The Outside World These Two Men Escaped East Germany — In A Balloon Published 8 months ago on Jul 2, 2018 By Michael Berdy In the middle of a violent lightning storm, two men were running with their wives and children, with the state secret police hot on their trail and fast closing in. They were not only escaping their terrible, oppressive regime — they were fleeing for their lives. Their home country was host to one of the largest mass surveillance projects in history. They could trust no one with their secret plans. The border was filled with peril, but they were determined to cross it. And they were going to do it in something no one had ever dared: a hot air balloon. 1. Behind The Iron Curtain Günter Wetzel and Peter Strelzyk were co-workers and friends at a plastics factory in a small town called Poessneck. Their lives under the totalitarian rule of Communist East Germany were marked by hardship and complete lack of liberty. Like their fellow East Germans, their every move was monitored. Lactoriacornuta/LiveJournal Access to the outside world was greatly restricted. The Stasi, the feared secret police, spied on everyone. Even expressing yourself to your neighbor was dangerous; they could be an intelligence agent. Both men were fed up. They decided to work together on the project of a lifetime: escaping the country. 2. A Tale Of Two Germanys Wetzel and Strelzyk each were married and had two children. They were determined to get their families out of East Germany to give them a better opportunity at life. Going east meant being stuck in other repressive Communist countries. They had to go west. But how would they do it? Factian Visual History The families would have to cross the fortified border to freedom in West Germany without being caught. At first, the resourceful Wetzel and Strelzyk considered building a helicopter, though there was no way they could obtain the right engine. But by chance, they came upon another idea — a crazy one. 3. A Stroke Of Crazy Genius As the story goes, Wetzel and Strelzyk’s wild idea came upon them purely by chance. A relative had smuggled in a forbidden magazine from the West, and inside, there was an article about the International Balloon Festival in New Mexico. The gears in their heads clicked. Daily Express The fantastic pictures of hot-air balloons excited them, but not because they were beautiful. They wondered: what if they could use a hot-air balloon to cross into West Germany? It was certainly an imaginative idea, and it had never been tried before. Could they do it and go undetected? 4. Perilous Frontier To say that the East German border with West Germany was heavily guarded would be a gross understatement. In fact, it was one of the most watched borders on Earth. Its 866 miles were strewn with landmines, dotted with guard towers and military fortifications. Telegraph The border was composed of barbed wire fences and walls. The Berlin Wall sliced the capital in two. Watchtowers were manned by tens of thousands of soldiers, with guard dogs, automatic machine guns, and instructions to shoot on sight. But no one had ever tried flying above them! 5. Tricks Of The Trade How would two ordinary men just randomly construct a hot-air balloon? Strelzyk had been a mechanic for the East German Air Force, and he was also an electrician, which would help them somewhat, but only so much. They still would have to do a ton of research. AP Photo They hungrily devoured all information they could get their hands on about flight mechanics. Calculating the proportions of the balloon itself would be crucial. They had to design a balloon big enough to stand the weight of eight people. But that was just the beginning of their problems. 6. To Build A Balloon Deciding what material to use to create the balloon itself was essential — not to mention finding the material. Could they use tent fabric? What about something very common, like umbrella coverings, or bed linens? And regardless of what they used, there was a huge danger involved. YouTube In a small town like Poessneck, Wetzel and Strelzyk couldn’t just go buy an immense amount of fabric. That was a surefire way to arouse suspicion. They had thought outside of the box with their hot-air balloon idea. To gather materials, they’d have to be sneaky. 7. Collecting Fabric Wetzel and Strelzyk came up with a unique solution. It would be exhausting, but this was the best way to get what they needed. The two men drove out of Poessneck to other towns in order to buy the cloth they needed for the balloon. Mistons By buying different amounts of fabric in different places, they avoided anyone taking too much notice of their unusual purchasing habits. They had studied how to craft a hot-air balloon, and they had obtained the material. It was time to get to work building their escape craft. 8. Creating The Balloon Each man had his own assignment to complete independently. Strelzyk built the basket and burner for the hot-air balloon, and bought a muffler so border guards wouldn’t hear the engine. While he did that, Wetzel sewed the balloon itself. But this was no mere stitching project. Deutsche Welle It was a massive amount of cloth and thread to maneuver, and took him two weeks. Wetzel did all of this work by hand, on a manually-operated sewing machine that was at least forty years old. The materials cost them thousands of marks. But would their creation fly? 9. Testing It Out They were ready to test it in April 1978. But even trying the balloon made them nervous. With something that huge, how could you experiment with it without being spotted? They needed to find an isolated place, far from prying eyes, both on the ground and in the air. IMDb.com Nobody could know about their project. Sadly, in the atmosphere of East Germany, even their friends couldn’t be trusted. What if one of them was an informant for the secret police? What if their home was bugged? Anyone was a suspect. They had managed to find a quiet clearing — and started up their balloon. Would it work? 10. Failure To Launch As it turned out, their balloon didn’t work. To their immense disappointment, their hot-air balloon quickly collapsed. As they discovered, the linen that they had chosen for Wetzel to sew the balloon was too porous. Rather than catching the air and inflating, the air leaked through it. placetobe.info Now they had to dispose of the evidence. Strelzyk took the balloon’s fabric and burned it all in his furnace, where no one except his family could see it. The whole process took him weeks. They had invested so much time and effort in the failed endeavor. What would they do? 11. If At First You Don’t Succeed Wetzel and Strelzyk wouldn’t let this setback stop them. They could only learn from their errors and improve their form. Perhaps, if they used taffeta, it might be more airtight. So once again, they went all over East German towns, buying several hundred square meters of fabric. Ranker They traveled 100 miles to the city of Leipzig for more fabric, telling the store clerks that they wanted to make a sail for their sailing club. All the time, they were terrified that someone would get suspicious and report them to the Stasi. Would they buy their alibi? 12. Second Time’s The Charm This time, they would be smarter. To be more time-efficient, they invested in an electric sewing machine. All in all, the project cost them dearly, around the equivalent of $720. But with better equipment and experience, they got the job done in half the time. The Spruce Crafts They had fixed the fabric dilemma, and now they stumbled across a new problem. To their frustration, now the hot-air balloon’s burner wasn’t strong enough! For months, they experimented with different kinds of fuel whenever they could. But their plans were about to take a bad turn. 13. The Plan Fractures Günter Wetzel ran out of patience. He was stressed by the prospect of being discovered, and increasingly frustrated from their lack of progress. Eventually, he told his friend Strelzyk that he was calling it quits. Searching for another idea, he thought maybe he could build a glider. Damn Interesting It was tremendously disappointing. But Strelzyk would not lose hope — he was determined to get his family out. So he forged ahead, experimenting alone. Strelzyk discovered that if he flipped the propane tank, the increase in pressure made a big enough flame. He told his wife and kids: it works! 14. Getting Air On July 3, 1979, in the dead of night, Peter Strelzyk, his wife Doris, and their children Frank and Andreas piled into the newly-completed hot-air balloon. It felt bad to leave the Wetzels behind, but without them, they would have to take matters into their own hands. YouTube Anxious, they fired up the balloon and cut the ropes. The hot-air balloon ascended 6,600 feet, high into winds that could blow them to freedom. But suddenly, they drifted into a cloud. Water condensation weighed down the balloon, forcing them to land. What side of the border were they on? 15. Wrong Direction They picked up a bread bag that revealed all they needed to know. On the bag was the name of the local bakery and town. They were still in East Germany. To make matters worse, now they had to get away from the border without being seen. My Live Action Disney Project For 9 hours, they got themselves out of the crashed balloon, carefully getting away from the border and its landmines. The balloon would have to be left there. Fleeing the site, the Strelzyk family walked almost 9 miles to where they had abandoned their car. Would they be discovered? 16. A Shocking Discovery It was a safe assumption that the crashed hot-air balloon would be quite obvious. Sure enough, the very next morning, the Stasi found the remnants of the balloon. There was no question in their mind what had happened. The secret police went on high alert. CNN.com Strelzyk rightfully panicked. He sold his car and destroyed all of his equipment. Even the smallest item involved in the escape attempt could be traced back to him. It was time to talk to Wetzel — he had to his friend what had happened. What would Wetzel say? 17. Reunited After Strelzyk explained the saga of his failed escape attempt, Wetzel was forced to confront the truth. Even if he had dropped out, they were still in this together. If the Stasi were searching for Strelzyk, they would easily trace it to him too. IBTimes UK He was too deep in to back out. If he chose not to go with Strelzyk and was caught, he would be tortured and jailed for years. The two friends simply had to escape East Germany — and it was utterly clear that they had to do it together. 18. The Trap Is Closing On August 14, 1979, a month after the Strelzyk family’s escape attempt had ended in failure, the Stasi published a wanted notice for the owners of the hot air balloon they had found by the border. Wetzel and Strelzyk knew they had to finish and get out now. Picclick They had perfected their technique and the aerodynamics. Constructing this third balloon took three weeks — and required nearly four miles of thread to stitch the pieces of fabric together. There was no time to lose. Would they finish making the hot-air balloon before it was too late? 19. Finished Product Wetzel and Strelzyk finished building their third hot-air balloon. If this balloon failed to launch, then their capture by the secret police was nearly certain. But there was one catch before they could get in the air and out of the country. sky.com Even if the Stasi were hot on their trail, they still had to check the weather forecasts carefully in order to find the proper conditions for their flight. Strong winds were key to carrying them as far as possible. How soon could they get going? 20. No Time To Spare The weather conditions they were looking for would come on September 15, 1979. A violent thunderstorm erupted in the East German skies, with winds strong enough to give their hot-air balloon exactly the forceful push they so badly needed to make it across the border. Radical Discipleship After midnight, under the cover of darkness, both families stuffed into Peter Strelzyk’s car with as much as they could take. They were in a terrific rush to get to their launch site. But they quickly discovered a hair-raising issue: they couldn’t fit everyone in the car! 21. The Journey From Town Thinking quickly, they put Peter’s older son Frank on a moped. He had to follow their car as they left their homes in Poessneck forever. The moped kept breaking down from getting overheated, slowing them down as they raced to launch the balloon. Matt Lumine Finally, by or just before 1 AM, the two families reached the launch site. There was no time to lose, not even a moment to reflect on what they were about to do, or whether they had been followed. Without having tested the balloon, it was now or never. 22. A Shaky Take-Off Both Wetzel and Strelzyk prayed that their calculations had been correct and that the balloon would support the weight of all eight family members. They piled into the hot-air balloon, fired up the propane tank, and cut the ropes. Filled with anticipation, they felt the balloon rise. Wikipedia But suddenly, one of the anchors shot up into the air and struck Strelzyk’s son square in the face. He was bleeding profusely as the balloon gained altitude and began flying west. It was frightening to watch, and something even worse was about to happen. 23. Chaos Onboard Trembling with fear and cold, the families soon discovered there had been a dangerous flaw during the takeoff. They had not cut all the ropes properly, at the same time. The hot-air balloon began to tilt at a jarring angle, and the flame went off course. cineplex.com As they struggled to keep the balloon steady, the fabric that Wetzel had painstakingly stitched for weeks began to catch fire. Now they were caught in a tremendous storm, one child was injured, and their vessel was in imminent danger of destruction. 24. Sailing West Fortunately for the Wetzel and Strezlyk families, there was a fire extinguisher onboard the hot-air balloon. Working quickly, Strezlyk’s son put out the flames that threatened to engulf their craft. Now freezing from the subzero temperatures, they floated west towards an uncertain fate. Twitter Just as they had feared, down below at a guard post, an East German watchman spotted them and alerted the authorities. Searchlights flooded the sky, but gratefully, they were too high to be seen. But after 28 minutes, the gas in the tank ran out. They started to plummet. 25. Rough Landing The homemade hot-air balloon carrying eight East German fugitives crashed into a tree. As they tumbled out, Günter Wetzel broke his leg. But even this injury couldn’t stop his excitement. Could it be that they had reached their goal? Where were they? There was only one way to find out. fakeshemp.net Cautiously, Strelzyk and Wetzel ventured out of the basket, instructing their wives and children to stay hiding in the forest until they made sure it was safe. It was time to figure out what side of the German border they were on. 26. Studying The Surroundings Wetzel and Strelzyk reached a nearby farm. Just the size of the farm was enough to show them that it was too small and private to be an East German collective. They took a closer look and noticed something incredible about the farm equipment. Telegraph Not only were the tools not outdated, but they had painted on them different brand names from the ones the two men recognized. As they began to feel more and more secure in their surroundings, they noticed they were not alone. Two police officers were approaching. 27. The Audi Doesn’t Lie Ordinarily, seeing police officers would have made Wetzel and Strelzyk’s hearts skip a beat. But one thing immediately filled them with hope. The police car the officers were driving was an Audi — and they didn’t have those in East Germany! It was thrilling. Fact Republic Feeling confident, they asked the policemen where they were. Looking at them curiously, what they told them confirmed their wildest dreams: they were in West Germany. Despite many mishaps and setbacks, their mission succeeded. Joyfully, they called their families to come out of the forest. But were their troubles really over? 28. Back In The DDR As the Strelzyk and Wetzel families began to celebrate their newly-found freedom in West Germany, back home, the Stasi seized anyone close to them. Peter Strelzyk’s brother, sister, and brother-in-law were all arrested and thrown in East German jail. Amnesty International had to intervene to bail them out. Pinterest One of Strelzyk’s best friends was caught and interrogated. Released by the Stasi, he was sent to the West on special conditions. His friends took him into their home — not realizing he had been sent to spy on them. But an even worse twist was yet to come. 29. Sad Split You would think that after everything they had gone through together to escape to West Germany, the Strelzyk and Wetzel clans would have only strengthened their friendship. But sadly, that would not be the case. Despite everything they had done for each other, they fell apart from each other. Daily Express They even became bitter rivals, publicly accusing each other of various things. For everything they had struggled for, it was a tragic turn of events. The Stasi kept spying on the Strelzyks, even in West Germany. They became paranoid and fled to Switzerland. Would they ever live life in peace? 30. One Germany In 1989, the Berlin Wall was finally destroyed. After almost half a century of animosity and separation, both halves of Germany finally reunified. Overwhelmed with joy, the Strelzyks returned home to their old village, Poessneck, eleven years after their daring escape. The Wetzels stayed in their adopted home in former West Germany. ABC Education The Wetzel and Strelzyk families had endured one of the most incredible escape attempts in modern history — and survived to tell the tale. Theirs is a tale of true human ingenuity and the will to find a better life, no matter the cost. Enjoyed this story? Make sure to SHARE it with your friends! Sources: Up In The Air, Wikipedia, Escaping East Germany UP NEXT Gunsmoke: Top Facts Behind The Longest-Lived Show on Television... Next Page Related Topics:balloonberlin wallcold warddreast germanyescapeGünter Wetzelhot air balloonnight crossingpeter strelzykwest germany Up Next Shipwrecked in Antarctica, These South Pole Explorers Did The Unbelievable Don't Miss How Surfing Legend Bethany Hamilton Overcame Unthinkable Hardship Continue Reading You may like The Unsolved Mystery Of The Escape From Alcatraz She Was Imprisoned By Her Mother for 24 Years Until the Unthinkable Happened The Remarkable Tale of Christopher Thomas Knight The Curious Case of The Otcasek Family and Their Backyard Secret Fatos Fascinantes e Desconhecidos Sobre a Rússia These Photos Show What It’s Really Like To Live In Russia Click to comment The Outside World John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight Returns 2019 HBO revealed the anticipated return of the satirical late night news show to be February 17, 2019. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver returns for its 6th season, hopefully rising to its highest levels of acclaim as it continues to win awards each season. While there are more than enough late night news shows to watch, John Oliver’s is one... Published 3 weeks ago on Jan 28, 2019 By Michael Evans Continue Reading The Outside World Five Shocking Secrets About The Hollywood Sign There's no way to talk about Hollywood without mentioning its iconic sign. The sign has been the background of countless images for nearly 100 years. Unfortunately, most people don't know the story behind one of the biggest attractions in the United States. Here are five secrets surrounding this massive landmark. This Land Is Your Land Back in the day, the... Published 4 weeks ago on Jan 25, 2019 By Will Gardner Continue Reading The Outside World Netflix Announces Highest Subscription Fee Yet Netflix is raising the price on all of its streaming packages. This move will surely come as bad news to the services' 58 million subscribers but on the bright side, the price hike is relatively small. A Few Bucks More The new price change will move the basic plan from $8 to $9 per month. It's two device plan, the... Published 4 weeks ago on Jan 22, 2019 By Michael Evans Continue Reading Facebook Latest Popular Gallery The Drill Down5 hours ago TLC’s Most Memorable Reality Stars Ever, Ranked The Low Down1 day ago Where Is The Cast Of ‘Sucker Punch’ Now? The Low Down1 day ago ‘Delhi Crime’: Netflix’s Latest Tragic and True Series From India The Low Down1 day ago Actors Who Were Much Older Than Their Characters The Low Down1 day ago Every Movie Sequel To Look Forward To In 2019 And Beyond The Low Down2 days ago 5 Underground Queen Songs You Should Listen To Right Now The Low Down4 weeks ago Behind The Scenes Facts Producers Don’t Tell You About Jeopardy! Way Back6 days ago A Look Back At Hollywood’s Most Notable Celebrity Hippies Way Back5 days ago They Weren’t Always Famous – People Share Photos of Celebrities They Knew Long Before Fame The Outside World4 weeks ago Five Shocking Secrets About The Hollywood Sign The Low Down1 day ago Every Movie Sequel To Look Forward To In 2019 And Beyond Walk of Fame4 weeks ago 5 Actors Who Regretted Leaving Their Hit TV Shows The Drill Down5 hours ago TLC’s Most Memorable Reality Stars Ever, Ranked The Low Down1 day ago Every Movie Sequel To Look Forward To In 2019 And Beyond Way Back5 days ago They Weren’t Always Famous – People Share Photos of Celebrities They Knew Long Before Fame Way Back6 days ago A Look Back At Hollywood’s Most Notable Celebrity Hippies The Low Down1 week ago Five Explosive Changes Made During The Latest Season Of ‘Doctor Who’ The Low Down4 weeks ago Behind The Scenes Facts Producers Don’t Tell You About Jeopardy!