarsky, and already a cinema star in 1984).
A lawnmower-like whine over Vienna’s roofs
If the Go-Kart flight to freedom hasn’t yielded the cultural impact it deserves, some remarkable articles about Ivo Zdarsky have appeared over the years, from a 2012 New York Times profile article to a more recent long-form piece by Andy Rieber, published initially on Narratively (then syndicated).
The story’s first two paragraphs are worth reproducing in their entirety, such is the captivating power of the scene, especially from the perspective of our risk-averse times, unable to deal with the big, potentially catastrophic issues of our time:
“On August 4, 1984, at 4 AM, the slumbering pre-dawn calm over Vienna, Austria, 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 was not 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 morn 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 farty 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 Czechoslovakian passport. In halting English, Ivo Zdarsky declared: “I would like to claim political asylum.”
A live-work hangar in a Utah desert ghost town
Rieber’s story depicts the real dimensions of an ancient—and powerful—human drive for survival, personal expression, and flourishing, irrespective of one’s own goals or beliefs.
Zdarsky hasn’t stopped. In the last few years, he settled and created a very particular way of life in a Utah desert ghost town, where he works and lives in an old airplane hangar. Or, as Andy Rieber puts it, “a hell of a long way—physically, politically, psychically—from the Soviet police state that was Czechoslovakia in the 1980s.” To find something more Mars-line on Earth, we’d need to go to Mars, he asserts.
His one-room home includes his quarters, the technical shop, and the hangar where he keeps his aircraft, which he can fly on the private airport, with three runways surrounding the property. He certainly feels like “the only guy out there.”
Lucin, the ghost town where the hangar sits, feels remote and desolate. The last inhabitants, relatives of retired railroad workers, left in the 1970s; during World War II, the conflict whose long-range consequences determined Ivo’s life, and also propelled him (again, literally) beyond the Soviet Bloc. The town of Wendover, 80 miles south of Zdarky’s home/airport in Lucin, was the bombing training base where the Enola Gay was housed, fresh in our memories a mere weeks after the opening of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
Here’s how Joyce Wadler, a visitor, described Ivo’s live-work arrangement in Utah back in 2012:
“His home is divided into two 50-by-50-foot areas: one is for his planes, the other is his living space (the bathroom is a separate room). ‘I notice most people have a house which is usually smaller than my room,’ Mr. Zdarsky says. ‘And inside this house is a bunch of little rooms, called bedroom, living room, whatever. If they want to do something on a computer you have to go in one room, you go to eat in another room. I have just one room, and I can watch the TV here, watch the computer here, eat here, and it is not claustrophobic.'”
Ivo Zdarsky’s biography and current home aren’t conventional, not even as more people choose to work remotely and create off-grid setups close enough to an international airport and also remote enough to avoid conventional standards as much as possible.
The brotherhood of amateur aviators
Ivo’s expertise field, makeshift and amateur aviation, is especially suited for inventors and adventurers since its modern inception through the ingenuity of the Wright Brothers and their invention of the three-axis control system that, to this day, enables the pilot to manually steer the aircraft so it maintains its equilibrium.
Ivo Zdarsky’s inventiveness was a once-in-a-lifetime high-stakes bet against the odds to abandon an oppressive world and decide what to do with his life on his own terms. During the first golden era of aviation, pilots flew with no modern safety measures nor navigation systems, often keeping long-distance courier lines under challenging situations, including war, becoming some of the last Romantic characters, from Jean Mermoz to the pilot-writers Antonie de Saint-Exupéry or Romain Gary (all of them French aviators).
When we visited the Lishmans’ home a few years ago, we were received by Paula Lishman. Canadian artist and inventor Bill Lishman had passed away two years before. However, his passion for helping teach young geese find their lost migratory paths by flying along with them on an ultra-light aircraft maintained by him inspired the movie Fly Away Home starring Jeff Daniels.
Bill Lishman’s ingenuity may have inspired Austrian amateur pilot Johannes Fritz, who is determined to help migratory birds crossing the Alps to avoid one species’ or group’s potential extinction.
What do the Wright Brothers, Romantic risk-prone aviators from the Golden Era, Ivo Zdarsky, Bill Lishman, and Johannes Fritz have in common? They all seem to share big, albeit concrete, goals. Their difficult endeavors weighted risk and a bigger-than-life, intangible reward.
To overcome the limits of the world they knew or know and write their biography on their own terms. Mankind, a hairless primate unable to fly, not only manages to do so but takes on the responsibility of teaching migratory birds (master flyers) what comes to them by instinct.
If there’s one Quixotic field for makers, it seems to be flying. In 1977, Paul MacCready won the Kremer prize in 1977 by successfully testing the first human-powered aircraft, the Gossamer Condor. On the soon-to-be-celebrated 50th Anniversary of this particular feat, which goals should DIY aviators should be aiming at?