Did you know that in 1979, two families escaped East Germany using a homemade hot air balloon? The Strelzyk and Wetzel families were fleeing East Germany in hopes of finding safety, freedom, and better economic opportunities for their families in West Germany. Their first two attempts failed, but they were lucky and were not caught. Their final redesigned hot air balloon was made from sheet metal, iron poles, propane tanks used in kitchens for cooking, and a motorcycle engine. The balloon was sewn by hand from synthetic silk taffeta. 4 adults and 4 children boarded the handmade craft and after a flight of 28 minutes in below-freezing temperatures made their escape to West Germany.
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After Germany lost World War II, the country was divided into East Germany (controlled by the Soviets) and West Germany (controlled by the UK, France, and US).
The border was vigorously fortified. Defectors escaping East Germany using a land crossing had to contend with watchtowers, land mines, barbed wire fences, and soldiers willing to use lethal force.
Peter Strelzyk was an electrician and mechanic. Gunter Wetzel had training as a bricklayer and worked in a plastic factory. They initially thought of building a helicopter or light aircraft, but realized that they would not be able to find an engine with enough power.
The first balloon failed to inflate. They tried several methods and positions for the balloon, but could not get the balloon to inflate. In the end, the issue was the cloth they used, a cotton, was too porous.
Their second balloon inflated and took flight. However, when they landed, they found a bread bag and other litter from an East German town. They had landed about 600 feet short of the border, still in a mined border zone. It took hours to escape the border undetected and then hike the 14 miles back to their town before their absence could be noted. They had to leave the balloon and other flight materials behind, which alerted the authorities to their plans. As authorities started the search for the perpetrators, this increased the need for the families to flee.
It took six weeks to rebuild the third balloon from scratch. The balloon was made from 13,500 square feet of taffeta. To allay suspicion, instead of buying large swaths of cloth, they bought the material in whatever colors and patterns they could. It took almost 4 miles of thread to sew the balloon together.
The balloon rose to 8,200 feet in altitude. Temperatures dropped to -8C. There was no shelter since the gondola was just made from a floor of sheet metal, 4 pipe corners and clothesline string for the sides.
As they drifted overland, Strelzyk and Wetzel had hope. They saw red and yellow colored lights they did not see in East Germany. Also, the sizes of the farms were smaller and there was modern farm equipment. The final clue that let them know that they were in West Germany was the Audi driven by the police that found their landing site; Audis were only available in West Germany.
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