Several reasons led us to pull out
As described in the previous chapter, doubt slowly crept up on me as to whether this escape could be successfully achieved. The balloon had not once been able to show the power required to lift 8 people off the ground without any difficulties. The 80°C temperature difference which was necessary for take-off seemed more and more unrealistic and even if we did achieve it there would have been no fuel reserves left.
Other misgivings also occurred to us due to setbacks we had encountered. We frequently discussed the potential dangers that a failed launch would occasion. Petra understandably thought again and again of the children. What would happen if we crashed? Or what would happen to us and the children if we were caught? Thoughts such as these were pushed to the forefronts of our minds all the time.
There was another problem which we had hardly considered at the beginning. Since 1st March of that year I was no longer employed at a factory. I was working with Peter Strelzyk in the evenings, purportedly in an official freelance work arrangement. This was entirely legal at this time though only if it was incidental to a fulltime job. One could be paid by the hour for this casual work which was completely within the law but as previously mentioned, only if it was supplementary to a full time job. It is precisely this fact which I slowly realised had become a problem. Half a year had passed in the meantime with me working in this manner and I asked myself if someone would at some stage watch us and see what we were up to. Such a person would have realised quickly that we were up to no good.
My relationship with Peter Strelzyk by this time had already become strained because there were several points affecting our safety about which we differed markedly.
All of these factors combined led me to shelve the idea of escaping East Germany and from 23rd August 1978 onwards I was back in an official working arrangement. We therefore destroyed all clues which could have betrayed our involvement and resumed a normal, unassuming life. I had heard from a good friend of mine that the district polyclinic in Pößneck was looking for another ambulance driver. I applied for the position straight away and was offered it. It soon became clear however, that the notion of getting out in this manner was illusory. If the attempt to escape failed or if the Strelzyks had escaped without us, we would have been discovered very soon thereafter. Anyone who lived in East Germany or who is familiar with how the situation was can imagine what the consequences would have been. We would have been imprisoned and our children would have been taken away from us.
As a result of these factors I was very soon looking at other ways to escape East Germany. I knew that my friend Jörg Kramer was a glider pilot and owned pamphlets about aviation and aircraft. I mentioned to him that I was interested in flying and asked to borrow them. With the help of these pamphlets and other literature I made attempts to build a small aircraft. Doing so looked realistic and seemed workable however, it would be difficult to acquire the requisite materials. My main problems that I saw at the time, first and foremost, were in the construction of the aircraft and getting the materials. After realising that I would have problems with take-off and landing I didn’t even get that far. I thought then that it would not have been that difficult to get the plane airborne and to fly it and that I could have somehow pulled the landing off as well.
I see things somewhat differently today. I actually learned to fly in 1980, not long after our successful escape. I have been a flying instructor since 1992 and have taught several pilots of aeroplanes, motorised gliders and ultralights. I know now as a result of these experiences that it’s not all that easy to fly an aircraft irrespective of whether one speaks of take-off, flying or landing.
During the winter I embarked on the project and worked with ideas to build an aircraft, starting with how it ought to look.
Sketch for the film "BALLOON"
The unsuccessful attempts at building a balloon also made it clear to me that everything had to be thought through and easy to replicate thereby ensuring that an aircraft could actually fly. Also, since I had no experience with aeroplanes my work took considerably longer than originally anticipated. Time to work on my plans was also much less plentiful as I had changed jobs in the meantime and was working as a commercial driver for Kraftverkehr Pößneck.
Summer had now come and I learned that a hot air balloon had been discovered in the border area. Since it had to have been a home-made balloon I could safely assume that it was a failed escape attempt.
I was certain that it could not have been anyone other than the Strelzyks. Since Peter had not gotten in touch with me I was also somewhat astonished and I could also not have known that they had been trying to escape by another means i.e. through the foreign embassies.
This clearly had not worked and Peter came to me on 23rd July 1979 to explain everything. He asked me if I would be prepared to work with him again and to build a new balloon.
As a result of my considerations in the few months prior it occurred to me that someone would soon come after us if they weren’t already, therefore the decision was made on 27th July 1979.
Next: The third balloon