With a little bit of courage, a dash of science, and a whole lot of taffeta, two families were able to escape from the oppression in East Germany. But how did they do so?
In 1979 two families were able to flee from East Germany in their homemade hot air balloon. They flew for about 28 minutes at -8 degrees Celsius weather and safely landed 10 kilometers from the border.
What Was Happening in East Germany?
Eastern Germany was isolated with the Berlin Wall. The wall was heavily armed with soldiers and land mines to prevent their citizens from escaping to the west side of the Germany. In fact, border patrols were given specific instructions to stop anyone unauthorized from passing through. They were allowed to use brute force or any means possible to stop this from happening.
One of the main reasons people wanted to leave East Germany was because of communism. Several attempted to leave but not all of them were successful. (Source: CNet)
What Was the Story Behind the Hot Air Balloon?
Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel were colleagues at a local plastics factory. They had been friends for years and shared the common desire to escape the country. On March 7, 1978 they agreed to work together to plan their great escape.
Strelzyk was an electrician and a former German Air Force mechanic. While Wetzel was a bricklayer by trade. With their skills and knowledge the started brainstorming. They initially thought of building a helicopter but realized that they needed to get their hands on an engine powerful enough to do the job.
While watching a television program on ballooning, they decided to construct a hot air balloon instead. (Source: CNet)
How Did They Make the Hot Air Balloon?
Strelzyk and Wetzel, began to research about balloons. They planned to escape with their families; wives and all their children. They estimated the total weight to be about 750 kilograms. According to their calculation, the ballon capable of lifting this amount of weight would need to be ready to hold least 2,000 cubic meters and heated to 100 degrees Celsius. Then they estimated the amount of material they needed for their balloon. By their estimates, they needed about 8,600 sq ft.
Since they lived in small town called Pößneck, it wasn’t easy to collect large quantities of cloth without going unnoticed. They tried to gather material from neighboring villages but unfortunately they weren’t successful. Eventually, they travelled 50 kilometers further and found a store that was able to supply them with what they needed – 850 meters of cloth.
The duo stored the fabric in Wetzel’s house. They cut and sewed in the second floor bedroom, and as the balloon got bigger they needed to move their operations to the basement where it was easier to move.
The next thing they needed was a propane gas fire burner to start up the balloon. They modified a stove pipe and connected it to a gas cylinder. They made the basket out of a steel frame instead of weaving one with wicker. (Source: CNet)
Was the Escape Successful?
Unfortunately, their plan didn’t work on the first trial. It took them three attempts and about a year and a half to get their balloon up and running for their escape. They landed in Naila where they landed, they started to work in the area but were pressured by Stasi spies. This led to them moving to different places.
After the German reunification in 1990, the Strelzyks decided to return to their hometown while the Wetzels remained in Bavaria. (Source: CNet)