The great escape - to Austria and freedom via electric power line

Zdenek Pohl and Robert Ospald, photo: Tyden

This week marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most dramatic escapes from communist Czechoslovakia, when two men crossed the border into Austria on home-made chairs hanging from electrical power lines.

Robert Ospald was a 35-year-old forest worker in 1986, while Zdenek Pohl worked on the railways. The two friends had tried to escape to Yugoslavia via Hungary a year previously but were informed on, caught and had their passports confiscated.

Ospald then had the idea of using cross-border high tension lines to escape, and the two set about constructing a kind of chair that could be suspended from the upper wires, which are safe since they act as a lightning rod and carry no current.

They lied, cheated and purloined to get materials for two chairs, even stealing parts from trains during the night, Pohl recalled several years later. After a few attempts were thwarted due to technical difficulties, the two men set off on foot from Znojmo in south Moravia for the Austrian border on the night of July 18 1986.

Ospald and Pohl climbed the 180-feet tall pylon and attached their chairs to the electric cable. Pulling themselves along the wire by hand, it took them five hours to cover just 300 metres above the Iron Curtain. There was a violent electrical storm that night, which they welcomed: Ospald, now 55, told Tyden magazine the noise helpfully covered any sound they might make.

When they got down they walked for half an hour before finding themselves in a vineyard with signs in German. They were in the Austrian village of Kleinhaugsdorf and they were free. The first the Czechoslovak authorities learnt of the dramatic escape was when the two men's faces were splashed across the international media.

Robert Ospald got political asylum in Austria in 1988 before eventually becoming a citizen of the country, where he lives to this day. He keeps one of the two chairs they used in his flat; the other is in the Berlin Wall Museum.

Zdenek Pohl - who now uses the first name Frank - emigrated to the United States. Both men have published books about their experience, one of the most spectacular escapes of the whole Cold War era.