Group hijacks plane in 1956 to escape Iron Curtain
This movie won’t need Marvel or Jerry Bruckheimer to make it action-packed, the story of one local man has more than enough pulse-quickening drama. “Freedom Flight,” the story of then 25-year-old Frank Iszak and his six young companions hijacking a twin-engine airplane to escape the communist terror of 1956, has completed the development phase and is now awaiting a final round of funding.
If you can’t wait for the movie — which is being made by Hungarian award-winning director Endre Hules and is set to feature Sam Neill (“Jurassic Park”) and David Kross (“War Horse”) — Iszak will be at Warwick’s, noon to 2 p.m. Sunday, July 17, signing copies of his book, “Freedom Flight: A True Account of the Cold War’s Greatest Escape” on which the movie is based.
Iszak, 85, who owns and teaches yoga at Rhythm Yoga and Dance in Rancho Santa Fe, had originally self-published the book in 2011 and the signing is his first since the book’s March 29 release through Morgan James Publishing.
As for the film, Iszak — who is working as technical adviser — says details like finding locations, adapting the screenplay, securing crew, getting actors and procuring the DC-3 airplane and fighter jets have been completed thanks to an initial round of funding and tireless work by Hules. They expect to finish fundraising within the year.
Filming in Hungary, Iszak added, not only adds to the realism of the story but saves the production money thanks to the government giving a tax break and an additional rebate from a film fund. Realism is important because the story itself defies belief.
Iszak and his partners that rainy afternoon almost exactly 60 years ago (July 13, 1956) got on the plane with no weapons and no idea if it had enough fuel to take them to West Germany, where they could claim asylum. If they landed somewhere in Hungary or any of the other surrounding countries, they would have likely been tortured and certainly been executed.
But though the odds were definitely stacked against this rag-tag group, they actually had some incredible luck on their side. A series of crazy coincidences, along with a ton of bravery, aided the seven youngsters on that fateful day.
The story, however, starts years earlier. Following World War II, Hungary attempted at least two democratic elections, but eventually found itself under communist rule by Stalinists, including Matyas Rakoski, who Iszak called “even worse than Stalin.”
Over the next few years, different factions within the communist party alternated power and, during one such exchange of power, Iszak, a journalist in the city of Pecs, was sent to a forced labor camp. He was able to escape, then moved to Budapest where, as a fugitive, he moved from job to job often, ending up in a cement factory, where he met George, another fugitive and a former fighter pilot in the Hungarian Army.
George was also a boxer, as was Iszak, and the pair along with five others, including Iszak’s wife at the time, Emese, formed a boxing team that eventually served as their cover to actually get on the plane — setting up a boxing competition at a city in western Hungary. It had to be a domestic airline because the KGB would have stopped them right away trying to board an international flight.
It was even dicey to get on a domestic flight, and there would be an undercover KGB agent on board, but the group’s first stroke of luck came when they weren’t even questioned boarding the plane.
Iszak returned to Hungary in 2006 and spent hours researching in the national archives to add context to the story, and one of his revelations was that on the very same day they had chosen to hijack the plane, a high-ranking politician from the Soviet Union was in the country to facility the removal of one of the Hungarian leaders. That meant that nearly the entire Hungarian contingent of the KGB was busy guarding the Soviet politician and security at the airport was lax.
Still, Iszak’s group knew that one of the nine other passengers on their flight would be a KGB agent, so they devised a plan to attack and subdue the other passengers. When they went to do that, the pilot reacted quickly, locking the cockpit door and taking the plane to high elevation, then diving low and repeating the maneuver several times in an attempt to subdue the hijackers.
Needing to get into the cockpit, the seven young boxers got their second stroke of luck — the cockpit door was made of plywood, not metal. Iszak later found in his research that of the six planes the company had on domestic flights at that time, theirs was the only one made of plywood. That allowed George to use a screwdriver and break into the cockpit.
Expecting four people to be in the cockpit, as was customary, George was surprised to see a fifth person — the KGB agent, who was holding a gun that he pointed at George’s head and pulled the trigger. But in another moment of divine intervention, it didn’t fire.
According to Iszak, forensics research showed the agent had accidentally put two bullets in the chamber, which could have only happened with that particular model of gun. George then tackled the agent and a brawl ensued as the other four people in the cockpit pummeled him with anything they could find. George eventually needed more than 50 stitches for the cuts he sustained, but the hijackers were able to take control of the cockpit.
By this time, they were around 300 feet off the ground and the pilot — with Iszak holding a gun to his head — and co-pilot George literally had to swerve to avoid church steeples.
They had no navigation and no idea how much fuel was left, and there were two Soviet MiG fighters on their tail ready to shoot them down. Iszak’s recent research uncovered that a communication breakdown between the ground and fighter jets was the only reason they weren’t fired on, and the MiGs had to break off when the plane crossed the border.
The group then tried to follow the Danube River, but lost it due to intense cloud cover. Flying blind over the stormy Alps, the group eventually ran out of fuel and was forced to try to land in complete darkness. By chance, they were near what looked to be a deserted airstrip and were able to land relatively smoothly. But where were they?
“We have no idea where we are,” Iszak explained. “Finally something shows up at the end of the runway. It’s a car with a machine gun tower at the top, but we can’t see what flag it bears.
“Finally it arrives … stars and stripes.” Iszak’s group had landed in West Germany and had been met by the United States military.
The story became world famous and is thought to be one of the catalysts for the Hungarian Revolution just four months later. After working for the military for a few months — he had lots of useful information — Iszak immigrated to the U.S. in 1957 and became a citizen in 1962. He has worked as a chemist, journalist, publisher and private investigator.
In 2003, along with his second wife, Serpil, he founded Silver Age Yoga Community Outreach, a charitable foundation that provides free yoga classes to underserved seniors.