Most of the people reading this are living in countries that are so awesome, they have fences and border guards to keep people out. If so, it's hard to imagine what it's like to have lived behind one of those walls during the Cold War. You didn't have to be crazy to attempt an escape from one of these places. But it sure as hell helped.
When Wolfgang Engels was a new conscript in the East German army, he was given a crappy job: help build the barbed wire fence that eventually became the Berlin Wall. It was especially sucky because he happened to be a Berliner, the only one in his unit. It's no wonder that two years later, Wolfgang lost it, in the "Oh shit, I'm on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall (and my name is Wolfgang)!" sense of the word.
In April 1963, East Berlin was gearing up for the May Day celebrations. Part of the celebrations included a mighty display of East German military power, and there were a lot of tanks laying around willy-nilly. Engels got an idea. It wasn't the brightest plan.
"Why do you have that 'I'm about to steal a tank' look on your face, Engels? ... Engels?"
Wolfgang found an unguarded armored personnel vehicle and decided he was just going to drive that shit through the Berlin Wall.
But before executing Operation Wall Plow, Engels first had to learn how to drive a tank. In the day leading up to the escape, he parked his truck next to some tank drivers and started chatting. "How do you start it? What does that do? What would happen if you drove it right at the wall?" And because the soldiers were starved in the conversation department, they told him.
"OK, that makes sense. Can you show me by driving me through that wall? It's for science."
That night, after one of the guards apparently left the keys in the ignition, Engels stole his escape tank. He picked the spot he thought he could penetrate the easiest and headed right for it. Unfortunately, his foot slipped off the pedal and he ended up rolling rather than plowing. So when he smashed into the wall, he made a hole, but not a tank-sized hole he could drive through.
The situation couldn't have been worse -- his back end was in the East, and his front was in the wall. Engels was like Winnie the Pooh stuck in a honey pot (of danger). Not helping matters was the fact that his tank was enmeshed in barbed wire, which Engels immediately fell into after exiting the tank. Even as he extricated himself from the wire, East German guards shot him in the back. It took his last bit of strength to climb the hood of the car and onto the wall. From there, West Berliners dragged Engels to safety, nursed him back to health, and gave him asylum.
"I've peed on that wall every single day since."
Exactly as he planned it.
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In 1989, Soviet pilot Alexander Zuyev's life was going south. He was rejected as a test pilot, his marriage was falling apart, and Gorbachev's forehead birthmark was really starting to freak him out. Lucky for him, he was a pilot with access to lots of planes. Unlucky for him, communist countries don't lend out fighter jets on the honor system.
"I'll bring it right back, I swear. Just making a quick beer run."
Of all the ways to secretly steal a plane, there was only one way for Zuyev to be cartoonish about it. He served his comrades a cake drugged with crushed sleeping pills.
Soviet airbases are just like any other workplace -- if you set down a cake in the lunchroom, people will swarm that shit like ants. Only Zuyev couldn't just drug everybody in the vicinity, so he brought a cake, but only handed out slices to certain members of his squadron. The others, like the commander and mechanic on duty, still had routines to fulfill for his plan to work. Which meant Zuyev not only took the risk of drugging his co-workers with cake, but also looked like a petty asshole while doing it.
"This is some bullshit right here."
Once his fellow airmen were asleep, presumably in a sweet little pile on the floor, Zuyev cut the telephone lines, ran to the nearest MiG-29 that was ready to fly, informed the guard on duty that his replacement was late, and said something along the lines of "Hey, I know, I'll stand here until he gets here. There's cake in the lounge. Hand me your gun." All of which seemed perfectly reasonable to the guy who was skipped in the cake distribution earlier. He gave Zuyev his gun and walked away, thinking, "Man, I am awesome at guarding the motherland's state of the art aircraft."
Everything seemed to be turning up Zuyev when the actual replacement mechanic and squadron commander showed up, presumably waving their fists in the air over the cake snub. Zuyev took some shots at them with his borrowed assault rifle, then jumped into the cockpit and hightailed it out of there.
"Suck my diiiiiiiiiiiiiick!"
It wasn't long before Zuyev landed in Turkey, declared himself a political dissident, got arrested for hijacking, was cleared of the charges, and was allowed to move to the United States. And that was when he started spilling Soviet military secrets.
Tired of primo cigars and driving cars that predated the Beatles, Cuban air force pilot Orestes Lorenzo Perez decided to defect from Cuba in 1991. That part was simple enough -- during a training run in March, Lorenzo suddenly veered off course in his fighter jet, bolted north, managed to avoid U.S. radar, and made a surprise landing at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West.
The problem is that, because a MiG is not a flying minivan, he left his family behind in Cuba to face the wrath of the communist government. Bad move. While Lorenzo got his act together in the States, his wife back home was told that he was a traitor, an adulterer, and a homosexual, because Cuban officials were running out of names. According to the government, the family would never be reunited again.
"They said he's gay. And they also called him fat. I don't know how to feel right now."
Through coded phone calls and letters, Lorenzo arranged for his wife and sons to meet him for a pickup. They'd recognize him by the plane he'd be landing on the highway.
It took almost two years for the rescue to occur. During those months, Lorenzo tried unsuccessfully to get his family back through legal means, even getting a meeting with President George Bush to put pressure on Castro to release them. Castro wouldn't budge. That was when a wealthy Cuban emigre donated $30,000 to get Lorenzo a 1961 Cessna and the plan took shape.
It's basically this, which is like the plane version of the Millennium Falcon.
When the big day came, Lorenzo's wife and kids waited near the designated highway (which was on a bridge) and watched. Lorenzo knew he had to avoid American radar so he wouldn't get intercepted, so he flew 10 feet above the waves of the ocean. And when he saw that an oncoming truck was approaching his landing zone -- which was, again, a busy highway -- he just touched down anyway and hoped the truck would stop in time. It did -- 10 yards away from the running propellers.
Lorenzo's kids and wife ran so fast that the little one lost his shoes. And the second they were in the plane -- zip -- time to go. Lorenzo's last visit to his homeland lasted under a minute. When Lorenzo landed for the second time in Florida, the U.S. agreed to let the family stay. After all, it's not like you can keep the guy out.
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"OK, everybody back. I got this."