How Two Families Escaped East Germany in a Homemade Hot Air Balloon

Oct 22, 2021 0 comments

Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel's balloon

At 2:40 a.m. on the morning of 15 September 1979, constables Walter Hamann and Rudolf Golkel of the Bavarian State Police were patrolling the country roads outside the West German town of Naila, about six miles from the East German border in Upper Franconia, when they spotted a faint flickering light moving slowly across the starry sky. Hamann and Golkel couldn’t tell what it was, but they estimated that the light was some 5,000 feet high. As they watched, they saw the light descend to the ground and then extinguish. The constables immediately steered their car towards the site where they believed the mysterious object had landed.

Upon reaching the place, Hamann and Golkel found two guys standing on the road blocking the car’s approach. The policemen stopped the car and got out, and one of the strangers asked: “Are we in the West?”. The uniformed men assured them that indeed they were. The two strangers whooped with joy and signaled their wives and children to come out of hiding. They opened a bottle of champagne and made a quick celebration of their impossible escape. The men—Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel and their families—had just sailed over the heavily fortified border between East and West Germany in a homemade hot air balloon.

All escape attempts from communist East Germany were risky, but Strelzyk and Wetzel methods were the most daring. Günter Wetzel later told in an interview: “While I’m happy now that we took that decision, if I had the knowledge I have now I wouldn’t do it, because it was so dangerous, but I didn’t recognize that then.”

Günter Wetzel's family.

The Wetzel family.

The border between East and West Germany, called the Inner German border, was one of the most heavily fortified frontiers of the time. The 866-mile border was defined by a continuous line of high metal fences and walls, barbed wire, alarms, anti-vehicle ditches, watchtowers, booby traps, and minefields. It was patrolled by fifty thousand armed East German guards armed with automatic weapons and powerful search lights. Despite the heavy fortification, tens of thousands of East Germans attempted to escape to the west. Nearly a thousand lost their lives trying to do so.

Peter Strelzyk was an electrician and former East German Air Force mechanic, and Günter Wetzel was a bricklayer. They both knew each other for four years before they started discussing ways to cross the border. The idea of using balloons came up one evening in March 1978, when Wetzel's sister-in-law, who had left East Germany in 1958, returned for a visit and brought a magazine with an article about the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “This can't be that difficult,” Strelzyk thought and both he and Wetzel agreed that hot air balloon would be the way to leave East Germany with their wives and children.

Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel's balloon

The first balloon.

Neither Strelzyk nor Wetzel had the faintest idea about ballooning, so they headed straight to Pößneck’s (the town where they lived) only bookstore and the library and began reading all they could find about the subject. By looking at pictures of hot-air balloons in action they estimated they would need a balloon with a volume of 1,800 cubic meters, and some 900 square meters of fabric to construct one. To procure such large quantities of material without arousing suspicion, Strelzyk and Wetzel drove 30 miles to the city of Gera to a department store and told the astonished clerk that they needed the material to use as tent lining for their camping club.

For the next two weeks, Wetzel imprisoned himself in his upstairs bedroom with his mother’s old foot-pedaled sewing machine, while Strelzyk worked downstairs in the hobby shop making a gondola and a burner system. His first burner rig consisted of two 11-kilogram bottles of liquid propane household gas hooked by hoses to a specially constructed nozzle about 5 inches in diameter. For the gondola, they took a 1.4 meter square steel plate and welded two diagonal 1-inch iron struts to strengthen it. Then they added corner posts to which they drilled holes at five different heights and threaded washing lines through them all to construct a railing. These were supposed to prevent the riders from falling off, which from a height of 6,000 feet would have been fatal.

Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel's balloon

The burner

Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel's balloon

The gondola with four propane tanks

By April 1978, they were ready to test their first balloon. The families drove 19 miles from Pößneck to a secluded forest clearing near Ziegenrück and proceeded to pump hot air into the balloon, but the balloon would not inflate. They laid the balloon flat on the ground and hung it from a cliff, but without success. Strelzyk and Wetzel realized that the balloon material was too porous. So, they added chemical sealant to the top of the balloon, which added some weight but reduced leakage. The result, however, was the same.

Disappointed, Strelzyk and Wetzel burned up the balloon in the house furnace to remove all evidence and began scouting for new materials that’s nonporous, yet light weight. They picked up umbrella covering and various grades of taffeta and nylon. They built their own rig to test the porosity of the different materials, using a vacuum cleaner and a water-filled glass tube to determine which material would allow the vacuum to exert the most suction on the water. They determined that umbrella covering performed the best but was also the most expensive. They instead selected a synthetic kind of taffeta.

To obtain the required 900 square meters of taffeta, Strelzyk and Wetzel drove 100 miles to a department store in Leipzig, and claimed they came from a sailing club and needed the material to make sails.

“They didn't have that much in stock,” Strelzyk explained, “and told us it would take a day. We were afraid that the purchase might be reported to the State Security Service, but when we went back to the store the next day, there was our taffeta, all 800 running meters of it, a meters wide, but alas in four different bright colors. We took it, paid 4,800 marks ($720) for it, and then dashed back to Pößneck.”

Meanwhile, Wetzel had attached an electric motor to his sewing machine and within a week, he had a new balloon ready—this one, slightly larger at 2,200 cubic meters. The two men drove back to the little clearing in the woods, late one night and began inflating the balloon with a blower that Wetzel had built out of a motorcycle engine. This time the balloon stayed inflated and the ropes became taut as it strained to escape. The men walked around the erect balloon in awe certain that this glowing ball of fire would deliver them to the West.

But their euphoria turned out to be short lived. The burners went through the gas too quickly, allowing the air to cool and the balloon slumped over. Wetzel and Strelyzk tried a host of things to improve the performance of the burner. They used four gas cylinders instead of one, experimented with gasoline and gasoline-propane mixtures. But the results were still unsatisfactory.

Disappointed with the result, Wetzel decided to abandon the project and started toying with the idea of building a small gasoline engine-powered light aeroplane or a glider, instead. Meanwhile, Strelzyk continued to tinker with the burner. In June 1979, he discovered that if the propane tanks were inverted, additional pressure caused the liquid propane to gasify causing the flames to become bigger. 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-foot long flame. Strelzyk was now ready to attempt an escape. He just needed the right weather and wind condition.

Both came on the night of July 3, 1979. Strelzyk gathered his wife and his two teenage sons, drove to a deserted clearing, set up the balloon and took off around 1:30 a.m. They reached an altitude of 6,600 feet according to an altimeter Strelzyk had made by modifying a barometer. A moderate northerly wind blew them gently towards the border and freedom in West Germany. But then, the balloon entered a cloud. The water vapor in the cloud condensed on the balloon, soaked the material and made it heavier. Under the added weight of the water, the balloon started to descend and they landed some 180 meters short of the West, dangerously close to the heavily mined border zone. The family fled on foot, leaving the balloon behind, where it was discovered by East German authorities the same morning.

With the Secret Police hot on their trails, Strelzyk and Wetzel agreed that their best chance was to quickly build another balloon and get out as soon as possible. Working together again, they designed a balloon that was twice in size than the previous one, with a volume of 4,000 cubic meters. It was 20 meters in diameter, and 25 meters tall. The materials required to sew this humongous balloon now stood at 1,250 square meters. To procure so much material without raising alarm, the two men drove more than 2,000 miles crisscrossing all over East Germany, buying small amounts here and small amounts there. Wetzel then sewed a third balloon, using over 6 kilometers of thread. In six weeks the balloon was ready. It weighed 180 kg. The gondola, the burners and the two families added another 550 kg. But with the new bag’s volume, the men knew that the balloon had the lifting power.

Strelzyk recalled: “At the normal density of air, at 0 degree Centigrade, 4,000 cubic meters of air has a weight of 5,172 kg. At 100 degrees, the air density is only 3785.4 kg on a volume of 4,000 cubic meters. Thus, the density difference between the cold and heated air is 1386.6 kg. That was my lifting power. Subtract the 733 kilograms of the bag, gondola and the passengers, and we had a reserve lift-power of 653.6 kilograms.”

Confident in their calculations, they found weather conditions right on 15 September when a violent thunderstorm created the correct winds. Wasting no time on tests, the families set off for the launch site with only clothes on their backs and their equipment. Arriving at 1:30 am, they needed just ten minutes to inflate the balloon and an additional three minutes to heat the air.

The first problem arrived just as they were taking off. The men had tied the gondola down with tethers to prevent the balloon from floating away prematurely. As they cut the ropes, the gondola tilted to one side sending the flame towards the fabric which caught fire. Luckily they had brought a fire extinguisher just for such an emergency and the fire was put out. Then immediately after the launch, a rip appeared at the top of the balloon which caused hot air to escape. The flames kept extinguishing by the rush of cold air, and Wetzel had to re-light the flame with matches several time. In spite of this hole, the balloon climbed rapidly and in just ten minutes attained a height of 6,600 feet, drifting towards West Germany at 30 kilometers per hour. The temperature was at minus 8 degree Centigrade. The women and children huddled, shivering on the gondola floor. The only protection against falling was the clothesline guard rail.

Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel's balloon

This hole appeared in the balloon immediately after the launch.

As they crossed the border they saw several bright spotlights directed towards them. Apparently, their presence was detected on radar, but the balloon was too high up for the search lights to reach them. To escape detection, Wetzel turned up the gas and the flames reached a frightening length of more than 50 feet inside the balloon, and the balloon rose to more than 8,000 feet.

Soon the gas ran out, and the balloon started to descend. 28 minutes after they took off, the gondola came crashing to the ground with such severity that Wetzel broke his leg. They had landed near the town of Naila. Their half-hour balloon flight had taken them nearly twenty-five kilometers in ground distance.

The town of Naila gave the families apartments and aid to get started. Wetzel worked as an automobile mechanic and Strelzyk opened a TV repair shop in Bad Kissingen. In 1985, the Strelzyks moved to Switzerland but returned to their old hometown of Pößneck after the German reunification in 1990. The Wetzels remained in Bavaria.

Once the daring escape became known, 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.

Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel's balloon

The deflated balloon after landing in West Germany

Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel's balloon

Shot shortly after landing at Naila: Peter and his wife Doris Strelzyk (back) with their sons Frank (15) and Andreas (11) as well as Petra Wetzel (front with their backs to the camera) and their sons Peter (4) and Andreas (2)

“No on will ever again be able to buy enough materials in East Germany with which to make a balloon—even by shopping every department store in the country,” a Bavarian official said.

Strelzyk and Wetzel’s story was made into two movies: Night Crossing (1982) and Balloon (2018). The balloon they used to escape is now on permanent exhibition at the Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte: Museum, Bavaria.

# Dornberg, John (February 1980), The Freedom Balloon, Popular Mechanics
# Shara Tibken, How two families fled communist oppression in East Germany in a homemade hot air balloon, CNET


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}