A Romanian pilot parlayed his crop-dusting expertise into a dramatic flight to freedom for himself and 19 countrymen today, deftly eluding high voltage lines before bringing the craft down in an Austrian cornfield.
Aurel Popescu, 27, brought his state-owned Antonov 2 biplane down in the field nine miles inside southeastern Austria near the village of Pertlstein after a two-hour flight from the western Romanian border city of Arad.
The plane, overloaded with 10 adults, 8 children and 2 teen-agers, covered 240 miles of Hungarian airspace, flying precariously low on its run toward the Austrian border in an effort to avoid Romanian and Hungarian radar.
"The defectors were very lucky to escape a crash since the aircraft flew under dangerous electrical wires on the final stretch before the landing," an Austrian Interior Ministry official said.
Pertlstein residents who conquered the language barrier to converse with the refugees said that the Romanians told them that many in the group were related and that the adults had worked together at an agricultural enterprise near Arad. Popescu was reported to be an agricultural engineer who had gained his flying experience as part of his job.
The flight of the crop-duster recailed other recent makeshift but spectacular attempts to escape from communist countries in Eastern Europe. Most of the fly-by-night refugee traffic has been from East Germany as in last September, when two men and theilr families sought asylum in West Germany by sailing over the pastoral southern border near Czechoslovakia in a hot-air balloon.
Last year, other small groups of East Germans made many successful flights over the border in such varied conveyances as gliders, rubber dinghys and inside the trunks of cars.
Austrian officials said that today's flight was carefully planned in advance, and credited Popescu with skillfully bringing down his propeller-driven aircraft.
Popescu neatly landed the Soviet-built plane -- its tail adorned with a red, yellow and blue Romanian flag -- despite the fact his fuel tank was close to empty.
"The last minutes of the flight must have been the worst," the Associated Press quoted Pertlstein's Mayor Johann Zach as saying. "We noticed the pilot was flying back and forth, even flying below high voltage lines to find a proper landing space."
The plane was slightly damaged as it hit the ground.
"It is a wonder that nothing happened," the official added. "But the pilot being in the business of cropdusting seemed to have lots of experience."
Other reports suggested that Poperscu had seized upon his crop-dusting job as the ticket to freedom for himself and his passengers.
"The pilot knew he had the chance [to escape Romania] since he had got a job flying crop-spraying planes," a village policeman at the scene of landing was reported as saying.
Local farmers rushed to the aid of the plane after they watched it settle into the cornfield on its second approach.
"No one came out of the plane for the longest time and I began to wonder what was going on," said one farmer who had been working near the landing site.
"I went up to the plane and when I was real close a man looked out and said, 'Austria?' 'Yes, Austria,' I said," the farmer added.
The passengers, who were reported to be in good condition but exhausted by their ordeal, were taken to a refugee camp at Traiskirchen, 12 miles south of Vienna.
"We prepared some food for the children at the local inn," Mayor Zach said. "None of them had more than one piece of baggage. But we were surprised at how well they had everything planned."
All of the defectors have asked for temporary political asylum in Austria. Austrian radio reported, however, that the Romanian had expressed a desire to make their ultimate destination Australia.
The Associated Press also quoted Austrian officials as saying that Popescu would face unspecified legal action for taking a Romanian-owned airplane illegally out of the country.
However, the prospect of legal action against the pilot and the discomforts of the harrowing journey seemed to leave the Romanians undaunted. One girl, when asked why the group had attempted the risky flight from Romania offered this matter-of-fact explanation: "Just one word -- freedom. We are so happy, all of us, to be in a free country."