If you aren't currently living in a country occupied by a hostile army, you can't really imagine what it's like knowing that trying to leave home means getting your head blown off. But when people want out badly enough, they find a way, across walls and borders and even massive armies.
And by the way, their stories are goddamned amazing.
6Escaping East Germany in a Big-Ass Balloon
Peter Strelzyk and Guenter Wetzel wanted to get their families out of East Germany, but between them and freedom was the most heavily guarded border in the world. So they decided they would just build themselves a damned flying machine. The original plan was to build a helicopter, but they couldn't find an engine powerful enough. So they settled on a hot air balloon.
"Inconspicuous. That's the word for this."
Granted, the two men had no prior ballooning experience, but hey, they found a few books on the subject and took it from there. They did the math, bought hardware and cloth ("it's for our camping club") in the nearest town and got busy building. The sewing machine they used for the hull was a 40-year-old foot-pedal dinosaur. They built a firing system out of a bike engine, a car muffler and a stovepipe that spat out "pure Hell-fire."
A few failed tests in the woods proved that the cloth was too porous to hold the air. The hull was cut up and burned in the furnace while new cloth ("it's for our sailing club") was procured from a more faraway city. Then they started over. When the old manual sewing machine threatened to wear them out physically, they just fitted it with an engine.
It could use some spinners, too.
The Strelzyk family launched the balloon (the Wetzels had gotten cold feet and opted out of the plan) after a total preparation time of 16 months. They sailed through the air, got within sight of the border ... and crashed. Six hundred feet short of freedom.
They had to walk back, leaving the balloon behind. Since the balloon was eventually found with evidence that indicated the identity of not just the Strelzyks but the Wetzels as well, the Wetzel family bought back in because with their friends as good as in jail, so were they. At this point it wasn't a question of if, but only when they'd be arrested, and they were out of stories to explain yet another purchase of a few thousand square feet of cloth.
"Trust us, sir, it's not for ballooning!" "Oh, that's all right then."
Any suspicious attempts would likely be reported, as the hunt was pushing forward nationwide. So they drove all over the country to buy raincoat cloth, bedsheets and anything else usable in small handfuls, traveling more than 2,000 miles. Meanwhile back at home, the sewing machine would run literally around the clock to assemble their largest balloon yet: one that had to carry eight people.
The result was 65 feet across, 82 feet high and 141,000 cubic feet in volume and was the biggest hot air balloon ever to fly in Europe. And it did fly -- they lifted off but at some point tilted the burner and accidentally set the hull on fire. Their only choice was to fire the engine full-throttle and make a dash for it. The gas bottles ran out fast, and once more they went down -- but the balloon was so huge it acted as a parachute, limiting the sinking speed. Yes, the thing had become too big to fail.
This time they were spotted, but by the time the border post got permission to fire, the balloon had gone. After another crash landing, the men went scouting where the hell they were and ran into West German cops, establishing that this time, they'd finally made it.
The best part might be that even though they knew every ounce of weight would increase the risk of another premature crash, they brought a champagne bottle that they then popped, because "we read that's what balloonists do after landing."
We're not sure if that's more impressive than the fact that they worked up the nuts to pilot this death-trap sober.