Fleeing communism in a balloon

Forty years ago, on September 16th, 1979, one of the most thrilling escapes of the Cold War took place from Communist East Germany, when two families, eight people in all, fled to freedom in West Germany in a homemade hot air balloon. It took them one-and-a-half years, one failed attempt, and three balloons to complete it.

Peter Strelzyk, a 37-year-old electrician, and Günter Wetzel, a 24-year-old bricklayer became friends at a local plastics factory, and began to plan their escape. Like other Communist dictatorships, East Germany was a prison, with its population prevented from leaving. A wall barred their way in Berlin, and a barbed wire border with watchtowers, machine-gun nests and minefields sealed the larger border with West Germany. Hundreds had been killed as they attempted to leave.

They decided to fly over the border fortifications in a hot air balloon, having seen about ballooning on television. They measured the weight of themselves, their wives, and their four children, and calculated the balloon would have to hold 2,000 cubic metres of hot air. They reckoned it would take 800 square metres of cloth to make a balloon that could hold it.

It took 2 weeks on a hand sewing machine to stitch the fabric into a bag 20 metres long by 15 metres wide. The gondola was constructed from an iron frame, a sheet metal floor, and clothesline running around it every 15 centimetres. The burner was made of 2 propane cannisters to feed the gas through water pipe to a stove pipe nozzle.

At their first attempt in a forest clearing, they could not get the balloon to inflate, despite using an improvised blower to fill it first with cold air. They found the material was too porous, and resolved to try a different second attempt. They went to a distant city to buy 800 metres of 1-metre wide synthetic taffeta, telling the store it was to make sails for their sailing club. Having sewn a second balloon, they found the burner would inflate it, but could not generate enough heat to lift it. They doubled the number of cannisters and inverted them to make a bigger flame, and attempted a second try.

This time the balloon ascended, but when it entered a cloud, water vapour condensed on it, increasing its weight and making it come down. They landed next to a mined area 180 metres from the border, and realized they were still in East Germany. They walked 8 miles back to their car, leaving the balloon gear behind for the Stasi (secret police) to discover. They decided on a speedy 3rd attempt in case the gear was traced back to them, and they bought taffeta in assorted colours from a variety of stores to avoid suspicion. They sewed a third balloon.

Wind and weather were good on September 16th, so they took off at 2.00 am. The balloon malfunctioned several times and caught fire several times, but it held them aloft. They had to keep relighting the burners by hand because air rushing out through tears in the fabric kept putting them out. They were detected on West German radar, and had searchlights in the East turned on to search for the "unidentified flying object."

They came down near the town of Naila in Bavaria, and knew they were in the West when they saw the Western traffic lights and the Audi police car that came to inspect what had happened. Wetzel broke his leg in the landing, but otherwise they and their families were safe. More than that, they were free. Stern Magazine paid for the exclusive rights to their story, and their heroism and ingenuity was immortalized in the movie, "Night Crossing." After the collapse of Communism and following German reunification, the Strelzyks returned home, while the Wetzels remained in Bavaria.

It was an epic story that illustrates the determination people have shown to free themselves from the shackles and daily oppression of Communist regimes. The ideology has always failed. It has always produced poverty and squalor, and it has always had to be supported by brutality, concentration camps and executions. And always it has needed to keep its people prisoner and stop them seeking a better life beyond its grip. This is the ideology praised by modern-day Socialists such as Jeremy Corbyn and John MacDonnell, and it is regimes like that of East Germany that they bestowed praise upon. The night-time balloonists of 1979 knew better.