Today in 1979, a story that sounds like it came straight out of a movie: two families in Communist East Germany escaped to the West by making and flying a hot air balloon.
The story starts with Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel, who’d first met working at a plastics factory.
They both wanted to leave East Germany, but fleeing by land was out of the question.
There were too many armed border guards, too many mines.
So the two started thinking about flying over the border, and since the country wasn’t exactly handing out aircraft, they decided to secretly build a balloon.
It would have to be a big balloon, to support the eight people between the Strelzyk and Wetzel families, but it would also have to fly high enough to evade those border guards.
And they had to do all of the purchasing, design, construction and testing without attracting any suspicion.
They slowly gathered supplies, telling shopkeepers they needed large amounts of fabric to line tents for their camping club.
They welded together a gondola and designed a burner with a flamethrower powered by propane gas.
The first flight attempt almost ended in disaster; they landed on their own side of the border and had to abandon the balloon.
The authorities found it and started looking for somebody trying to fly out of the country.
Fortunately, they didn’t know who it was, and so Strelzyk and Wetzel quickly made a second balloon, and on September 16 at 2 in the morning, they tried again.
It wasn’t an easy flight: the balloon caught fire at one point, and they had to fly extra high to avoid the East German searchlights.
When they ran out of gas, Wetzel broke his leg in the hard landing.
But the wind had been with them.
They landed in West Germany, where they settled and eventually became famous for their daring escape over a dangerous border.
Today in 2018, Denise Mueller-Korenek broke the world record for “fastest bicycle speed in slipstream.”
In other words, she rode a bike that got its start being towed by a dragster, which got her to 100 miles per hour.
Then she accelerated to 183.9 MPH.
I think I need to sit down.
Freedom Balloon (Popular Mechanics)
With hot air to freedom (Der Spiegel)
A history of cycling speed records as Denise Mueller-Korenek reaches 183 mph (Guinness World Records)