EAST-WEST: The Great Balloon Escape

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A dream of freedom was not just hot air

As searchlights swept menacingly over the heavily guarded border between East and West Germany, a raggedy patchwork balloon, traveling at a leisurely 10 to 15 knots, floated across the wall of fortifications, minefields, self-firing explosives and guard towers. Minutes later, the bizarre craft crash-landed on West German soil. East Germans were aboard: Mechanic Hans Peter Strelczyk, Bricklayer Gunter Wetzel, their wives and four children. Once again, human ingenuity and the will to freedom had prevailed over Communist East Germany's determination to immure its citizens behind the most formidable frontier in history.

Ironically, the dramatic escape had been inspired by an East German television program on the history of ballooning. A onetime aircraft mechanic who had long been looking for a way to escape from his homeland, Strelczyk immediately set out to build a hot-air balloon in accordance with the principles established by France's pioneering Montgolfier brothers in the 1780s. Strelczyk and his friend Wetzel built a cast-iron platform with posts at the corners for handholds and rope anchors. Four propane cooking-gas cylinders were fastened to the center. Their wives stitched up a balloon, 72 ft. in diameter, out of 60 different pieces of canvas and bedsheets, which the families had bought in small amounts in different shops to allay suspicion.

On July 4, the Strelczyks and the Wetzels made their way under cover of darkness to a meadow 25 miles from the border. That first escape attempt aborted: the winds were wrong, the gas ran out, and they landed undetected, a few hundred yards short of the frontier. Last weekend they tried again. This time the craft lifted off with ease, picking up a breeze that wafted them toward the border. The balloon, which soared as high as 8,000 ft., began to lose altitude as it neared the border. A searchlight picked out the balloon for a terrifying moment as it crossed the border at about 6,000 ft., but then moved on. At 100 ft., Strelczyk made out a piece of farm machinery in the gloom below.

"I thought we were in the West then because it was a modern machine—unlike anything we have in the East." When the gas gave out at 15 ft., the balloon fell to earth in a blackberry thicket. The entire flight had taken 30 minutes.

The escapees were instant celebrities throughout West Germany. "What they did with what they had was fantastic," declared West Germany's champion balloonist, Arno Sieger. "It was like crossing the Atlantic in a raft." Museums vied with one another to exhibit the balloon.

Residents of the Bavarian town of Naila, near the landing site, offered food, money, clothes, apartments and jobs.

The flight of the two families was only the most recent of several heroic attempts by East Germans to cross the hated Wall.

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