Michael Schlosser and his airplane
© Espen Eichhöfer

Icarus from Saxony

  • TEXT BERND HAUSER
  • PHOTOS ESPEN EICHHÖFER

Icarus from Saxony  Michael Schlosser dreamed of fleeing – or rather, flying out of  – East Germany in a propeller plane he built secretly in his backyard. A co-worker betrayed him and he was sent to prison. Now, 28 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he wants to show the world that his plan would have succeeded.

Michael Schlosser yanks the pull cord. Once, twice – but still the engine refuses to start. The twin-cylinder engine, which once powered one of the German Democratic Republic’s iconic Trabant cars, is now intended to power a plane Schlosser built himself. The aluminum fuselage and wings gleam in the evening light. Men in cheap T-shirts and expensive aviator watches, members of the Langhennersdorf flying club, stand around Schlosser’s baby, bottles of beer in their hands, enjoying a relaxed Sunday evening after a day spent flying their microlight craft over the forests and hamlets of the Eastern Ore Mountains. Schlosser, 73, a beefy man with a mop of gray hair, has yet to set off on his maiden flight with his plane. “Has it got brakes?” asks one of the pilots. “Nope,” replies Schlosser, “I don’t need any.” The vice president of the club remarks that the curvature of the wings looks serviceable: “It should certainly take off.” And what about landing? “If he’s capable and really lucky, sure, why not?”

Schlosser tugs the cord again, and the engine finally sputters into life and revs up. The hand-carved ash wood propeller creates a gust of wind, blowing Schlosser’s hair off his face and giving him a slightly rakish look – a magnificent man in his flying machine. He’s here to test whether his flying contraption can reach takeoff speed. The flying club has allowed him to use its runway. And perhaps, if things go well, he might just pull up the throttle a tiny bit more, getting the wheels to leave the ground and finally obtaining the proof he needs. “It bugs me when people doubt it,” admits Schlosser, “but this plane can fly!”

DIY: Michael Schlosser works on his plane outside his barn in Liebstadt near Dresden

DIY: Michael Schlosser works on his plane outside his barn in Liebstadt near Dresden

© Espen Eichhöfer

  This is not the only airworthy plane he’s built, he says. The first was back in 1983, a top-secret undertaking in his hen house in Dresden. Master motor mechanic Schlosser had done his national service in the East German air force, where he picked up a few tips and tricks. Aerodynamic problems were solved by dipping into Die Wunder des Segelflugs, an antiquarian book about sailplanes. Over the years, his hard work paid off and the plane, which had a takeoff weight of 265 kilograms, gradually took shape. His dream was to flee East Germany at 120 kilometers per hour. He aimed to take off from a forest clearing, cross the Iron Curtain over the illuminated A9 freeway and then land on the highway at Rudolphstein in Bavaria, early in the morning, at 5 a.m., when there was hardly any traffic. That was his bold plan.

Divorced and with his career in tatters – his application for a trade license had been rejected because he refused to join the SED or one of the bloc parties – there was nothing to keep him in East Germany. Even as a child, Schlosser switched to stubborn if he felt he was being forced to do something. When the Soviet Army crushed the East German uprising on June 17, 1953, Schlosser’s father ordered his 9-year-old son to present flowers to the soldiers on the streets. “I didn’t want to,” says Schlosser. He also dodged the Young Pioneers’ meetings, earning him beatings from his father; at age ten, he went to live with his grandparents.

 

The dress rehearsal for his escape started early in the morning on August 14, 1983, on a Russian army drill ground. Just as he was unloading his plane from the truck, a group of Soviet soldiers emerged from the forest. “I work for television,” he said – truthfully: He was the fleet manager at the Dresden studios of the state-owned channel. “I have to test this plane for a new series”, a blatant lie smoothed over with two bottles of vodka. The Russians helped him assemble the plane, and sat down. Schlosser accelerated, took off and was two meters above the ground when he had to land again because the trees were getting dangerously close. The soldiers applauded.

He has no proof of this successful rehearsal, and never got to attempt his escape flight. Shortly before, the Stasi – the East German secret police – clipped the wings of the Saxon “Icarus”, as the police called him. In Greek mythology, Icarus donned wings made of feathers and wax; despite his father’s warning, he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he crashed. East Germany abhorred daring citizens. A colleague at the studio was an informant. He noticed that Schlosser was reading an article on kites in a Hungarian magazine and reported it. Stasi officers searched his hen house and found the plane: Schlosser got four and a half years in prison for attempted defection.

After five months of incarceration, the Federal Republic paid 96 000 deutschmarks for his release and he was free to move to the West and open his own garage in Ludwigshafen. But the interrogations and his time in prison had left their mark on Schlosser, who suffers from migraines and nightmares in which wardens rattle keys. “Again and again, I see Erich Honecker standing by my bed.” At 60, he returned to Dresden. He now shows visitors around the Stasi museum, visits schools and tells his story. “I’ve felt much better since.” But what Schlosser really needs to leave the past behind is for a replica of his plane to actually take off and fly. Today is the day.

“I know that you have to avoid fear at all costs. Fear is your enemy,” says Schlosser. He starts rolling, pushes the throttle, judders across the grass runway, picks up speed: 20 kilometers an hour, then 30, 40. The wings wobble disconcertingly. Suddenly, the tiny aircraft swerves abruptly to the left, the engine dies. What happened? “There was a deep groove in the runway,” says Schlosser calmly, as he climbs out of the cockpit, “it caused a bolt to break.” Now he can’t steer the rear wheel. He pushes the plane back to the hangar. “Nothing I can do about it today.”

Better luck next time: Michael Schlosser pushes his damaged aircraft back to the hangar

Better luck next time: Michael Schlosser pushes his damaged aircraft back to the hangar

© Espen Eichhöfer

  Lutz, one of the microlight pilots, approaches Schlosser. “Boy, that’s an impressive piece of engineering. But it’s just as well the Stasi locked you up or you wouldn’t have lived to see the Wall come down,” noting that the propellers need to be narrower and their curve altered, that the side rudders need to be further out, and most importantly, that the wings need to be reinforced. “If your wing breaks, you lose control over the whole thing.” Schlosser defends his design: “In 1983 I had different wings; they were lighter.” They were made of plywood and canvas and coated with latex and polyester resin to form a hard shell. “I literally built my plane from nothing!” he adds, a hint of defiance in his voice. In East Germany’s economy of scarcity, it took wits and cunning to obtain any kind of materials.

Michael Schlosser is not about to give up. “Today has shown me that I need to build an exact replica of my 1983 plane,” including the lighter wings. And he wants to tune the Trabant twin-cylinder engine, taking it from 28 HP to a meaty 36 HP. Schlosser looks up to the sky and says: “From now on, you’ll be seeing a lot more of me here on this airfield!”


 

Go West

Daring attempts to get from East to West 

UNDERGROUND

Engineer Joachim Neumann spent years digging a tunnel to East Berlin, helping nearly 100 people to flee.

WIND-POWERED

Karsten Klünder and Dirk Deckert built boards and wind-surfed to freedom from Hiddensee to Denmark.

TRAIN TO FREEDOM

Engine driver Harry Deterling crashed through the border in a steam train packed with friends and family.

UNDERWATER

Nautical engineer Walter Gerber built a submarine, was caught and spent four years in prison.