History Book: Project Stormfury, and a daring escape

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, September 16th. So glad you’re listening to WORLD Radio. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD Radio History Book.

Today, a dramatic escape from East Germany, and scientific attempts to mitigate storms. Here’s Paul Butler.

CLIP: Seen from directly above, the center of the hurricane is called the eye.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Starting in the 1940s, government scientists and meteorologists began looking for ways to weaken hurricanes. The first documented attempt happened in 1947 with project Cirrus. A plane dropped more than 150 pounds of crushed dry ice into a violent storm. Project scientists declared the test as: “inconclusive.” 

Fourteen years later, on September 16th, 1961, U.S. government scientists try again. This time, instead of dry ice, they inject eight cylinders of silver iodide into the eyewall of Hurricane Esther. Wind speeds drop by 10 percent, and Project Stormfury is born:

CLIP: The seeding planes fly across the eye and into these clouds…

Audio from a Department of Commerce and U.S. Department of Defense educational film. Over the next 20 years, Project Stormfury seeds dozens of hurricanes. 

CLIP: The silver iodide works to transform the supercooled water droplets into ice crystals, upsetting the delicate heat balance of the storm. 

Some storms seem to respond quickly, dropping wind speeds by as much as 30 percent. But other tests have no effect at all. The government eventually closes down the project in the 1980s, once again declaring the results inconclusive. But the seeding project yields other helpful data for better understanding hurricane formation and the forces that drive them. 

CLIP: Through these experiments Project Stormfury hopes to improve our understanding and structure and the driving forces of hurricanes and tropical storms…

Next, a daring escape from East Germany 40 years ago this week. 

GERMAN NEWSCAST: Die seit vielen Jahren abenteuerlichste Flucht aus der DDR…

The news anchor says: “Last night, two couples with their children succeeded in a most adventurous escape from the GDR. They crossed the border in a homemade hot air balloon…”

Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel work together in a plastics factory. They spend hours dreaming of ways to escape East Germany. They eventually land on the idea of a hot air balloon.

They figure they need about 800 square meters of fabric—an impossible task in their small town. So in 1978 they purchase the supplies in a city 30 miles away, telling the astonished clerk it’s for their “tenting club.” After weeks of sewing and construction, they discover the material is too porous and must begin again. 

They craft the second balloon from umbrella fabric. This time they discover their burner isn’t powerful enough to super-heat the air. One of the men abandons the idea and starts designing a light-aircraft instead. But his friend keeps tinkering with the balloon. 

A few weeks later, he tests the improved burner with just his family. The balloon reaches 6,000 feet, enters a cloud, cools rapidly, and crashes near a restricted area. The family escapes without detection, but the balloon is discovered and a government manhunt begins for the perpetrators. 

The two families decide to try once more. This time, doubling the size of the balloon. They purchase the material in small amounts all around the country to avoid suspicion. 

In the early morning hours of September 16th, 1979, eight people climb aboard a make-shift gondola—a steel plate surrounded by iron rods and clothesline. Four propane tanks fill the center, so the four children and four adults hug the edges of the platform. 

Within minutes they reach an altitude of 6,600 feet. The air temperature is 18 degrees Fahrenheit and the families have no protection from the elements. 

The balloon seams begin splitting from too much internal pressure. The escaping air means they have to burn more fuel to stay afloat—cutting their available flight time. 

The 28-minute flight brings them into West Germany and freedom. They crash near the town of Naila where local officials welcome them.

After the escape, East Germany immediately increases border security. The government tightly regulates propane tanks. They shut down all small airstrips near the border. And large quantities of fabric are no longer available for purchase. One family remains in Naila. After reunification, the other family moves back to the hometown they left behind. 

HOME VIDEO OF MUSEUM: That’s it. That’s the gondola.

The balloon is now on permanent display in a three story Bavarian museum. 

Disney released a rather lack-luster version of the story in 1982. 

NIGHT CROSSING: The true story of a courageous attempt to ride the wind to freedom…

And a German studio released it as a thriller last year, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of reunification. 

That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book, I’m Paul Butler.

(Photo/NOAA Photo Library)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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