Meet The Cancelled Czech: A Biography of Dan Havlena

Dan, the son of a diplomat, was born into an affluent Czechoslovak family in 1922. The early years of his life were filled with extraordinary events including meeting Stalin and sitting on his knee, and watching the Germans test jet engine prototypes prior to World War II. However, both of these incidents are eclipsed by his remarkable and desperate escape from Communism.

Having obtained an engineering degree and wishing to embark on a career in the international oil industry, Dan earnestly sought a means of escape from Communism. He considered trekking over mountains and swimming across rivers in order to avoid frontier controls. However, ultimately, he decided on hijacking an aeroplane. On the 6th of April, 1948, Dan, the leader of seventeen determined Czechs (three members of the crew, including the pilot, and fourteen passengers) seized a commercial aeroplane at gunpoint and flew it to the United States-controlled zone of Germany. The Czechoslovak National Airlines aeroplane was flying from Prague to Bratislava when the hijackers tried to divert the aeroplane to London but, ultimately, landed in Munich. Despite being given a chance to escape the poor living conditions and oppression within Eastern Europe at that time, only three other passengers grasped the opportunity to flee Czechoslovakia.


Unfortunately, the plot to hijack the Czechoslovak National Airlines aeroplane had dire consequences for Jan Masaryk, the son of Tomas Masaryk, the founder and first President of Czechoslovakia and founder of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Jan Masaryk held the position of Foreign Minister for Czechoslovakia between 1940 and 1948. He was supposed to join the hijackers but had died, falling out of a window, on the 10th March, 1948 at his Czernin Palace apartment.

Jan Masaryk

Jan Masaryk

There is much controversy over whether Jan Masaryk committed suicide or was killed on the orders of Stalin, following the discovery of his intended plans to flee Czechoslovakia. In 1970, Claire Sterling suggested in her book, The Masaryk Case, that he was murdered. Finally, in 2004, fifty-six years after his death, police closed the case, ruling that Jan Masaryk had indeed been murdered. Nevertheless, close friends and relatives, including his sister, Alice Masaryk, maintain that the possibility of murder was simply a ‘cold war cliché’.

While in Munich, Dan claims that during negotiations with the CIA, he agreed to sell the American government the aeroplane. However, the Americans did little else for the escapees. Dan became ‘The Cancelled Czech’, a stateless person without a passport or a home. However, his energy, sense of humour and determination ensured that his colourful life did not stop there. With the aid of a former diplomat friend of his father, Dan acquired Venezuelan citizenship and took a job with Shell.

At one point in Venezuela, while managing the laboratory at a remote onshore oilfield site, Dan arranged a party for the site manager who was to be married in the capital, Caracas, the following day. Rumour has it that he provided drinks by blending fifty-five gallons of ethanol with just a few litres of orange juice, and then, chilled it down to minus five degree Celsius, so no one could taste anything. As a result, during the party around twenty people collapsed, some being hospitalised; the groom had to be carried on to the aeroplane to Caracas the next day, and physically propped up throughout the wedding ceremony by the best man.

Having worked in the petroleum industry throughout the world with Shell and a number of consulting companies, Dan speaks fluent Czech, Russian, English, French, Arabic and German. He gained international recognition by the petroleum industry in 1963 when he co-developed the Havlena-Odeh technique, now a widely used method for estimating ultimate petroleum production from a hydrocarbon reservoir. Eventually, he settled in Calgary, Canada, with his Luxembourger wife, Thérese, and fathered a son, Jean, and a daughter, Alena. Dan finally returned to Eastern Europe following the fall of Communism in 1991 to see first-hand the appalling conditions under which the family members he left behind in 1948 had suffered.

During one consulting trip to Albania in the bitter winter of 1991 and shortly after the fall of Communism there, Dan recalls on the first night, the hotel having no hot water, on the second night, no hot or cold water, and, like the majority of the buildings, no central heating. The only way to get warm was to hire a taxi and sit in it with the engine running. At that time in Tirana there were virtually no motor vehicles on the road, only horse-drawn carts. Of the two U.N. motor vehicles that he saw during his stay, Dan knew both the drivers, a testimony to his bonhomie, extrovert nature and genuine interest in people.

At age eighty-seven, Dan currently runs the Honorary Consulate Offices for Madagascar and Luxembourg in Calgary and, occasionally, undertakes petroleum consulting projects. To this day he carries in his wallet a copy of the 1948 Dallas News article on the hijacking. He still enjoys life and is grateful for the opportunities the bloodless hijacking subsequently provided.

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About Charlotte J

Graduate, journalist, blogger and follower of all things media.