East German balloon escape
|Date||September 16, 1979|
|Location||Pößneck, East Germany|
Naila, West Germany
|Organised by||Peter Strelzyk & family|
Güenter Wetzel & family
|Outcome||Successful escape to West Germany|
|Portrayed in Night Crossing (1982)|
The East German balloon escape was an incident occurring at approximately 2:00 AM on September 16, 1979, in which two families, with eight members in total, escaped the communist country of East Germany by crossing the border to West Germany in a homemade hot air balloon. The plot to accomplish this was carried out over a period of one and a half years, including an unsuccessful attempt, three different balloons, and various modifications until the successful escape occurred. One failed crossing alerted the government to the plot, but the police were not able to identify the suspects before their flight to freedom.
The communist country of East Germany was separated with a border fortified with watchtowers, land mines, armed soldiers, and various other measures to prevent its citizens from escaping to West Germany. The East German border patrols were instructed by standing order to prevent border penetration by all means including lethal force (Schießbefehl ("order to fire")).
Peter Strelzyk, (born 1942), an electrician and former East German Air Force mechanic and Günter Wetzel, (born 1955), a bricklayer by trade, were coworkers at a local plastics factory  who had been friends for four years. They shared a desire to flee the country and began discussing ways to cross the border. On March 7, 1978, they agreed to work to plan an escape. They considered building a helicopter but quickly realized they would not be able to acquire an engine capable of powering such a craft. Next, they decided to investigate the idea of constructing a hot air balloon, having been inspired by a television program about ballooning. An alternate account is that they were given a magazine article about the International Balloon Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico by a relative.
The pair began research into balloons. Their plan was to escape with their wives and total of four children (aged 2 to 15). They calculated the weight of the passengers and the craft itself to be around 750 kilograms (1,650 lb). Subsequent calculations determined a balloon capable of lifting this weight would need to hold 2,000 cubic meters (71,000 cu ft) heated to 100 °C (212 °F). The next calculation was the amount of material needed for the balloon, estimated at 800 square meters (8,600 sq ft).
The pair lived in Pößneck, a small town of about 20,000 where large quantities of cloth would not be available without raising attention. They tried neighboring towns of Rudolstadt, Saalfeld, and Jena without success. They traveled 30 miles (48 km) to Gera where they purchased 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) wide rolls of cotton cloth totaling 850 meters (2,790 ft) in length at a department store after telling the astonished clerk that they needed the large quantity of material to use as tent lining for their camping club.
Wetzel spent two weeks sewing the cloth into a balloon shaped bag, 15 meters (49 ft) wide by 20 meters (66 ft) long, on a 40 year old manually-operated sewing machine. Strelzyk spent the time building the gondola and burner assembly. The gondola was made from an iron frame, sheet metal floor, and clothesline ran around the perimeter every 150 millimetres (5.9 in) for the sides. The burner was made using two 11-kilogram (24 lb) bottles of liquid propane household gas, hoses, water pipe, a nozzle, and a piece of stove pipe.
The team was ready to test the craft in April 1978. After days of searching, they found a suitable secluded forest clearing near Ziegenrück, 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from the border and 30 kilometres (19 mi) from Pößneck. After lighting the burner one night, they failed to inflate the balloon. They thought the problem could be because they laid the balloon out on the ground. After weeks of additional searching, they found a 25-meter (82 ft) cliff at a rock quarry where they could suspend the balloon vertically before inflation but that was also unsuccessful.
Next they decided to fill the bag first with cold air before using the burner to raise the air temperature to provide lift. They constructed a blower with 14-hp 250 cubic centimetres (15 cu in) motorcycle engine, started with a Trabant automobile starter power by jumper cables from Strelzyk's Moskvitch sedan. This engine, quieted by a Trabant muffler, turned 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) long fan blades to inflate the balloon. They also used a home-made flamethrower, similar to the gondola's burner, to pre-heat the air faster. With these modifications in place, they returned to the secluded clearing to try again but could still not inflate the balloon. Using the blower did allow them to discover that the cotton material with which they fashioned the balloon was too porous and leaked massively.
The pair purchased samples of different fabrics in local stores, including umbrella material, various samples of taffeta and nylon. They used an oven to test the material for heat resistance and created a test rig from a vacuum cleaner and a water-filled glass tube to determine through which material would the vacuum exert the most suction on the water, revealing which material was densest. The umbrella covering performed the best but was also the most expensive. They instead selected a synthetic kind of taffeta.
To purchase a large quantity of fabric without arousing too much suspicion, they again drove to a distant city. This time they traveled over 160 kilometres (99 mi) to a department store in Leipzig. Their cover story this time was that they were in a sailing club and needed the material to make sails. The quantity they needed had to be ordered, and although they feared the purchase may have been reported to East Germany's State Security Service (Stasi), they returned the next day and picked up the material without incident. They paid 4,800 DDM (US$720) for 800 meters (2,600 ft) of 1-meter-wide (3 ft 3 in) fabric. On the way home, they also purchased an electric motor to speed up the pedal-operated sewing machine they had been using to sew the material into the desired balloon shape.
Wetzel spent the next week sewing the material into another balloon, accomplishing the task faster the second time with the now-electric sewing machine. Soon after, they returned to the forest clearing and had the bag inflated in about five minutes using the blower and flame thrower. The bag arose and held air, but the burner on the gondola was not powerful enough to create the heat needed for lift. They continued experimenting for months, doubling the number of propane tanks and trying different mixtures of fuels. Disappointed with the result, Wetzel decided to abandon the project and instead started to pursue the idea of building a small gasoline engine-powered light airplane  or a glider.
Strelzyk continued trying to improve the burner. In June 1979, he discovered that with the propane tank inverted, additional pressure caused the liquid propane to gassify which would create a bigger flame. He modified the gondola to mount the propane tanks upside down, and returned to the test site where he found the new configuration produced a 40 feet (12 m) long flame. Strelzyk was ready to attempt an escape.
First escape attempt
On July 3, 1979, the weather and wind conditions were favorable. The entire Strelzyk family lifted from the clearing at 1:30am and climbed at a rate of 4 meters (13 ft) per second. They reached an altitude of 6,600 feet (2,000 m) according to a altimeter Strelzyk had made by modifying a barometer. A moderate wind was blowing them towards the border and freedom in West Germany. The balloon entered a cloud, atmospheric water vapor condensed on the balloon and the added weight of the water caused the balloon to descend. They landed safely approximately 180 meters (590 ft) from the border at the edge of the heavily mined border zone. Unsure of where they were, Strelzyk explored until he found a piece of litter – a bread bag from a bakery in Wernigerode, an East German town. The family spent nine hours carefully extricating themselves from the 500 meters (1,600 ft) wide border zone to avoid detection. They also had to travel unnoticed through a 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) restricted zone before hiking back a total of 14 kilometers (8.7 mi) to their car and all the launch paraphernalia they left there. They made it home just in time to report absent due to sickness from work and school.
The balloon was left where it landed and discovered later that morning. Strelzyk destroyed everything remaining and sold his car fearing that could connect him to the balloon. On August 14, 1979, the Stasi advertised for help finding the "perpetrator of a serious offence" and listed in detail all the items left at the crash site. He felt that the Stasi would eventually trace the balloon to him and the Wetzels. Strelzyk conferred with Wetzel and they agreed their best chance was to quickly build another balloon and get out fast.
The pair decided to double the balloon's size to 4,000 cubic meters (140,000 cu ft) in volume, 20 meters (66 ft) in diameters, and 25 meters (82 ft) in height. They needed 1,250 square meters (13,500 sq ft) of taffeta, and purchased the material, in various colors and patterns, all over the county to escape suspicion. Wetzel sewed a third balloon, using over 6 kilometers (3.7 mi) of thread and Strelzyk rebuilt everything else as before. They were ready in six weeks with a 180-kilogram (400 lb) balloon, and a payload of 550 kilograms (1,210 lb), including the gondola, equipment, and cargo (the two families). Confident in their calculations, they found weather conditions right on September 15 when a violent thunderstorm created the correct winds and set off for the clearing in Strelzyk's replacement car (a Wartburg) and a moped. Arriving at 1:30 am, they needed just ten minutes to inflate the balloon and three to heat the air.
They lifted off just after 2:00 am and, due to not cutting the tethers holding the gondola to the ground synchronously, it tilted sending the flame towards the fabric which caught fire. After the fire was put out with an extinguisher they had brought for just such an emergency, the balloon climbed to 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) in nine minutes, drifting towards West Germany at 30 kilometres per hour (19 mph). They flew for 28 minutes, with the temperature at −8 °C (18 °F) and no shelter as the gondola was just a railing of clothesline. A design calculation resulted in the burner stovepipe being too long, causing the flame to be too high in the balloon creating excessive pressure which caused the balloon to split. Air rushing out of the split extinguished the burner flame. Wetzel was able to re-light the flame with a match and had to do so several more times before they landed. At one point, they increased the flame to the maximum possible and rose higher to 2,500 meters (8,200 ft). They later learned they had been high enough to be detected, but not identified, on radar by West German air traffic controllers. They had also been detected on the East German side by a night watchman at the district culture house in Bad Lobenstein. The report of a unidentified flying object heading toward the border caused guards to activate search lights, but the balloon was too high and out of reach of the lights.
The tear in the balloon meant they had to use the burner much more often and the distance they could travel was greatly limited. Wetzel later said he thought they could have traveled another 50 kilometers (31 mi) had the balloon remained intact. They made out the border crossing at Rudolphstein on the A9 and saw the search lights. When the propane ran out they descended quickly, landing near the town of Naila, in the West German state of Bavaria and only six miles from the border. No one was hurt, except Wetzel who broke his leg upon landing. They thought they had made it as they had seen red and yellow colored lights which were not common in East Germany. They also saw small farms, different than the large state-run operations in the east. Another clue was the modern farm equipment that was unlike what was used in East Germany. Two Bavarian State Policemen saw the balloon's flickering light and headed to where they thought it would land and found Strelzyk and Wetzel who first asked if they had made it to the west, although they noticed the police car was an Audi – another sign they were in West Germany. Upon learning they had, they called for their families to join them.
The families decided to initially settle in Naila where they landed. Wetzel worked as an automobile mechanic and Strelzyk opened an TV repair shop in Bad Kissingen. Due to pressure on them from Stasi spies, the Strelzyks moved to Switzerland in 1985. After the German reunification in 1990, they returned to their hometown of Pößneck and to their old home there. The Wetzels remained in Bavaria.
East Germany immediately increased border security, closed all small airports close to the border and ordered the planes kept farther inland. Propane gas tanks became registered products and large quantities of fabric suitable for balloon construction could no longer be purchased. Mail from East Germany to the families was prohibited.
Erich Strelzyk learned of his brother's escape on the ZDF news and was arrested three hours after the landing in his Potsdam apartment. The arrest of family members was normal procedure to deter others from attempting escape. He was charged with "aiding and abetting escape" as were Strelzyk's sister Maria and her husband who were sentenced to 2½ years. The three were eventually released with the help of Amnesty International.
The escape was portrayed in the 1982 Disney film Night Crossing, or With the Wind to the West - the English translation of the German name. The Strelzyks were reportedly "moved to tears" at the screening of the movie at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Peter Strelzyk died in 2017 at age 74 after a long illness.
The family members included:
- Peter Strelzyk, age 37
- Doris Strelzyk
- Frank Strelzyk, age 15
- Andreas Strelzyk, age 11
- Güenter Wetzel, 24
- Petra Wetzel
- Peter Wetzel, age 5
- Andreas Wetzel, age 2
- The Disney film Night Crossing (1982) is an adaptation of the story
- BBC program Outlook Fleeing Communism in a Hot Air Balloon
- PBS Nova program "History's Great Escapes" (2004)
- Doris Strelzyk, Peter Strelzyk, Gudrun Giese: Destiny Balloon Escape . Quadriga, Berlin 1999, ISBN 3-88679-330-3
- Jürgen Petschull : With the Wind to the West. The Adventurous Flight from Germany to Germany . Goldmann, Munich 1980, ISBN 3-442-11501-9
- The Netflix series White Rabbit Project, episode 2, "Jailbreak"
- Michael Herbig's 2018 film Balloon
- Hertle, Hans-Hermann; Nooke, Maria (2009). Die Todesopfer an der Berliner Mauer 1961–1989. Ein biographisches Handbuch. ISBN 3-86153-517-3.
- Getler, Michael (September 28, 1979). "Harrowing Flight From East Germany". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- Snow, Philipp (September 16, 2009). "Balloon escape from the GDR With hot air to freedom". Spiegel Online (in German). Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- Simpson, Paul (July 4, 2013). The Mammoth Book of Prison Breaks. Little, Brown Book Group. p. 216. ISBN 978-1-4721-0024-5.
- Dornberg, John (Feb 1980). "The Freedom Balloon". Popular Mechanics. p. 100. Retrieved March 22, 2018.
- Overbye, Stine (Apr 13, 2017). "Fathers wanted to escape GDR in a hot air balloon". Historia (in Dutch). Retrieved March 30, 2018.
- Souerbry, Rachel. "How Two Families Escaped East Germany In A Homemade Hot Air Balloon". ranker.com. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- "Wetzel und Peter Strelzyk Ballonhülle der Strelzyks". museum.bayern (in German). Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- "EAST-WEST: The Great Balloon Escape". Time. October 1, 1979. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- "Man who fled East Germany in a homemade balloon and whose story was made into a film dies". The Express. March 15, 2017. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- "The Balloon Escape of Peter Strelzyk". goethe-rutheneum.de (in German). Archived from the original on February 11, 2013. Retrieved March 30, 2018.
- "Fleeing Communism in a Hot Air Balloon". bbc. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- "History's Great Escapes". pbs.org. Retrieved March 29, 2018.