Hacking an Escape From East Germany

Some hacks are just for fun. Some make your job or your life easier. Once in a great while, a hack will save your family from an oppressive government. This is the kind of hack that [Günter] pulled off when he and [Peter] built a homemade hot air balloon to escape East Germany and the oppression of the Stasi in 1979.

Like many East Germans who weren’t in line with the Party, [Günter] found life unsatisfactory on his side of the Berlin Wall. Travel, job options, and freedom of expression were all severely limited. Aside from joining the Communist Party, the only option seemed to be escape to West Germany.

[Günter] and his wife [Petra] were inspired when [Petra]’s sister, who had escaped in 1958, came to visit. She brought with her a newspaper that covered the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico. [Günter] and [Peter], whom he worked with, decided that they would conspire to build a hot air balloon capable of transporting them, their wives, and their four children across the border.

Theirs is an incredible story fraught with adversity. They ended up constructing three different balloons, all the while traveling further and further from home to avoid suspicion when buying large quantities of fabric. They had a lot of trouble finding the right propulsion method and ended up using pure oxygen. During the narrow window they had before [Günter] was due to report for military duty, the weather was unfavorable except for a short period after a front had passed through. They had no time for testing and just went for it.

Everything that could go wrong did. One of the ropes caught fire. The last anchor ripped suddenly from the earth and hit [Frank], one of [Peter]’s kids in the forehead. Once the burner illuminated the balloon, they noticed the hole you see pictured above.

If you think this sounds like a movie, you’re right. Disney adapted this true story in the 1982 film Night Crossing.

[Thanks Jeffrey]

38 thoughts on “Hacking an Escape From East Germany

  1. Hackaday should do an article on how Captain Ahab hacked a brick compass by forging a harpoon tip into a new compass needle in the novel Moby Dick.

  2. did hackaday ever do a story on the Colditz glider? although it was never used, I heard it could have worked. similar idea (fly to freedom), different time.

    1. indeed, note that on the website they state “By sheer chance my wife Petra’s sister, who had already left East Germany in 1958″ … “left” (legally ) not “fled”.
      Hence why she could visit.

    2. The construction of the wall began in 1961 as a reaction to the large number of people going to west Germany which openly accepted any east German “migrant”. With the decimation of the workforce, the wall was erected with the pitiful excuse that it was actually an anti-facist protection barrier to keep the westerners out of the farmer and worker state. Although I do not think anybody on the eastern side of the fence were wondering why the pointy bits were facing them instead of the capitalist west.

  3. Heard of a guy escaping communist Czechoslovakia over 22 kV (maybe 110 kV) transmission lines with homebrew pulley? The topmost line is grounded. Can’t find any pictures now.

    1. The topmost line has very different anchoring to the pole, as the anchor point is facing down rather then up, that would have made it impossible…
      It wouldn’t be very difficult to pull yourself onto a live 110kV wire an move on it, the capacitive losses wouldn’t be very pleasant (a faraday cage suit would help a lot), but not harmful either.
      22kV seems very unlikely, the construction is fairly weak (definitely not meant to hold 100+kg), also the insulators would make it impossible to traverse with a pulley, you would have to constantly transfer over the insulators, which would be very dangerous (close to the grounded metal holder)…
      Also, 22kV is not used for long distances here in Europe…

      1. For everyone interested, I finally found some information:

        Czechs Flee in Daring Ride in Home-Made Cable Car
        July 21, 1986

        Two Czechs escaped to Austria by swinging a home-made cable car along the path of a highvoltage power line spanning the border, the Austrian government said today.
        The two Czechs, Robert Ospald, 35, and Zdenek Pohl, 20, made their daring escape Saturday, careening their cable car–fashioned from planks, rags and caster rollers–amid flying sparks along a dead wire of the power line running from Poland to Czechoslovakia to Austria.

        Austria’s Interior Ministry said.
        The escape was the most daring from a communist country since two East German families of eight people floated on the tiny platform of a home-made balloon to West Germany on Sept. 16, 1979.
        As the two Czechs guided themselves along the non-lethal maintenance wire, there was some hazard from flying sparks in the wet weather, Austrian police said.
        The two men got down safely near the Austrian border crossing at Haugsdorf, where they tried to board a bus for the nearby refugee camp at Traiskirchen, police said.
        Since they had no Austrian money the bus driver refused them the ride and sent them to Haugsdorf police headquarters, where they arrived “looking wet and exhausted.”
        Ospald, a forest worker, and Pohl, a locksmith, asked for political asylum during their interrogation.

        (from http://ospald.at/presseberichte-flucht-ueber-grenze/)

        Short article IN ENGLISH:

        http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/the-great-escape-to-austria-and-freedom-via-electric-power-line


        (short video from TV, in german, but with pictures of the cable-car etc)

        Book in English on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Predator-Prey-Incredible-Account/dp/1420814214

        If anyone from HaD woudl be interested, I’d may sum up some information about this >hack< and write an article for you (yeah, I do live in Czech Republic and I speak both Czech, English and German).

        1. Errata. Aforementioned article which I quoted is from Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/1986-07-21/news/mn-26593_1_power-line.

          For those interested in gramatics and article from Radio.cz (national broadcast): there is a mistake in the first and only sentence of second article. High tension lines should be high voltage lines. There is only one word in Czech for both [mechanical] tension and voltage, same as in German (cz: napětí, ge: Spannung) and not-so-technically-educated redactor have chosen the wrong translation :)

  4. In Berlin, at the “House At Checkpoint Charlie” museum http://www.mauermuseum.de/index.php/en/berlin-wall-exhibiton there are loads of escape stories and artifacts from cars armored to crash through checkpoints, to homemade gliders, homemade scuba propulsion units used to swim to Zealand in Denmark, tunnels dug with very alternative equipment and several hide a holes to smuggle people across from people sewn into car seats to an Isetta (very small italian car) altered to fit a person in the motor compartment. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/djwudi/117737829/) desparation leads to ingenuity.

  5. I remember reading this in the Berlin Wall museum. Lots of fascinating hacks there. My favourite was one of the cars someone modified to get people over the boarder with lots of hidey holes. Seriously, it boggles the mind how many people fit in there…
    A close second though, was a guy shooting an arrow over the wall (to a freinds window) and rigging up a zipwire to zoom over.

    1. I’m pretty sure she yanked out the distributor or distributor cap, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve forced myself to sit through that movie!

  6. I still remember when the wall came down. The Soviets were the boogey-men of my childhood, and when Gorbachov and Reagan worked to dismantle the “evil empire”, it was a Big Deal for me. I’m not a Republican, but I admire them both for having the guts to begin the dismantling of the totalitarian states. Of course, it didn’t go entirely as planned…

    For a taste of what it was like, read some of the old John Le Carre books, like _The Spy Who Came In From the Cold_ .

    1. The GDR, although having very close relations with the USSR, was a independent state and was recognized by most western countries as a legitimate democratic nation. The situation itself there was a lot different that say Romania of the USSR.
      One main difference being that the GDR received a lot of economic support from west Germany in the form of loans, business and subsidies without which the GDR would have gone bankrupt even sooner.

  7. I was stationed on the West German side of the border sector where that balloon came over. It was my job to do regular patrols along that part of the East German border.

    1. Did you live at Hof Baracks or outside? I grew up in Naila, where the balloon came down.
      In the sixties and early seventies there were a couple of american families living in three houses in our neighborhood

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