* V. Nichols (Viorel Nicolae), Australian writer, of Romanian origin, born on May 22, 1954 in Bucharest. After completing his studies at the “Traian Vuia” Aviation School in Mediaş, he became a mechanical aircraft engineer and was employed at Băneasa airport in Bucharest. On May 19, 1978, together with George Florescu, a trusted friend and colleague on duty, he “flees” from Bucharest aboard a plane that they take together for a flight to… freedom. Although none of them had hands-on pilot training, after a few unforgettable hours, full of emotions and unforeseen situations, including being intercepted and followed by the military aviation of Romania and Hungary, they land on a plain in Austria.
After a period of six months of detention, during which they were confronted with false accusations and requests for extradition from the Romanian state, and then another two months of sorting in the Traiskirchen camp near Vienna, the two comrades, seeking and finding freedom in Australia, initially settled in Melbourne. Arriving at the Antipodes, like George, Viorel Nicolae worked in different factories and strove to learn English as well as possible, to communicate professionally and to find a “job” in aviation. He married a Hungarian, Caroline and was involved in various electronic products businesses. Knowing that he would never be able to return to Romania, Viorel decided to bring his remaining family from Bucharest, including parents, brothers and sisters. Meanwhile, he learned that his father died from a tragic event, which affected him for many years. He enrolled in a light aviation school, where, after completing his courses, he became a private pilot and thus began a new adventure in his life. After the arrival of the relatives from Romania and the reunion of the family in Melbourne, Viorel, not being alienated, made every effort to continue his aviator dream. Not long after, he divorced Caroline and moved to the town of Ballina in northern New South Wales, over 1,300 miles from Melbourne. He emphasised the skills of avionics engineer by getting involved in the construction of sports aircraft and also participated in rallies and demonstration aviation competitions. He married Nikita, a true-blue Australian, with whom he had two children, a girl, Olivia, and a boy, Jerome.
During his free time, he is concerned with literature, writing poems, essays and novels in English. The book “The Escape from Bucharest” describes throughout 480 pages the events he had before and after leaving Romania. Although the work is published as a whole, it actually amounts to two volumes with different titles. The first volume, “Once upon a time in Bucharest” describes the childhood and adolescence of the author spent in his hometown. A special chapter is dedicated to his love for dance and the period when he becomes a member of the band led by choreographer master Gioni (Ion) Gubernicu, performing on the stage of many cultural places in Bucharest. The second part of the book, which could actually be segmented into the second volume, is titled “Aviators most wanted” (“What Aviators Want” or “Most Wanted Aviators”). In fact, the title is a play on words, which means that “all the aviators want to fly “) or the fact that after escaping from Romania the two “flying” colleagues became “the most wanted aviators / watched by state security!”. Here the studies at the aviation school, the work at the Băneasa airport and of course the escape are described in detail. Part Two (or Volume II) continues the author’s life in northern Australia and the Pacific Islands. It was completed as a tribute to the 31-year anniversary of the great escape from Romania (May 19) and to the author’s 55 years of age (May 22). Also on May 19, Mr. V. Nichols had scheduled an exam: the final exam for obtaining a complex Australian pilot license. In an email he informed me that he had a good time. We wish him much success!
Founder of Literary Confluences Magazine
INTERVIEW WITH A GREAT ESCAPEE
George ROCA: Dear Mr. V. Nichols, thank you for accepting this dialogue. What was the reason you isolated yourself from the Romanian community in Australia? I heard you have been in the Kangaroo Country for over 30 years. Why didn’t we know about you until now?
NICHOLS: The pleasure is on my side, especially since you are Romanian from my native Bucharest, and now also an Australian national. The reason for not hearing from me was that I lived for many years in Ballina, a city located in the northern part of the state of New South Wales, where communities of Romanians or immigrants were non-existent and still are. Before that I lived in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, where I operated my electronic service business for home entertainment equipment including television servicing. It was a business that kept me very busy. Even though there were many Romanians living in other parts of Melbourne gathering around at special events in places like churches and town halls for parties and special dinner events, I simply was too busy for that and enjoyed middle class life partying at home with Australian friends and with my friend George and family. I made a few Australian close friends and as European-Australians we used to get together a lot: living the Australian dream, working hard, playing hard and of course enjoying the Australian lifestyle by turning the backyard into a party venue. Not to mention once a month we got together at the Royal Victorian aero club for competition flying… where I am proud to say that I have won a number of trophies! The most significant competition was balloon bursting. It was then after so many years that a memory branded on my brain had been woken up.
I realised that in order to hit the balloon with the propeller I had to make adjustments with my rudder pedals: kick left or right as required to hit and burst the balloon. The memory I had in my mind while we were approaching the Hungarian border was a volley of shots on the ploughing on a field over which we were flying at low altitude. This volley of shots had a small zig zag in it which meant that the pilot was trying to aim at us, not to avoid us but to hit us. Because of the high minimum speed a MiG 21 needs to fly in order to stay airborne, it was impossible for the pilots to have us in their sights for more than a fraction of a second – not long enough to actually aim, shoot and hit the target… All this time we thought that they were shooting just to scare us …But after the balloon bursting competition it clicked…
Living in an English-language environment, I decided to write in English because the inspiration was easier. Also all the piloting terms I learnt were in English! I did not forget the Romanian language but, having no contacts for many years, my Romanian language rusted a little… In fact, after finishing the first book, I asked some Australian friends to make a “literary and grammatical criticism” of the work in English and more; they all told me that they liked the way I write – both its style and character – encouraging me to continue writing. This fact led me to conceive the second part. So, an important point is to present new and attractive topics that will make your writing interesting and have “currency” for the reading public. The fact that I had a colourful life helped me with the inspiration …But like everything else in this world, it’s not what you do but how you do it… While working on the manuscript, I was often overwhelmed with memories, to revisit the course of my life, to go back in time, to meet with childhood, adolescence, my native Bucharest. All of these came back alive in my memory. In this way, I had the inspiration to write the poem “Sweet Bucharest” (Dulce Bucureşti) that was born and began to grow with each verse we wrote… in parallel with the memories. I composed “Dulce Bucureşti” quickly, in three days, and when I finished it I had tears in my eyes. I reproduce a fragment of it in the following:
When calling my old friends and we are talking on the phone
When I call old friends on the phone, we talk
I told – I missed – I wanted to come home
They tell me they are missing, and I tell them to come home
Then we talk and we talk
Speaking together, both wanted and unwanted
Memories are coming back, memories of yesterday
I remember the lost moments
Memories of growing up in the big city county
Sweet childhood and that great city
We remember every park, memories of playing hard
With streets, gardens and parks and children’s voices
We remember we were young, working hard memories
Revoking youth, friends and home
We remember everything we used to do …
My heart is beating and longing presses me …
George ROCA: Nice poem! I totally read it in the book. It contains your soul and your feelings… longing for home, your native places! For the sake of our readers who do not know English, I allowed myself to make a versified translation into Romanian of the first two verses in Romanian.
NICHOLS: That’s right! You have intuited well! Here, in this poem and in others, I tried to outsource, to communicate with the world, to tell them my story … to tell them what I feel in my soul! Even though it’s been so many years since I left, my dreams and lyrics are still walking through Bucharest! Thank you for the translation.
George ROCA: I read the book “The Escape from Bucharest” and I was delighted with the clear literary style you adopt. What prompted you to write this book? Why did you combine the two volumes into one work?
NICHOLS: Thank you. “My literary style” has existed so far only in speech, in the stories I was telling my friends. As I stated above, many have advised me: “Viorel, you describe facts so interestingly and in detail that it would be a shame not to put them to paper!” At first I was sceptical, not confident, but then I got serious about it. My opinion is that if a man can speak-tell a story, that man can write. The detailed descriptions I guess come from the aviation experience that forces you to observe the smallest detail of the terrain or system… Whenever I describe something, no matter how long it lasts, I do not go to the next stage until I am satisfied with the description of the present intern ship. It’s a bit like a movie script in which the director must accurately follow the details given by its author. There are many reasons why I wrote the book. I wanted to share my memories and feelings both with those I left behind and with other people, with my readers. I wanted to share with others the story of my life, the adventures and the extraordinary events that I went through. The reasons I attached a second volume to the first is because they are highly correlated and together they form a work with more substance, thus giving the reader the opportunity to get acquainted with the whole story, while also giving more value for the purchase price.
One must understand the impact this big change had on us. I mean moving to Australia, which is a country so so exotic and the entertainment on TV so so different to what we saw anywhere else. On the radio, music was played all day long with only about two minutes break on the hour… Hardly any advertising. However, there was a lot of advertising on TV. But the ads were so entertaining really. One thing that had an impact on me was a movie based on a book, which was in turn based on a true story. I purchased ”Catch Me if you Can” after I saw the movie and that was what proved to me that writing a book can be done, even if the character in that story never wrote a book before. Ever since I was 29 I said to myself: our story must be lifted to an artistic level if it is going to have a chance at all! I had that in the back on my mind every day. Told the story to people at least once a week, who replied “Vio, you must write a book”. Knowing that only if I write it artistically using creative writing, it took some time until I finally was ready. In 2008 when I lived in Wagga Wagga (the place is so nice that you must say it twice!) with my daughter Olivia, later my son to joined me, asking “Dad! Have you finished the book yet?”
George ROCA: Do you still have trauma from the “escape” from Romania? Did you have any threats, did you feel the touch of the so-called “long hands of the Securitate”? Did your relatives at home suffer from your “escape”?
NICHOLS: The six months of detention (details in the book!) and another three months of sorting in Austria overwhelmed me and created extraordinary stress and emotions. Our extradition was not similar to that of a “common” escapee. Such escapee would have spent many years in prison and perhaps we would have had the same unfortunate fate as other refugees, who, once trapped, disappeared from the face of the earth shortly after their arrest. The Romanian Securitate did everything it could (while we were in detention) to require us to be returned to Romania and put extraordinary pressure on the Austrian state. The request for extradition was like a black cloud over us… Our fate was in abeyance until the last minute before we left for Australia. Being young we learned to be vigilant and adapt to the harsh conditions. As for those left behind, yes, many have suffered… At Băneasa Airport some colleagues lost their jobs and the security of the airport was intensified. Later, I learned that I was sentenced by the Romanian Communist state, by default, to long and difficult years of detention, both myself and my friend George Florescu, not only for “escaping” but also for other security facts concocted to make the case as hard-hitting as possible!
George ROCA: How did the “escape” from Bucharest begin? Whose idea was it? Can you give us a presentation of this adventure for our readers?
NICHOLS: I think George learnt a lot about the West from his father and his acquaintance, as they were working for the diplomatic corps of Romania at its head office in Bucharest. He must have wished that one day too he would live abroad, but, like always, life has a way of making things happen because dreams do come true; sometimes in an unplanned way…
This is what I mean!
As I have stated in the book, the incipient idea was not mine. The story started simply, but the consequences were extraordinary! My colleague George had a seriously ill cousin. He was sent by the Red Cross to medical treatment in West Germany, to a special hospital that successfully cured or treated such cases. Upon his return, George found out from his cousin, by the name of Titi, a lot of interesting things about how the treatment went but also about life in the West.
Six months after his return, Romanian doctors told Titi that further treatment in Germany would be needed. This time the Romanian state denied him this “privilege” and did not accept his departure. George was absolutely irritated and upset by this event. Enraged by his cousin’s desperate situation, he had an extraordinary idea – to organise an escape aboard a plane of the Romanian Red Cross. The two began to make plans for their escape, and George assured his cousin that he would do everything he could to help him return to Germany to the hospital for good. Working at Băneasa Airport, George prepared very seriously and in detail the departure plan, assuring the one suffering that he would try by any means “to get help” from a plane. Initially, Titi was enthusiastic and optimistic, but then, as he became increasingly ill, he lost his courage and asked his cousin to give up the plan so as not to cause any inconvenience. George, who had done his duty, was disappointed by the turn taken and proposed that I accompany him, hoping however that Titi would change his mind!
George ROCA: What happened to cousin Titi? Did he do well in the end?
NICHOLS: Titi died three months after our escape… with a heart healed by our success that his cousin managed to reach the West and be free … may he rest in peace!
George ROCA: I would ask you to briefly tell us about the epic departure until you came to the West.
Vio NICHOLS: The departure epic has two aspects: one – the real events represented chronologically and two – the emotional aspect – the planning of the escape and the separation of loved ones, family, friends and colleagues… Since we decided to escape, George and I, we had to control our emotions, play the role of a normal life. In the meantime, we were thoroughly preparing to study air navigation. Here I must mention that at the graduation time my friend and colleague, Mihai Mihaisteanu, gave me a navigation book as a present. It was in response to a favour I did for him – making a drawing board with moving parts to demonstrate how one hydraulic system works – that was an assignment for his graduation test! That book changed my life because the moment I started to read it I could not put it down. Furthermore, once in Bucharest back home I made a habit to study navigation and flying techniques. The book is still available today and is titled “Prin Văzduh” (Through the Air, by Vasile Toma). I spent many hours studying the book and many times I wrote flight plans to Africa – in theory flying all over the exotic continent of Africa. So, when George came to me and made the proposal, I was ready in my subconscious.
George was shocked by my quick acceptance of his proposal. So… yes, in theory, there, was one pilot navigator on board that plane. Radio navigation was most important and that is what I studied a lot. Ironically that is what saved our lives too! George had the courage to actually take over the controls right from the start and fly the plane like driving a car… It was up and down all the time like a roller coaster. The courage George had was unique and luckily we were together and I am sure it was all well planned by the universe us two could have made it then and nobody else or no other combination would have worked… Of that I am sure! Of course, we did our best to secretly access essential data from CIPA (Aeronautical Training Center) where George and I worked. In the meantime, I was doing a regular job of clarification with Titi, to give him courage and to change his mind. The emotions of parting on the day of departure were buried deep in my soul, focusing on the flight plan and how we could pass the Carpathian Mountains aboard a small plane. In such a flight, 65 years ago from our adventure, the great Romanian pilot Aurel Vlaicu had lost his life trying to cross the same mountains! So our fears were well founded! The flight was marked by many unforeseen events from the moment the engines were launched to the ground and to the landing (crash) in Austria. As mentioned in the book, from the moment we put our belts on at Băneasa…
Living in Australia sometimes we used to get asked: “How did I live Romania?”. To close friends I would tell them the truth and at the end of me telling the story I was told that I should write a book. I did not make a big deal out of it… But over the years especially when I moved to the north everybody told me: “Vio, you must write a book!”. When I moved to Wagga Wagga, I wrote the book!!! Now, like I said, the inspiration was very easy but what was hard was that I had in mind to write it in the artistic way… Like I always noticed over the years movies on TV based on true story. The one that did it to me was “Catch Me if You Can”. One thing I can brag about is that I am a creative writer. Okay, I do not write fiction but I can write in a creative way. The only fictional part in this book is a prologue to an epilogue. I imagined that I was a detective and visited the grave of one aviator that was shot in full daylight by a guard. He was shot because he refuelled the aircraft without written permission… Measures put in place after our escape! That is the only fictional chapter I wrote in my life… But who knows I might write a book next time?! In other words I am able to create dialogues in order to tell the story and am able to describe scenes and even do drawings for the story boards… I made a video clip like a short movie on YouTube called “The Escape from Bucharest. Produced by Viorel Nichols”
In 2012 we visited Romania and afterwards I dedicated 7 years of my life for this book! The most significant being the fact that I managed with the help of everyone involved including you, George Roca, and George Florescu and those from the Romanian Air Forces, TAROM and Băneasa Airport staff. I managed to complete my work as a detective and find out exactly what happened behind us. I have a lot of gratitude for all those who participated. Without you guys the story would have died buried under the carpet. Knowing only our version of the story would not have been enough to make this book a success… Thank you very much and I love you all so much…
Mackay, Queensland, Australia
10th of April, 2020