How Two Families Escaped East Germany In A Hot Air Balloon

Photo Credit: J Wilds/ Getty Images

What price would you pay for freedom? What dangers would you put your family through for a chance at a new life? These were the questions Peter Strelzyk, and Günter Wetzel had to ask themselves in 1979 when attempting their third escape of East Germany after two very unsuccessful trial runs.

At this point, they had no other choice but to try and escape because the East German police were right on their tails. The Strelzyk and Wetzel families’ escape from East Germany in a hot air balloon is the definition of a high-risk, high-reward situation.

Escape Balloon Festival, 1979
Hot air balloon that Günter Wetzel and Peter Strelzyk escaped East Germany in, circa 1979. (Photo Credit: Günter Wetzel)

Life in divided Germany

After the Second World War, Germany was divided in two — the East and the West. West Germany, with the help of the United States and Britain, flourished and modernized itself. On the other hand, East Germany, under the dominance of the Soviet Union, floundered.

Because of the turmoil and struggle in East Germany, about 3.6 million East Germans fled between 1945 and 1961. To put this number in perspective, about 20% of the total population left East Germany in the first 16 years of Soviet occupation.

Soldiers building the Berlin Wall
Soldiers building the Berlin Wall, circa 1961. (Photo Credit: Keystone/ Getty Images)

The Soviets were increasingly becoming concerned with the number of people fleeing East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR). As a result, in August 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the East German government permission to close the border to West Germany for good.

Construction began on what is now famously known as the Berlin Wall. Within two weeks, construction was completed on a makeshift barbed wire and concrete wall that divided one side of Berlin from the other, prohibiting East Germans from leaving.

Although the wall was fairly well built up in some spots, it was essentially just barbed wire in other places. However, attempting to climb over these smaller barriers would set off machine guns and landmines. Furthermore, East German border patrols had been instructed to prevent border penetration by all means — including by lethal force.

East German police guarding the Berlin Wall
Two East German police watching over the Berlin Wall, circa 1965. (Photo Credit: J Wilds/ Getty Images)

Nonetheless, from 1961 to 1988, about 150,000 East Germans attempted to cross the border, with about 40,000 people succeeding. Eight of the people who successfully got into West Germany did so by hot air balloon — a drastic feat undertaken by two desperate families to change their lives.

The need to leave

It was under these circumstances that Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel hatched an escape plan. Peter Strelzyk (1942–2017) and Günter Wetzel (1955–) first met in 1974 while working at a local plastics factory.

They became fast friends, and both had increasingly became concerned with the politics and society in East Germany. Wetzel recalled “enjoying the private life in the GDR” but became unhappy with his public life because “we couldn’t express our feelings.”

Strelyzk remembers feeling frustrated by the hypocrisy of the political system in East Germany: “you are subjected to constant propaganda and lying. You are not free to read what you please, to say what you think, or to travel anywhere except to other communist countries.”

Wetzel Family
The Wetzel Family — from left to right is Peter, Andrew Petra, and Günter Wetzel. (Photo Credit: Günter Wetzel)

Strelzyk and Wetzel decided they needed to get out of East Germany, and in March 1978, agreed to work together on an escape plan for themselves and their immediate families. They first toyed with the idea of building a helicopter but eventually ruled it out when they realized the engine they would need to make had to be powerful enough to lift eight people total.

They ultimately came up with the idea of a hot air balloon and set off on creating their transportation to freedom.

Designing the balloon and escape attempts

After initial research, Strelzyk and Wetzel realized they would need to create a huge balloon to carry four adults and three children safely. The gas containers, the burner, and the bag itself would probably have to total around 1650 pounds.

For about 18 months, Strelzyk and Wetzel worked on building the platforms, gas burners, and a makeshift flame thrower, while their wives, Petra Wetzel and Doris Strelzyk, worked on sewing the balloon itself from curtains, bed sheets, shower liners, and other fabrics that were brought home piece by piece.

On April 28, 1978, they were ready for their first test flight. However, this test flight never happened because Wetzel and Strelzyk had made a major miscalculation. The fabric they used for the balloon was too porous, letting the hot air heating it escape.

The balloon never even got off the ground during this initial test. The first prototype was burnt completely, but Wetzel and Strelyzk were determined to make their escape in a hot air balloon and refused to give up.

still from 2018 movie Balloon
Reenactment from the 2018 movie Balloon. This photo gives a sense of how huge the hot air balloon had to be to transport so many people. (Photo Credit: MovieStillsDB)

Wetzel and Strelzyk went back to the drawing board to figure out the mistakes made during their first flight attempt. The biggest issue with the first attempt was the fabric they used was letting heat out. However, Wetzel and Strelzyk had no idea what material would be better suited for their next attempt.

After a series of experiments, they ended up using 900 square meters of taffeta — the fabric used in ball gowns. They bought this material in a store in Leipzig at the start of June 1978 after they told the shopkeeper they were engineers using the fabric to make sails for a boating club.

In July 1979, the Strelzyk family attempted their escape in the new hot air balloon. Everything was going according to plan, and the family was headed right for West Germany…until the balloon went through a cloud.

The moisture weighed down the fabric, causing the balloon to descend. The Strelyzk family landed about 180 meters (590 feet) away from the West side of Germany. They had to abandon the balloon, but because they landed so close to the border, police quickly discovered it. An intense search was conducted to figure out who had tried to escape, but luckily it could not be traced back to the Strelzyks or the Wetzels.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again!

The search for the people responsible for the hot air balloon sped up Strelzyk and Wetzel’s escape plan. Notices were appearing in local newspapers seeking information on anyone who could be responsible for it. Because the second balloon had to be abandoned, an entirely new, third balloon had to be created — and fast!

Landing site of the escape balloon
Landing site of the escape balloon, circa 1979. (Photo Credit: Günter Wetzel)

In 1979, the forecast for the night of September 15 looked perfect for the planned escape. Essential for their plan was a strong north wind that would assist them in quickly getting into West Germany. Although the forecast was perfect on September 15, this third balloon had not yet been tested.

Desperate to get out of East Germany, the Strelzyk and Wetzel family decided to roll the dice and moved forward with their third escape attempt.

On the eve of September 16, 1979, the two families drove their cars to the border. At 2:26 a.m., the balloon lifted off with all members of the Wetzel and Strelyzk families inside. Just minutes after liftoff, the police were notified about an unidentified flying object heading for the border. Although they aimed their searchlights at the night sky, they could not see the hot air balloon drifting to safety.

Promotional still from Balloon
Promotional photo for the 2018 movie Balloon. (Photo Credit: MovieStillsDB)

The total flight time in the hot-air balloon was 28 minutes. It was good enough. The Wetzel family and Strelyzk family landed 15 miles away in a farmer’s field after reaching an altitude of 2000 meters.

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The escape in a hot air balloon was just one out of numerous creative escape plans out of East Germany during the Cold War. However, it has gotten the Hollywood treatment twice — once in 1982 with the movie Night Crossing, and again in 2018 with the movie Balloon.

Sometimes, a high risk does end up receiving a high reward — such as eight people’s freedom.