Czechoslovak Airlines insists its approximately twice-a-week charter flights from Prague to sunny Havana are nonstop. But Jan Helge, like many other citizens of Czechoslovakia, knows better. The bearded 24-year-old recently acted on that knowledge. When the airline's Soviet-built Ilyushin 62-M jet landed for refueling at Mirabel Airport northwest of Montreal, Mr. Helge defected. His baggage - and the 30 other Czechoslovak vacationers who had boarded in Prague - continued on their way to Cuba.
Helge became the latest of about 350 Czechoslovaks since 1982 who have used the Montreal fuel stop to gain their freedom.
The aircraft used on the charter flights has a maximum range of about 4,900 miles, short of the 5,300 miles between Prague and Havana. Indeed, if the headwinds are especially strong, the flight may have to stop at Gander, Newfoundland - where it sometimes loses a passenger or two or more.
``These are, in fact, very simple cases,'' says Pierre Briand, a Canadian immigration officer. Proud of its reputation as a political sanctuary, Canada quickly gives the defectors refugee status. After four years, they can apply for citizenship.
Helge's loss of his baggage was unusual. Canadian authorities generally require Czechoslovak Airlines - known as CSA - to unload the bags of any defector before allowing its plane to take off. Interviewed in the YMCA where he was staying, Helge had only the clothes he was wearing - a modish Army-type jacket and blue jeans - plus a small flight bag of items.
Helge's story of how he made his escape, told through a translator, is fairly typical of Czechoslovaks seeking their freedom.
He was working for Barandov, the largest film studio in Prague, as a prop man. He disliked the political system. Not being a member of the Communist Party, he figured his chances for progress at work were limited.
``The socialistic system is ridiculous,'' he says. ``There are no human rights, freedom of thought or expression.''
He decided more than a year ago to take advantage of the Mirabel escape route. That meant he had to buy his charter package a year in advance, paying more than 18 months of his salary for the two-week Cuban vacation. It took all his savings plus cash from the sale of possessions. He told no one of his intentions.
``No matter to whom you speak, it is very risky,'' he says.
After getting notice of the flight he would be on only two weeks in advance, he made sure his baggage held no hints of defection - heavy socks, French or English dictionaries, etc. Passengers have been turned away at the Prague airport when a search revealed such items - another fact Helge learned through the grapevine.
Eight hours later, when the plane landed at Mirabel Airport, he and the other passengers were bused from the plane to the terminal building, a safety measure required by airport authorities during refueling. Their route to the transit lounge passed an immigration office, where many defectors turn in to seek help upon seeing the lighted sign. Others have sought help from Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in charge of airport security.
Helge, extremely nervous, missed the immigration sign and stopped instead at an information counter in the transit lounge. The woman there contacted immigration; an officer arrived, asked for his passport, and because of the lateness of the hour, saw to it that Helge was given a room for the night at a detention center.
Next morning, Victor Zicha, head of the Quebec chapter of the Czech National Association of Canada, was called. An art teacher at an English-language high school, Mr. Zicha is an old hand at helping Czechoslovak defectors get established in Canada. Once, a few years ago, he put up 17 from one plane in his own large home.
By now, the Czech association has created a special fund to help care for the refugees until they get official refugee status, find a job, or qualify for welfare. Some are out of work for months until they learn French or English or both.
Thomas Bata, a Czechoslovak shoe manufacturer who reestablished his business in Canada when the communists took over his native land after World War II, helps out whenever requested with winter boots and other assistance.
As we spoke, Zicha slipped Helge a $20 bill for food and other necessities. The young man headed off to a nearby hotel to visit with other Czechoslovak defectors who had arrived earlier. Some had come on regular scheduled flights with tourist visas to visit the United States or Canada - and then defected. Most of those given such visas are regarded by Czechoslovak authorities as dedicated communists.
Helge is a bachelor. He parted from his girl friend a year ago, hoping to avoid leaving behind a broken heart.
``Defection is not an easy decision to take for them,'' notes Mr. Briand. ``They are probably leaving family behind. Most of the time they are nervous. But when they are in our office, they calm down.''
Somehow there are no defections from Soviet planes that land at Mirabel, says Briand. There are a few from Polish planes and from Polish boats docking in Montreal's port. For Czechoslovaks, finding escape routes is hard. Some used to get visas to nonaligned Yugoslavia and escape there. Obtaining such a visa now has become extremely difficult. As a result, Zicha helps out an average of two defectors a week during the cold-weather season when charters head to Cuba. By now, he has many defector stories. He tells of a colonel in the secret police who had secretly become a Jehovah's Witness and wanted to practice his religion. Another was a top physicist who had been working in a Soviet research institution.
One Czechoslovak refugee, tipped off that her fianc'e would be on a flight to Cuba, waited at the glass windows overlooking the transit lounge. But when the passengers were unloaded, he was not among them. Crushed, she was about to leave when a CSA employee brought a note to her saying he had defected at an unscheduled stop at Gander a few hours earlier. She broke into tears of happiness.
Three defectors have become homesick and returned, Zicha says. Punishment awaits those who return after three months. Men get 18 months in jail; women 12 months, he says. Young men who have not served their military service may be charged with treason.
Some of the Czechoslovak refugees do not find life easy in Canada, especially because of language problems. One, a medical doctor who defected at Mirabel in February 1985, told this correspondent of his difficulties in finding a job. He is often told he is ``over-qualified.'' Moreover, because of a surplus of doctors, Quebec has indicated it won't give immigrants a license to practice medicine until 1995, he says. Meanwhile, he lives on welfare and learns French and English so he can eventually pass a medical examination.
But, he recalls, in Prague he couldn't live ``a normal life.''
There are rumors in Prague that Czechoslovak Airlines will get new Soviet planes able to fly all the way to Cuba without stopping off for fueling in Canada. But new planes haven't been delivered yet.
In the meantime, Zicha often gets late-night calls for help. The jolly, big man jokes about the lost time: ``I could be making money.'' Nonethless, he obviously enjoys his Good Samaritan role.