About Us Contact Us Privacy Policy Terms of Use Accuracy & Fairness Corrections & Clarifications Ethics Code Your Ad Choices
© MEAWW All rights reserved

Who was Denny Pechacek? Life of Minnesota pilot found dead in Lake Superior worthy of a Hollywood movie

Denny Pechacek, 72, was found dead in Lake Superior, hours after his helmet was discovered near Hovland
Denny Pechacek was reported missing by his family on August 18 after he failed to return from a flight in his aircraft (@Amy Neilsen/Facebook)
Denny Pechacek was reported missing by his family on August 18 after he failed to return from a flight in his aircraft (@Amy Neilsen/Facebook)

HOVLAND, MINNESOTA: Searchers recovered the body of a missing pilot in Lake Superior on Wednesday, August 23 hours after his helmet washed ashore near Hovland, Minnesota.

Zdenek Denny Pechacek, 72, described by his family as larger than life, took off in his ultralight aircraft nearly a week ago. He didn't return to meet his significant other/ground crew Amy Nielsen at the designated time that evening. She contacted authorities as the sun set without spotting him.

Zdenek Denny Pechacek's son Sean Pechacek joins search efforts

His son Sean Pechacek was among the hundreds of emergency officials and North Shore residents who spent days searching through mountainous terrain and thick vegetation for any sign of the pilot. Sean said he had been building up to the discovery of his father's body for days — and now it's official.

"He lived a lot of life, and very full," he said of his father.

Pechacek's helmet was found early Wednesday morning, according to the Cook County Sheriff's Department. Tom Crossmon, a specialist in recovering victims of drownings, used sonar to find him within a few hours of the discovery.

"This is not the outcome that we wanted, and our thoughts and prayers go to Denny's family and friends," Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen said in a news release. "We are so very fortunate that we live in a community where people will drop what they're doing and rally to assist those in need."

This wasn't the first time there was a heavy search for Pechacek. According to a feature story that ran in the Minneapolis Star in 1980, Pechacek escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1969 under heavy gunfire, and took refuge for a year in Austria before moving to Minnesota, where he had family.

Defecting required stealing several vehicles that he ultimately crashed or flipped, hitchhiking, and finally driving a stolen truck one-handed with his head below the dashboard as he busted through a border crossing, bullets hitting his windshield.

"I jumped out and I ran," he said in 1980, adding that when he saw signs he didn't understand, he knew he was saved.

Zdenek Denny Pechacek's daring escape from Czechoslovakia

For decades he was unable to go back to his family. He would be sent to prison for revealing secrets to Austrian intelligence — and he had done about $30,000 worth of damage to trucks, buses and gates in his elaborate escape.

He made a life in Minnesota, first in the Twin Cities then northern Minnesota where he has 62 acres in Cook County. Pechacek had five children, 14 grandchildren and a longtime relationship with Neilsen, who described him as talented, sweet, obstinate and brutally honest.

He learned how to fly a paraglider when he did get a chance to visit the Czech Republic. This hobby eventually evolved into flying the two-seater ultralight he took on his final flight. Sean Pechacek isn't sure what happened out there last Friday: whether it was a mechanical problem or health problem that brought him down.

"The one thing I know — the most peaceful way to pass away is in your sleep," Pechacek said. "But there's something to be said for passing away while doing what you love, too."