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How two families fled communist oppression in East Germany in a homemade hot air balloon

Happy New Year Whatsapp Status 2020 Maxine Crutchfield (2020-02-15)

id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> Günter Wetzel and Peter Strelzyk built a hot air balloon from scratch to escape from East Germany with their families in 1979. 

Courtesy of Günter Wetzel It was a crisp Saturday in September 1979, and a breeze was blowing strong and steady from the north.

That's what would help Günter Wetzel and his colleague Peter Strelzyk escape East Germany with their families in the middle of the night -- thanks to a hot air balloon they'd built from scratch using only a magazine article as a guide.

"The thought of leaving had been festering in my mind for years, but it was clear that it was very, very dangerous to go via a land route," said Wetzel, now 65 years old. "When I saw pictures of these balloons, I knew it was a possibility."

Wetzel talked to CNET through a German interpreter shortly after the 40th anniversary of his flight and ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9. The flight was one of the most daring and ingenious escapes ever made from East Germany. There was no certainty of success, and failure would have meant imprisonment or even death. For Wetzel and many others, the desire for freedom outweighed the risks.

"If we hadn't been so optimistic, we probably couldn't have done it," he said. 

Wetzel and Strelzyk have told different accounts of their escape, with each man claiming credit for the idea. They stopped talking shortly after arriving in the West and never reconciled before Strelzyk's death in March 2017. What follows is Wetzel's account of their flight to West Germany. 

A divided Germany
After World War II, Germany was divided between East and West. The West, with the help of the US and Britain, flourished and modernized. The East, under the influence of the Soviet Union, struggled. About 3.6 million East Germans, 20% of the population, fled between 1945 and 1961. 
East Germany, known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), didn't want the rest of its citizens to leave for the richer West, so in August 1961 it built barriers to keep its people in. The official GDR line: It wanted to keep "decadent, immoral westerners out."

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The Berlin Wall's 96-mile-long, 12-foot-tall concrete barrier is well known, but simple barbed wire fences divided other parts of the country. Trying to climb over the barriers would set off machine guns, mines and other horrors. Soldiers patrolled a no-man's land along the border. 

About 150,000 people attempted escape during the 28 years that the East German barrier existed. An estimated 40,000 succeeded. While some East Germans flew planes to safety, no one had ever attempted escape by balloon.

Life in East Germany
Life in Westzel's home of Pössneck, which today has a population of about 12,000 people, was typical for most of East Germany. The Czech Republic is about an hour's drive east, and it's bordered on the west by Bavaria, 바카라사이트추천 part of West Germany.

The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (also known as the East German Communist Party) held tight control over peoples' lives, professions and futures. Opposing political views were squashed, and the dictatorship prevented free elections and freedom of movement. The Ministry for State Security, commonly called the Stasi, forced neighbors to spy on each other and compiled extensive files on citizens. Food, supplies and housing shortages were part of daily life.

Wetzel lived in a single-family home that he renovated in his spare time. He drove a truck delivering furniture and construction materials. In the eyes of the government, Wetzel had black marks against him: His father had fled to the West, and Wetzel had refused to join the Communist Party. Because of that, the GDR denied Wetzel's request to study physics after high school. Instead, he studied forestry, bricklaying and truck driving. 

His love of physics is partly what drove Wetzel's desire to leave East Germany -- and a big reason why he succeeded with the seemingly outlandish idea for a hot air balloon. 

"The private part of life in the GDR, my family and I enjoyed," Wetzel said. "It more was the public life. We couldn't express our opinions."

While Wetzel couldn't work in or study the sciences, he tinkered with machines in his spare time. He built electric and lighting systems for his home and repaired the building's plumbing. 

We didn't think it was a crazy plan at all. We were totally sure we'd finally found a secure plan to leave the GDR. Günter Wetzel  In 1974, he met Peter Strelzyk through family members visiting from the West (which was permitted at the time). The two men later worked together as self-employed electricians.

In March 1978, Wetzel's sister-in-law, who had left East Germany in 1958, returned for a visit and brought a magazine with an article about the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When he saw photos of hot air balloons floating in the air, he thought, "This can't be that difficult." He immediately told Strelzyk about the idea, and they decided that a hot air balloon would be the way to leave East Germany with their wives and children.

"We didn't think it was a crazy plan at all," Wetzel said. "We were totally sure we'd finally found a secure plan to leave the GDR."

The science behind the balloon  
Hot air balloons are relatively simple. Heat air inside a balloon using a burner, and it will rise. Attach a basket to the bottom to hold the burner and passengers, and the balloon will float where the wind takes it. 

But making a hot air balloon that could carry eight people to West Germany wasn't easy. 

For Wetzel and Strelzyk, building a balloon was a matter of trial and error. "I looked at the pictures and kind of estimated how big the balloon was and how big the people in the picture were," Wetzel said. He made mental calculations, ultimately settling on 1,800 cubic meters (63,566 cubic feet).

The two men bought reams of material, largely fabric used to line leather because it was available in large quantities. They initially stored the fabric in Wetzel's house, cutting and sewing in his bedroom on the second floor. As they progressed, the balloon became too heavy to carry upstairs so they moved to the basement of Strelzyk's home. 

The Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989. Several areas around the city have wall remnants and memorials about the divided Germany.

Shara Tibken/CNET The men needed a propane gas fire burner to power the balloon. They took a section of stove pipe about 12 centimeters in diameter, connected it to a gas cylinder and added a hose, valve and nozzles.

Next came a basket. They couldn't weave a fancy basket but instead welded together a 1.4-square-meter (15-square-foot) steel frame. 

On April 28, 1978, they were ready for a test flight. They traveled to a forest clearing near Ziegenrück and had their wives hold open the balloon. Wetzel and Strelzyk used the burner to warm the air, but nothing happened.

Wetzel and Strelyzk had miscalculated -- badly. The fabric they used was too porous, letting hot air escape. Air-proofing chemicals would make the balloon too heavy. They had to give up.

"The balloon wouldn't even take off of the ground," Wetzel said. They burned it to destroy all traces of their plot. But that only made them more determined to build one that could fly. 

"Our sole focus became to create a balloon that would bring us over to the West," Wetzel said.

Try again
With the second attempt, Wetzel and Strelzyk were more methodical. Their experience had taught them about gases, as well as how big the balloon actually needed to be. Their first balloon wouldn't have been nearly big enough for eight people. And then there was the fabric. They knew what they'd used before didn't work but had no idea what would be best. 

So Wetzel created special tools, including a U-shaped glass tube to test air pressure and the porousness of the materials. That helped them narrow down the choice of materials. 

The men ended up using 900 square meters of taffeta -- fabric used in ball gowns -- which they bought in a store in Leipzig at the beginning of June. They told the shopkeeper they were buying fabric to make sails for a boating club. 

They also had to adjust the size of the balloon. Wetzel referred to a couple of physics books he kept at home to determine engineering thermodynamics and the effects of temperature changes on the behavior of air. That helped him calculate what he thought was the right dimension for the balloon: 2,200 cubic meters, up from 1,800 before.

They also fashioned a blower out of the engine from Wetzel's motorcycle, letting it fill the balloon with cool air before it was heated. That turned out to be key. Within minutes of starting the blower and turning on the burner, the balloon was fully inflated. But the burners went through gas too quickly, allowing the air to cool. The burner's performance continually worsened, so much so the balloon barely stayed inflated. 

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