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.
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.
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.
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.
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.