History is marked by great feats of courage, but few are more significant than those undertaken to protect the ones we care about. Even in the face of imminent danger, men and women throughout time have put their lives on the line to ensure that no harm would come to those they love.
Things were no different for Günter Wetzel and Peter Strelzyk. When the oppressive East German government became a threat to their families, they hatched a scheme beneath the nose of the ever-watchful secret police and attempted a daring escape that nearly cost them everything…
In the days of Soviet control, life for the people of East Germany was full of hardship and strife. Between rampant poverty and government oppression, many working-class East Germans wanted nothing more than to escape to the freedoms of the west.
Among these dissidents were Günter Wetzel (left) and Peter Strelzyk (right), two factory workers from the small town of Poessneck. With the wellbeing of their families their top priority, the two men sought a way to escape to the safety of West Germany.
Of course, this was not an easily achieved goal. The East German secret police – known as the Stasi – had eyes and ears everywhere. So much as a single word uttered against their Communist way of life could have a person jailed and tortured for treason.
Karl Marx City
Not only that, but the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Germany, was heavily fortified, boasting tens of thousands of armed soldiers with orders to shoot on sight. Barbed-wire fences, vicious guard dogs, and even landmines met those who managed to slip past the wall undetected.
Wetzel and Strelzyk understood the risks involved in a ground-based escape, so they proposed constructing a helicopter that they could fly over the fortifications. But after smuggling a western aeronautical magazine into Poessneck, the two men realized that their ticket to freedom was a much more basic vehicle…
Unlike a loud, clunky helicopter, a hot-air balloon would allow the men and their families to pass over the Berlin Wall without being detected. Additionally, the materials required to build the balloon would draw less suspicion from the Stasi than the large metal components needed for a helicopter.
But with neither man possessing much in the way of aeronautical experience, how were they to construct such a machine? They looked to their local library for the answer, but no sooner did they begin testing their plan that problems began to arise.
In order for the hot-air balloon to support the weight of eight individuals, Wetzel and Strelzyk would need a massive amount of fabric; however, purchasing such a large amount of material in Poessneck would surely arouse suspicion. If this plan was going to work, they’d need to get creative.
In an exhausting effort, the men drove from town to town buying small amounts of fabric from a number of different vendors. When they’d finally accumulated enough materials, Wetzel and Strelzyk began the painstaking process of putting it all together.
Given his experience as a mechanic, Strelzyk got to work constructing the basket and burner. Wetzel, meanwhile, began on the balloon itself, stitching together the fabric on a hand-powered sewing machine over the course of two weeks. But even with their vision taking shape, one question still lingered: would it work?
They got their answer in late April of 1978 when, after weeks of searching, Wetzel and Strelzyk found a secluded field in which to test their craft. They ignited the propane burner and watched as the balloon inflated… and then quickly collapsed.
Apparently, the fabric that Wetzel and Strelzyk had used to construct the balloon was too porous, allowing the building air currents to escape. But the men would not be deterred. After burning the evidence from their first aircraft, the optimistic pair went right back to work.
This time, however, they worked smarter, using taffeta to construct the balloon and an electric sewing machine to halve their production time. When balloon #2 was completed, Wetzel and Strelzyk were confident they’d worked out all the kinks from their first trial.
Due to the weight of the new fabric, the burner was unable to inflate the balloon to the altitude needed to achieve flight. With their freedom drifting further out of reach on the heels of yet another failure, one of the partners had had enough.
Fed up with their lack of progress, Wetzel abandoned the project in favor of pursuing other means of escape. Strelzyk was torn over leaving his friend behind, but in his heart, he knew this balloon was his family’s only chance to make it to the west.
On July 3, 1979, after weeks of recalculations, Strelzyk and his family attempted to flee East Germany forever with the help of his redesigned hot-air balloon. The launch went off without a hitch, but when the aircraft entered a large storm cloud the taffeta became too saturated, and they were forced to make an emergency landing.
On the ground, Strelzyk had no idea where they had landed; for all he knew, he and his family could have floated over the Berlin Wall! But when the family stumbled upon a discarded flyer for a local bakery, Strelzyk’s fears were confirmed: they were still in East Germany.
Choosing between their lives and the balloon, Strelzyk and his family fled the crash scene and made the nine-mile journey back to their car. And though they’d concealed the wreckage as best they could, they knew someone was bound to find it.
Sure enough, the Stasi discovered the balloon, and by day’s end, a warrant had been issued for the capture of its owner. Strelzyk knew that it was only a matter of time before the craft was traced back to him, or worse — to Wetzel. He had no choice: he had to come clean to his friend.
Wetzel was furious, but whether he wanted to admit it or not, he and Strelzyk were still in this together. With the Stasi quickly closing in on the two men, they knew they had to give their plan one final try. They had to build one last balloon.
On September 15, 1979, a stormy fall evening served as the backdrop to the final escape attempt for the Wetzel’s and Strelzyk’s, as all eight individuals climbed into the basket of balloon #3. After some final calculations and whispered prayers, the craft took off into the night.
The balloon floated off the ground with ease, but the way in which the rope anchors had been cut caused the craft to tilt at an odd angle and placed the burner dangerously close to the balloon. Wetzel and Strelzyk rushed to correct the flaw, but it was too late: the fabric had ignited.
Luckily, the men had brought a fire extinguisher aboard and put out the flames before they did any significant damage. But they weren’t out of the woods yet, as the propane burner was using more fuel than they had anticipated. After 28 minutes of flight, the balloon began plummeting out of the sky.
The craft crash-landed in a large tree, spilling the two families out of the basket and onto the hard earth below. They found themselves in a quiet forest, and, just like Strelzyk two months prior, none of them had any idea where they were.
All that changed, however, when the group stumbled across a nearby farm, one much smaller than the industrial plantations of Poessneck. As they inspected the farm equipment, they quickly realized the machines were American brands. This could only mean one thing: they’d done it. They’d made it to West Germany!