At two:40 a.1000. on the morning of xv September 1979, constables Walter Hamann and Rudolf Golkel of the Bavarian State Police were patrolling the country roads outside the W German town of Naila, about six miles from the Due east German language border in Upper Franconia, when they spotted a faint flickering low-cal moving slowly across the starry heaven. Hamann and Golkel couldn’t tell what information technology was, but they estimated that the light was some 5,000 feet loftier. 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 plant 2 guys standing on the road blocking the automobile’due south approach. The policemen stopped the car and got out, and ane 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 but sailed over the heavily fortified edge between Eastward and West Deutschland in a bootleg hot air balloon.
All escape attempts from communist East Frg were risky, but Strelzyk and Wetzel methods were the most daring. Günter Wetzel later told in an interview: “While I’m happy now that nosotros took that conclusion, if I had the knowledge I have now I wouldn’t do information technology, because information technology was and so unsafe, but I didn’t recognize that then.”
The Wetzel family.
The border between East and West Deutschland, called the Inner German border, was ane 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 High german guards armed with automated weapons and powerful search lights. Despite the heavy fortification, tens of thousands of East Germans attempted to escape to the due west. Nearly a grand lost their lives trying to do and then.
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 edge. The thought of using balloons came upward one evening in March 1978, when Wetzel’southward sister-in-police force, who had left E 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 hard,” Strelzyk idea and both he and Wetzel agreed that hot air balloon would be the mode to get out East Frg with their wives and children.
The first balloon.
Neither Strelzyk nor Wetzel had the faintest idea about ballooning, then they headed straight to Pößneck’s (the town where they lived) simply bookstore and the library and began reading all they could observe virtually 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 big quantities of textile without arousing suspicion, Strelzyk and Wetzel drove xxx miles to the city of Gera to a department store and told the astonished clerk that they needed the fabric to utilise as tent lining for their camping club.
For the next two weeks, Wetzel imprisoned himself in his upstairs bedchamber 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 2 11-kilogram bottles of liquid propane household gas hooked by hoses to a peculiarly constructed nozzle almost 5 inches in bore. For the gondola, they took a 1.four meter foursquare steel plate and welded 2 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 superlative of 6,000 feet would have been fatal.
The gondola with four propane tanks
Past April 1978, they were ready to test their commencement balloon. The families collection 19 miles from Pößneck to a secluded wood clearing virtually Ziegenrück and proceeded to pump hot air into the airship, 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 textile was too porous. So, they added chemical sealant to the top of the balloon, which added some weight but reduced leakage. The event, however, was the same.
Disappointed, Strelzyk and Wetzel burned up the balloon in the business firm furnace to remove all evidence and began scouting for new materials that’s nonporous, all the same light weight. They picked up umbrella covering and various grades of taffeta and nylon. They built their own rig to exam the porosity of the unlike materials, using a vacuum cleaner and a water-filled glass tube to determine which fabric would allow the vacuum to exert the near suction on the water. They determined that umbrella covering performed the all-time but was besides the nigh 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 shop in Leipzig, and claimed they came from a sailing society and needed the material to brand sails.
“They didn’t take that much in stock,” Strelzyk explained, “and told u.s.a. it would take a twenty-four hour period. Nosotros were afraid that the purchase might be reported to the Land Security Service, just when we went back to the store the next day, there was our taffeta, all 800 running meters of information technology, a meters wide, simply alas in four dissimilar bright colors. We took information technology, paid 4,800 marks ($720) for it, then dashed back to Pößneck.”
Meanwhile, Wetzel had fastened an electric motor to his sewing automobile and within a week, he had a new airship ready—this one, slightly larger at 2,200 cubic meters. The two men drove back to the footling clearing in the woods, tardily i night and began inflating the balloon with a blower that Wetzel had built out of a motorbike engine. This time the airship stayed inflated and the ropes became taut every bit it strained to escape. The men walked around the erect balloon in awe certain that this glowing ball of burn would deliver them to the West.
Only their euphoria turned out to be short lived. The burners went through the gas too quickly, allowing the air to absurd and the balloon slumped over. Wetzel and Strelyzk tried a host of things to ameliorate the performance of the burner. They used four gas cylinders instead of 1, experimented with gasoline and gasoline-propane mixtures. But the results were still unsatisfactory.
Disappointed with the result, Wetzel decided to carelessness the project and started toying with the idea of building a pocket-size gasoline engine-powered light airplane 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 force per unit area 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 exam site where he found the new configuration produced a forty-foot long flame. Strelzyk was now ready to attempt an escape. He just needed the correct weather and wind status.
Both came on the dark of July 3, 1979. Strelzyk gathered his married woman and his ii teenage sons, drove to a deserted clearing, prepare up the airship and took off around 1:thirty a.g. They reached an altitude of 6,600 anxiety co-ordinate to an altimeter Strelzyk had made by modifying a barometer. A moderate northerly wind blew them gently towards the border and liberty in West Germany. Just then, the balloon entered a deject. The water vapor in the deject condensed on the airship, soaked the material and made information technology heavier. Under the added weight of the h2o, the airship started to descend and they landed some 180 meters short of the West, dangerously close to the heavily mined edge zone. The family fled on foot, leaving the balloon behind, where it was discovered past Due east German government the same morn.
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 once again, they designed a balloon that was twice in size than the previous one, with a book of iv,000 cubic meters. It was xx meters in diameter, and 25 meters tall. The materials required to sew together this humongous airship now stood at 1,250 foursquare meters. To procure and then much fabric without raising warning, the two men drove more than 2,000 miles crisscrossing all over East Germany, ownership pocket-sized amounts here and small amounts there. Wetzel and so sewed a 3rd balloon, using over six kilometers of thread. In 6 weeks the airship was ready. Information technology weighed 180 kg. The gondola, the burners and the ii families added another 550 kg. But with the new pocketbook’s volume, the men knew that the airship had the lifting ability.
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 four,000 cubic meters. Thus, the density difference betwixt the cold and heated air is 1386.half-dozen kg. That was my lifting ability. Subtract the 733 kilograms of the bag, gondola and the passengers, and we had a reserve elevator-power of 653.6 kilograms.”
Confident in their calculations, they found conditions conditions right on xv September when a fierce thunderstorm created the right winds. Wasting no time on tests, the families fix off for the launch site with only dress on their backs and their equipment. Arriving at 1:thirty am, they needed just ten minutes to inflate the balloon and an boosted 3 minutes to heat the air.
The starting time problem arrived just as they were taking off. The men had tied the gondola downwardly with tethers to forbid the balloon from floating away prematurely. As they cutting the ropes, the gondola tilted to one side sending the flame towards the textile which caught fire. Luckily they had brought a burn down extinguisher but for such an emergency and the burn down was put out. Then immediately later the launch, a rip appeared at the top of the balloon which acquired 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 pigsty, the balloon climbed chop-chop 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 caste Centigrade. The women and children huddled, shivering on the gondola floor. The only protection against falling was the clothesline guard rail.
This hole appeared in the balloon immediately later on 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 likewise high upwardly 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 than 50 anxiety inside the balloon, and the balloon rose to more than than 8,000 feet.
Soon the gas ran out, and the airship started to descend. 28 minutes subsequently 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 xx-5 kilometers in ground altitude.
The boondocks of Naila gave the families apartments and aid to become started. Wetzel worked as an car mechanic and Strelzyk opened a Telly repair shop in Bad Kissingen. In 1985, the Strelzyks moved to Switzerland merely returned to their old hometown of Pößneck afterward 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.
The deflated airship later on landing in West Germany
Shot shortly later on landing at Naila: Peter and his married woman Doris Strelzyk (back) with their sons Frank (xv) and Andreas (eleven) 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 purchase 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 fabricated into two movies:
(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 Liberty Airship, Popular Mechanics
# Shara Tibken,
How two families fled communist oppression in East Germany in a bootleg hot air balloon, CNET