MacGyver Balloon Escape Based On Real Event

BY: Mario Vandermeulen

In the episode GX-1 MacGyver, Nikki and Starkoss escape East Germany by ballooning to West Germany. This MacGyverism is based on a real event.

On September 16 1979 two families: Strelzyk and Wetzel, actually did escape East Germany by improvising a balloon made out of cloth. Sources say he was inspired by a tv-show on ballooning. Others say he got the idea out of magazine send to him by relative living in the States.

They wanted to escape East Germany with their wives and a total of four children. They had to stay off radar while making their balloon and finding enough cloth with raising attention. First they had to make a construction and they used a gondola out of a metal frame, just as the one we see in GX-1.

A first test failed because they were unable to inflate the balloon. A second test also failed because the burner wasn’t strong enough to lift up the balloon. Wetzel started working on other ideas like a light plane but Strelzyk kept improving on the burner and also made a homemade altitude meter from a barometer.

Eventually they managed a first escape attempt in July 1979 but bad weather forced them to land before reaching the border at only 180 metres from West Germany. They had to go all the way back on foot through a restricted zone of 5 km and then hiking 14 km all the way back to their car. The balloon was found the next day by the Stasi agents and Strelzyk had to sell his car and destroyed all evidence that could connect him to the balloon.
With the Stasi agents breathing down their necks, they agreed on making another balloon to get out of East Germany as soon as possible. On September 15 they made another attempt. The weather conditions were perfect due to a lightning storm creating winds and on September 16 at 1:30 am the families inflated the balloon and they were on their way to West Germany. At 02:00 am they were well on their way but not without problems as the balloon caught fire and Wetzel broke his leg on landing but they made it out after approximately 25 minutes of flight, with no shelter and a temperature at -8° C – the gondola this time was only made of clothesline. East Germany immediately closed down borders and Peter Strelzyk’s brother Erich, his sister Maria and her husband were arrested shortly after and sentenced to 2.5 years in prison. They were later released with the help of Amnesty International.

The escape is considered the most daring escape since The Wooden Horse Escape in World War II and was turned into a movie by Disney called ‘Night Crossing’. At the time of release it was considered Disney’s most famous film.

Strelzyk died in 2017 at the age of 74 after a long illness – 45 days after the actor who portrayed him on film (John Hurt) died.

The balloon can be seen in the Museum of Bavarian.




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