How Two Families Escaped East Germany In A Homemade Hot Air Balloon

In 1978, Gunter Wetzel and Peter Strelzyk decided they could no longer live in the communist state of East Germany. So, the two men proceeded to put together an epic project, creating a hot air balloon that would facilitate their flight to freedom over Germany's inner border – that's right; they were going to get their families out of the oppressive, communist state by flying over the border wall that separated East and West Germany. 

Of all the escape attempts made by East German citizens during the Cold War, the Wetzel and Strelzyk families have one of the most exciting stories. Their flight garnered international attention, and it was even made into a 1982 movie called Night Crossing

East German attempts to cross the Berlin Wall – as well as the larger internal border wall – spanned three decades, right up until the wall's destruction in 1989. Not everyone who tried to escape was successful, and many tragic deaths occurred over the years that it stood. The high risks of crossing made the hot air balloon's success even more amazing, especially since the families both consisted of two adults and two children, all of whom arrived safely on September 16, 1979. 


  • Peter Strelzyk And Günter Wetzel Got The Idea From A Newspaper Article About A Balloon Festival

    Peter Strelzyk And Günter Wetzel Got The Idea From A Newspaper Article About A Balloon Festival
    Photo: Staff Sergeant F. Lee Cockran / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1978, Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel were working together, and they spoke with one another a great deal about getting out of East Germany – a common topic of discussion at the time, according to Wetzel. That year, Wetzel's sister-in-law, who had escaped some years earlier, came to visit, and she brought a newspaper with her. Inside the paper, Strelzyk and Wetzel happened upon a story, replete with photos, about an international hot air balloon festival that had recently taken place in the United States. And the light bulbs went off.

    On March 7, 1978, the two men decided to fly their families over the border wall in a homemade hot air balloon – all they needed to get their idea off the ground was approval from their wives.

  • The Husbands Were Both Into Engineering and Mechanics, Which Helped With Building A Hot Air Balloon

    The Husbands Were Both Into Engineering and Mechanics, Which Helped With Building A Hot Air Balloon
    Photo: Pixabay

    In their everyday careers in East Germany, Günter Wetzel was a bricklayer, and Peter Strelzyk was an electrician. Strelzyk had also worked as a mechanic for the German air force previously. So, they weren't total lay people when it came to planning and building the air balloon for their escape; they also weren't experts.

    Both men were tinkerers and used that hobby to form their great escape plan. They both read everything they could on the mechanics of hot air balloons – as well as looking at pictures of hot air balloons in flight – in order to come up with the formulas they needed to build their getaway vehicle. 

  • To Build The Balloon, The Families Had To Scrounge Up Whatever Materials They Could Find

    To Build The Balloon, The Families Had To Scrounge Up Whatever Materials They Could Find
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When looking for materials with which to build their hot air balloon, the families had several options, none of which involved professional-grade materials. They considered tent/umbrella fabric, bed linens, and taffeta for the main body of the balloon. 

    All of the materials were mostly airtight (very important), but the bed linens were the heaviest and least ideal. Since taffeta was the easiest fabric to buy in bulk without arousing suspicion, they bought it several hundred square meters at a time from shops around the country. To speed up production on the final balloon, they were forced to mix in some bed linen as well. In order to actually construct the thing, they used a manual sewing machine and heavy-duty thread. A propane tank attached to a stove pipe served as the release valve for the necessary hot air, and they built the basket from steel poles and nylon ropes.

  • Test Runs Were Carried Out After Midnight – In The Seclusion Of The Forest

    Test Runs Were Carried Out After Midnight – In The Seclusion Of The Forest
    Photo: Heinz-Josef Lücking / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 de

    A hot air balloon big enough to carry eight people would be pretty hard for the East German police to miss. It was with utmost secrecy that the tests of the prototype balloons were carried out, and a few times the men suspected they had been caught.

    Luckily, they were never discovered. They conducted their multiple test runs of the balloon and its inflation system deep within the forest in the wee hours of the morning – and in different clearings each time to reduce the chances of being found. 

  • The Wetzel Family Backed Out Of The Plan After Two Failed Balloon Attempts

    The Wetzel Family Backed Out Of The Plan After Two Failed Balloon Attempts
    Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 de

    At the moment the two families were plotting their exit, it was an extremely dangerous time to be planning an escape from East Germany. With the heavily fortified wall (automatic machine guns, guards, barbed wire, dogs), a lot of people who attempted escapes did not survive. In fact, some 200 people lost their lives in the attempt to cross the Berlin Wall alone. In addition, people who were suspected of trying to leave were also closely watched, arrested, and occasionally disappeared – never to be heard from again.

    These factors, coupled with the Wetzel family's flagging faith in their ability to create a functional balloon, led them to temporarily give up on the project in August 1978. They had made two previous attempts at making the balloon – both of which had failed for various technical reasons – and decided to sink inconspicuously back into being unassuming civilians. 

  • The Police Caught On And Began Hunting The Families

    Eventually, the Wetzels came around and decided to give their ambitious escape idea one more try. After all, if the Strelzyks persisted – and failed – it wouldn't be hard for authorities to implicate the Wetzels in the plot. So, by mid-1979, the Wetzel and Strelzyk families were keenly aware that they were running out of time. The Strelzyks had taken matters into their own hands and had attempted to cross the border in a balloon, but they failed, and police had found items they had abandoned just short of the border. 

    There was an ad posted asking citizens to help the Volkspolizei, AKA the "German People's Police," find individuals possessing the materials needed to build and pilot a hot air balloon, so they knew it was only a matter of time until they were caught. It was this that persuaded the Wetzels to team back up with the Strelzyks and finish what they started. The notice read:

    "The following items... were left at the crime scene by the perpetrator of a serious offence:
    Nickel pliers (water pump pliers) – length 250mm; Penknife with a blade and combined screwdriver/bottle opener; green, lightly grooved plastic tubs; Barometer with gold coloured housing, on veneered chipboard with 3 drilled holes on the upper edge; pocket watch, manufacturer UMF Ruhla (older model).
    Who can provide details about persons in the possession of these items? Pertinent details, which will be treated in confidence if requested, are to be directed to the BDVP Gera Criminal Police Department Tel 61 73 19 or any other VP station."