When the pilot with the jet-black hair and movie-star smile asked if anyone would care to come up and see the cockpit, he wasn’t surprised that a couple of his 25 passengers agreed.

After all, this was the moment that Mira Slovak and his two co-conspirators had been anticipating for two years. Slovak, the youngest captain in the state-run Czechoslovakian Airlines, hated communism and so did his friends.

That’s why they concocted their plan to hijack his DC-3, overpowering its small crew and evading Russian MiGs so they could fly to freedom in the West.

Slovak landed at a U.S. base in West Germany, immediately making headlines as a Cold War hero. But his dramatic 1953 defection was only the beginning.

Immigrating to the U.S. with two shirts and little English beyond “coffee and cherry pie,” he became a crop-duster, a daredevil aerobatic pilot and a national champion speedboat racer. In 1968 he flew a tiny motor glider with a 36-horsepower Volkswagen engine from Germany to California, crash-landing and nearly killing himself just 19 feet from the runway at his destination in Santa Paula.

The next year, he made the same trip in reverse, without the near-death experience. Slovak, who joked that he was “born chicken, absolute chicken” but loved to fling his hands over his head while flying an open-cockpit plane upside-down 50 feet off the ground, died June 16 of stomach cancer at his Fallbrook, California, home. He was 84.

Before his illness was diagnosed last year, Slovak was planning one more big trip: a flight from California to the Czech Republic in a vintage biplane.

“He’d mapped out the route and was quite serious about it,” said his friend Ingrid Bondi, a former Continental flight attendant who lived with him for 28 years. Slovak was a pilot for Continental, retiring in 1986.

Born Oct. 25, 1929, in Cifer, Czechoslovakia, Miroslav Jan Slovak was the son of a grain merchant. During World War II, his family hid two Jewish families in their farmhouse basement.

When he was 17, Slovak became a Czech airman. By the time he was 21 he was a captain assigned to the state airline. He also was an ardent, if secret, anti-communist.

“I saw friends disappear, property gone, a place full of betrayal and informers,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1960. “I thought if I stayed I would be shot or in prison.”

Slovak chose to defect on the night of a full moon – March 23, 1953. After smuggling guns on board and locking his co-pilot, navigator and flight engineer in a baggage compartment, he quieted frenzied passengers with a bone-rattling dive of more than 1,000 feet. Flying low to avoid detection by Russian fighter planes, he knew he was over West Germany when he saw neon lights.

U.S. intelligence officials grilled Slovak for months, said David Williams, executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent, Washington. In return for his cooperation, the CIA introduced him to Bill Boeing Jr., a son of the aircraft magnate, who made Slovak his personal pilot.

Boeing, owner of a 2,000-horsepower hydroplane, thought Slovak would be an uninhibited boat racer.

“I want a bachelor in my boat,” Boeing told a reporter, “not a driver with a distraught wife on shore and a bunch of kids waving Daddy goodbye.”

Within a decade Slovak, won three national titles at the helm of so-called unlimited hydroplanes. He also had most of his teeth knocked out, his face sliced open, his kidneys injuredhis back broken and his hip dislocated.

“I got to know lots of nurses by their first name,” he said.

Meanwhile, he won a championship at the first Reno National Air Races in 1964, flew under the occasional bridge, and sometimes did aerobatics displays over speedboat races.

Slovak’s two marriages ended in divorce. He and Bondi lived in Montecito, Calif., before moving to Florida and then, seven years ago, to northern San Diego County.