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.

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