In the late 1970s, German citizens Gunter Wentzel and Peter Strelzyk made a historic flight in a homemade hot air balloon to escape East Germany. Even though their story is not the most popular or well-known, it is remarkable indeed.
During this time in history, Germany was divided by the Berlin Wall, which stretched right through the middle of the city of Berlin. East Germany was Communist and occupied by Soviets. Because of this and other factors, resources and job opportunities were limited here. Consequently, many East Germans tried to flee to West Germany, but few made it.
Wentzel and Strelzyk were determined to reach West Germany. They had absolutely no experience with physics or aerospace, except for Strelzek's brief stint as a mechanic for the army and Wentzel's previous job as a bricklayer. But one night the two of them watched an East German T.V. program about hot air balloons.
“It hit me like a flash,” Wentzel later told reporters. And so their incredible adventure began.
Leading up to their flight, Wentzel and Strelzyk learned as much as they could about hot air balloons. Then, they used resources they had at home to build the balloon—all the while ensuring that the
, or German secret police, would not find out. They had to be very creative; for example, Wentzel cut off the top of his stove pipe to fasten a makeshift torch to light the hot air balloon.
To make the balloon, Strelzyk's wife, Doris, and Gunter's wife, Petra, worked together to sew curtains, sheets, blankets, and whatever other fabric they could find in their homes. By the time they finished, the balloon was 60 feet wide and 75 feet tall.
On September 15, 1979, Wentzel and Strelzyk packed the hot air balloon into one car and their families into another. They left everything they had in hopes that the flight would go well.
“A million things had to go right, and if one thing didn't the whole plan would fail,” Wentzel later told reporters.
Once the duo prepared the hot air balloon, their families climbed in. It was a tight fit. The balloon's platform was only five feet by five feet and eight people total had to fit inside of it. But, they made it work.
Once the Wentzel and Strelzyk families were in the air, they were at the mercy of the wind. When they ran out of heat to power the balloon, they could only cross their fingers and hope they would land in West Germany.
When the Wentzel's and Strelzyk's landed, they didn't know if they were in East or West Germany. When police came to see what all the commotion was, the families saw that the approaching police car was a type of vehicle only manufactured in West Germany. They made it!
Wentzel and Strelzyk's dream came true. Their story and fight for freedom is an incredible part of history that is sure to inspire many well into the future.
The Washington Post