As night fell over the East German town of Pössneck on the evening of 14 September 1979, most of the town’s citizens were busy getting ready for bed. But not Günter Wetzel. The mason was in his attic, hunched over an old motor-driven sewing machine, desperately working to complete his secret project.
Wetzel and his friend H. Peter Strelzyk and their families had been working on their plan for more than a year and a half, and by now the authorities were looking for them. They were nearly out of time. Wetzel had feigned illness in order to procure five weeks off from work, and during that time he and his friend had collected the materials and laboured over the construction together. This would be their last chance.
Earlier in the day, a strong wind had arisen from the north. These were exactly the conditions that the two families had been waiting for. Around 10:00pm, Wetzel put the finishing touches on the massive patchwork project, then rounded up Strelzyk and prepared to leave. Two hours later the families were en route to a predetermined clearing on a hill by way of automobile and moped. The other components of their project—a steel platform, a homemade gas burner, and a powerful fan—were already packed and ready to go. It was time to attempt the escape.
Strelzyk and Wetzel worked together in the town of Pössneck. Strelzyk was a mechanic/electrician, Wetzel a bricklayer. In early 1978, they began discussing their shared desire to get out of East Germany. This was not an uncommon goal; the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic was not especially democratic. Not only was there no free speech, but approximately one in ten East Germans had been bribed into secretly spying on their friends and family and neighbours, meaning that it was impossible to know which acquaintances could be trusted. Many adult citizens had their professions assigned to them. Travel to other countries was severely restricted, and only a few other Eastern Bloc countries were accessible. Standing up to the authorities brought punishment: unemployment, prison, and torture were all common responses to defiance. Poverty was widespread, the currency was worth little, and living conditions were increasingly intolerable.
Over in West Germany, things were much better. The Marshall Plan spearheaded by the Americans had fuelled economic recovery. Even West Berlin, surrounded on all sides by East Germany, had received constant airlifts of supplies from the Americans. However, the Soviets were still angry with the Germans for having done so much damage to their homeland in the Second World War three decades earlier, so they did not care about East Germany’s bleak economic prospects.
The town of Pössneck was only a few kilometres north of the border with West Germany. But this border, like its more famous cousin the Berlin Wall, was impenetrable. It boasted a “death zone” laced with barbed wire, rows of landmines, a concrete trench, tripwires, shrapnel guns at the average heights of head and chest and legs, guard towers, and high walls. Anyone who survived being caught in the process of trying to escape into either West Berlin or West Germany was punished severely—often executed or merely jailed for life. Newspapers celebrated when escape-attempts were thwarted.
One day some years earlier the Strelzyks and the Wetzels had been out picnicking in Pössneck with another couple called the Kellers. In the midst of the fun, the East German secret police approached and explained that the Kellers’ teenage son Lukas had been intercepted and shot to death while trying to cross the border in a bulldozer nearby. The police then took the Kellers away, and the couple was never seen again. Strelzyk and Wetzel were deeply disturbed and frightened by the incident; they walked away from it determined to see their own families escape from East Germany.
The key idea came to them as the result of a coincidence. Günter Wetzel’s sister-in-law visited her East German relatives and happened to bring a newspaper that contained an article about a hot-air balloon show in New Mexico. Maybe, Strelzyk and Wetzel thought, this could be a viable way of getting over the heavily fortified border. As long as they could find a way of secretly constructing a working balloon—and as long as the winds were pushing southward—the families could feasibly reach West Germany via the skies.
The men’s first order of business was to gain the approval of their wives. After discussing it, Doris Strelzyk and Petra Wetzel lent their support. Now it was on to the specifics. Neither Strelzyk nor Wetzel had ever built anything remotely like a hot-air balloon; they did not even know how large the balloon should be. With no better options, they consulted photographs of hot-air balloons in action and decided to aim for 1800 cubic metres.
They needed fabric—a whole lot of it—and it had to be light and resilient. What they purchased was about nine hundred square metres of a material normally used to line leather. In order to allay suspicion, they explained that they were making tents for a camping club. Wetzel experimented with how to cut the fabric into shapes such that the balloon would hold together well in three dimensions but there would be minimal wasted fabric. He employed an old but dependable manual sewing machine to stitch the pieces together, using a type of durable thread normally used for leatherwear in a strong double stitch pattern. Wetzel also procured a propane tank and attached a stove-pipe and a valve to it in order to direct the flames and control the amount of gas they were receiving. This seemed to be suitable as a makeshift burner.
The last piece of the aircraft that Strelzyk and Wetzel needed was a basket. For this, they welded together a steel plate and corner posts, then drilled holes at five different heights into the posts and strung clotheslines through them all around as railings. They connected the basket to the envelope with nylon ropes along each of its forty-eight vertical seams.
One night around the end of April 1978, the families gathered in a clearing in order to test the balloon. The attempt was risky, but it did not last long; the balloon would not even inflate. None of the people present had ever seen a hot air balloon in person, so the procedure for inflation was necessarily driven by guesswork. Following the anticlimactic experiment, Strelzyk and Wetzel worked out that the balloon would need to be suspended so that the rising hot air would help inflate the envelope. There was also too much air escaping through the seams.
Strelzyk and Wetzel added chemical sealant to the top of the balloon, which added some weight but reduced leakage. Then the two men made an attempt to test the improved balloon along the steep face of a remote quarry. This time, after spreading the balloon out, Strelzyk saw the quick motions of a moving shadow from the woods. Assuming, reasonably, that they were being observed, the men packed up the balloon and raced back to their car and trailer. They were not actually pursued. However, on the way home they discovered that the balloon had partially fallen out of the trailer and a section of it had been shredded from contact with the road. The balloon envelope was damaged beyond repair. Strelzyk burned its remains shortly thereafter.
Before beginning construction of a new balloon, Wetzel fashioned a device for measuring the airtightness of various fabrics stretched across a cube, and the families experimented with a mix of materials. Umbrella and tent nylon came out as the best options; not only were they airtight, but extremely light. Taffeta—normally used for high-end clothing—also tested well but would not necessarily hold up against rain and wind. Coming in fourth place was bedding linen, which was reasonably airtight but also excessively heavy.
Wetzel also decided to refine the dimensions of the balloon envelope. He found some engineering and physics textbooks to help him determine how much space the heated air would take up and how much lift it would create. Wetzel established that the balloon would need to be larger than anyone had thought: about two thousand cubic metres. With this in mind, Strelzyk and Wetzel travelled to the city of Leipzig to go fabric shopping. The only one of the four suitable fabrics that the stores had in stock was taffeta. The men purchased 1,200 square metres and explained that they were making sails for a boating club.
Wetzel returned to his sewing machine in the attic. This time around, the manual sewing work was a good deal more exhausting, but Strelzyk and Wetzel used their mechanical prowess to find a solution: they attached a motor to the sewing machine. After this the work became so simple that the second balloon envelope was completed within two weeks. While he was making other improvements, Wetzel reduced the number of ropes that would attach the envelope to the basket since these had so easily tangled with the first balloon.
Strelzyk and Wetzel found a new forest clearing for tests, one that was accessible by only a single road. But even with the modifications, the envelope failed to inflate. Perhaps, reasoned Wetzel, a fan would help by directing the air directly into the envelope. He fashioned a custom one out of a motorcycle engine and a car exhaust-system. It would have to be operated by hand, but yielded a satisfactory flow of air. With the help of the fan, the balloon envelope inflated successfully and wobbled in the air above them. Overjoyed with their success, Strelzyk and Wetzel admired their creation and envisioned it carrying their families to West Germany.
But another problem emerged. The burner was going through gas too quickly—so much so that the gas at the bottom of the tank was cooling and making the whole operation sluggish. Tests showed that, as configured, the burner would be unable to keep the balloon inflated for the necessary duration. Maybe petroleum would be a better bet, the men reasoned, but the pressure in the tank proved insufficient. The fuel could be encouraged to come to a flame by the addition of pure oxygen, but this was extremely dangerous, as it greatly increased the likelihood of losing control of the flames.
The burner problem was particularly hard for Wetzel and Strelzyk to accept. The amount of time that they had been putting into learning balloon engineering appeared to have been all in vain. Both men were theoretically still interested in the project, but the frustration of coming so close sparked a bitter argument. Wetzel became convinced that Strelzyk was seriously underestimating the safety risks of the plan, and Strelzyk could not see where he was coming from. The quarrel escalated. Finally, Günter and Petra Wetzel conferred about the project and decided they no longer felt at all comfortable with the idea of putting their family on board any aircraft devised to Strelzyk’s standards. They decided to back out of the project altogether. The one thing that Wetzel and Strelzyk agreed on was that they needed to destroy the evidence of their defunct collaboration. After doing so, the old friends fell out of touch entirely, and Wetzel walked away from hot-air balloons. The Strelzyks were on their own.
Determined not to let the rift interfere with the plans, Peter Strelzyk fashioned a new balloon all on his own, and made preparations for his family’s solo escape attempt. On the misty evening of 03 July 1978, Strelzyk and Doris and their two sons, Frank and Andreas, spread their second home-made patchwork balloon upon the ground in a clearing. They began inflating the balloon, then climbed into the basket. So far so good. The basket gently rose from the ground and into the air across East German soil. As the vehicle glided through the sky, however, the increasingly moist air interfered with the burner. The fabric of the balloon envelope soaked up the humidity and grew heavier, causing a gradual but alarming loss of altitude. But the border with West Germany—just on the far side of the “death zone”—was within sight. They could still make it. The Strelzyks kept the burner at full blast, but pluck was no match for Newtonian physics, and the descent continued. The balloon basket hit the earth and ground to a halt mere metres from the Soviet gauntlet of mutilation. The family fled on foot, their waterlogged balloon falling slack to the ground as border guards raced towards them.
Wetzel had been unaware of all of this. Since the split with his old friend, he had changed his focus to hang-gliders and small homemade airplanes. Now, he was given pause by reports that a homemade hot-air balloon had been found just short of the border with West Germany. Wetzel had not heard from Strelzyk in some time and was left to assume that the balloon was his and that his family had been captured.
Wetzel was only half correct, but he did not discover this until six months later. In January 1979, Strelzyk—alive and well—approached Wetzel and asked if he would be interested in taking part in a new joint attempt at making a hot-air balloon. It took months of persistence, but finally on the 27th of July Strelzyk convinced his old friend to rejoin the project.
Wetzel went to his doctor in mid-August pretending to have stomach trouble in order to get out of work for a while and devote as much time as possible to the balloon. The next day he opened a newspaper to discover that the authorities had found some of the pair’s tools at the site of the Strelzyks’ crashed balloon and were actively looking for the family. There was no shortage of additional clues for the authorities to find. Back at the quarry there had been a potential eyewitness hiding in the woods. There were personal cheques from the men for improbable quantities of taffeta fabric. Maybe they even knew someone who would report that Wetzel and Strelzyk had been spending a good deal of time together. One way or another, getting out needed to happen before getting caught. Just in case, the two families gave information about their plans to a friend visiting from the West. If they disappeared, there would be one living soul who could tell their story.
The fourth balloon would have to be much larger. Wetzel decided to aim for four thousand cubic metres. How they would avoid police detection while collecting new materials was unclear. Any large purchase of durable, lightweight fabric would be a huge red flag—or possibly a huge flag of another colour. It was quite possible that with one balloon already discovered, fabric shops would be required to alert police to any suspiciously large orders.
The only way around it was to avoid making large purchases at any particular store. Wetzel and Strelzyk and their wives went individually from shop to shop and town to town, buying about one hundred square metres of taffeta at a time. There was no way to complete the envelope quickly without extra bed linen, so they incorporated some in spite of its weight. By the 14th of September the balloon was nearly complete, and the weather had changed such that conditions for launching the balloon were perfect. There was no time to test this balloon; the chance for the actual launch was upon the families abruptly. Wetzel hurriedly completed the balloon, and the families gathered together, packed the car and trailer, and drove up to the hill near Pössneck.
The car and trailer and moped arrived on the hill carrying the Wetzel and Strelzyk families around one in the morning. Their first order of business was to ensure that they had not been followed, so they quietly waited and surveyed the area. Once confident that they were alone, they began unpacking the balloon components, putting together the basket and burner and envelope, then securing the basket to the ground with extra ropes and loading it with a few supplies.
For five long minutes the homemade fan loudly inflated the homemade balloon. The air above the clearing on the hill was so still that the balloon envelope sat unmoving in the moonlight above the basket.
Leaving the car behind, the families mounted the platform. Strelzyk and Wetzel started the burner, and the basket lifted off the ground. Wetzel and Strelzyk’s son Frank stood at opposite corners of the basket to cut the ropes that attached the balloon to the earth. Wetzel did this quickly, but Frank struggled to cut through his line. The balloon lurched to one side, and the burner—now aimed at an angle into the envelope—set fire to the taffeta and linen. The combustion of the envelope heated its captive air, rapidly pulling the balloon upwards and yanking the last stake out of the ground. The attached anchor line whiplashed upward towards the rising balloon, striking Frank in the face as the burning envelope drew them into the sky, spinning as it went and robbing the occupants of all sense of direction. Strelzyk turned down the burner while Wetzel emptied a fire extinguisher upwards onto the flaming fabric. As the balloon continued to climb rapidly, the others attended to Frank, who had blood streaming down his face.
Strelzyk and Wetzel got the fire under control, and Frank’s injury turned out to be relatively superficial. But the families looked upwards to see a large hole at the centre of the top of the envelope, well-illuminated by the burner. Wetzel inferred that a large knot he had tied had broken when the balloon was inflated. There was no way to repair it now, but keeping the burner going at a constant full-blast proved to be enough to keep the balloon rising.
Bright search-lights appeared from the ground below, presumably from the border, waving around wildly in search of the balloon. There was no chance of spotting it, since the balloon had climbed to an altitude of about two kilometres—out of range of the lights. The relief was short-lived, as the air temperature this far from the ground was below freezing. Then the burner gave out. Strelzyk and Wetzel attempted to restart it, but could not persuade it to stay on. And the problem was not the cold air; the burner had completely run out of fuel.
There was nothing more to be done. The balloon began to descend, turning into a parachute in the process. All the families could do was huddle together and hope—hope that the southern winds had pushed them far enough that they were now over West German land, hope that the landing wouldn’t be too rough, since there was no way for the families to control where they would make landfall. Wetzel took out a makeshift spotlight he’d built from an automotive headlamp and shone it towards the ground. Only seconds later they saw treetops rushing up towards them and crashed. The 28-minute flight had come to an end.
No one was seriously injured. There was something wrong with Wetzel’s right leg, but he was able to walk. Alone in the middle of nowhere, unsure of which side of the border they were on, the two families agreed to walk southwards. If they had made it to West Germany, this would take them further into safety. If they were still in the East, this would lead them to the border guards, but since they were exhausted both physically and emotionally after the flight, they found they barely cared.
Still, Strelzyk and Wetzel were encouraged. After all, they had seen what they suspected were border searchlights only partway through their journey. If the wind had continued in the same southward direction, they would have been carried into West Germany. Wetzel also noted that some of the fields he had seen from the balloon in the last stages of the flight seemed much too small to be East German. But the families couldn’t be sure until they found civilization, so they walked on. A sign bore unfamiliar terms, which was also encouraging. Farther on the families came to a farm. The wives and children hid themselves among plants while Strelzyk and Wetzel went to investigate. There was no one awake there, but the men peeked inside and examined the farm machinery. They bore the emblems of a company that did not operate in East Germany.
Thrilled but still exhausted, Strelzyk and Wetzel went to the nearby road. The lights of a distant car approached. The men waited in the middle of the road until the headlights found them and the car stopped. It was a pair of policemen. Dazed, Strelzyk and Wetzel asked, “Are we in the West?” The amazed and baffled policemen responded, “Of course you are; where else would you be?”
Günter Wetzel later wrote:
“After this greeting we let off a firework that we had brought with us in order to signal to our wives that all was well. They came to us right away with the children, and our joy was extreme. We had done it! We had made it to the West!”
In fact, they were well inside West German territory, near the town of Naila. Their half-hour balloon flight had taken them nearly twenty-five kilometres in ground distance.
The refugee families were given a warm welcome in West Germany. The adjustment was not without its problems—Günter Wetzel spent a week in the hospital with what turned out to be a torn calf muscle—but soon enough both families were back on their feet and both men found employment. The families’ story received a good deal of media attention; TIME published an account of the story only two weeks later, and Disney made a film version of it, Night Crossing, released in 1982. Both families were secretly monitored by East German informants in West Germany in subsequent years, but there was little that the East German authorities could do about the successful escape.
About a decade after the balloon flight, the Berlin Wall fell as communism in Eastern Europe collapsed. While Germany was reunited in 1990, the opposite was true of the old pair of friends from Pössneck. Strelzyk was much happier to talk to the media than Wetzel was, and Wetzel started resenting Strelzyk’s takes on the story. The two old colleagues parted ways indefinitely. Even so, their collaboration had seen eight people successfully reach West Germany from inside the clutches of a frightening authoritarian regime. The Strelzyks and the Wetzels ended up being among about 5,000 citizens of East Germany who managed to get out—about half of the total number who tried.
They were not the only people who came up with an imaginative plan; other means of crossing either the Berlin Wall or the outer border between East and West Germany included digging tunnels, traversing forgotten sewers, swimming across rivers, climbing anchored steel cables, modifying cars, and at one point redirecting a high-speed passenger train. But arguably no one went to greater lengths to assemble and carry out, and reassemble and carry out, and rereassemble and carry out a plan than the Strelzyks and the Wetzels did in their spectacular escape.