Like a champion, Robert Gutyra fled with his family behind the Iron Curtain in a hot air balloon

Like a champion, Robert Gutyra fled with his family behind the Iron Curtain in a hot air balloon

Categories: History

It was very difficult to leave the countries of the socialist camp at the height of the Cold War. Almost always, escaping to the West was associated with a risk to life. Some made their way across the border through forests, others climbed over the Berlin Wall, and there were those who braved the ocean. The story of cyclist from Czechoslovakia Robert Gutyra is special. He left the “socialist paradise” in a hot air balloon, taking his wife and children with him.

Like a champion, Robert Gutyra fled with his family behind the Iron Curtain in a hot air balloon

Robert Gutyra is an unusual person. He was born in a remote village and made a difficult journey from a provincial cycling enthusiast to the highest sports titles. In 1970, Gutyra became the champion of Czechoslovakia and was invited to train athletes in Canada. It is from this moment that the exciting escape story begins, which seems completely fantastic.

Like a champion, Robert Gutyra fled with his family behind the Iron Curtain in a hot air balloon

At first everything went smoothly for Robert. He submitted documents to leave the country and expected a positive response. But a letter from government officials pulled the rug out from under our feet. Gutyra was denied a trip abroad without bothering to explain the reason. The desperate athlete, who already had tickets in hand, pretended that he had not received a ban. He safely went to Canada and worked there for some time under a contract.

But when the cyclist returned to Czechoslovakia, his passport was taken away and he was banned from participating in international competitions. Gutyra had a hard time - in order to feed his wife and two children, the national champion got a job as a construction worker. Another blow was the refusal of his daughter to enter a good school. They decided that the daughter of an unreliable father had no place in a prestigious educational institution.

This incident firmly convinced the athlete that he needed to flee the country at any cost. Robert Gutyra lived in Bratislava, where it was difficult to catch Western radio stations. From their broadcasts, he learned that two families fled from the GDR to the Federal Republic of Germany in a hot air balloon. This method seemed the only suitable one in his case.

Like a champion, Robert Gutyra fled with his family behind the Iron Curtain in a hot air balloon

The closest capitalist country, Austria, was at that time separated from Czechoslovakia by a carefully guarded border. An electric fence ran along its entire length, and the border guards did not hesitate to open fire on the violators. The method of escaping in a hot air balloon seemed quite feasible to Gutyra. But he knew absolutely nothing about lighter-than-air vehicles.

But there was no way out and Robert began to study. He read books on aeronautics in the library, disguising specialized literature with other publications. Unfortunately, there was no place to see the balloon and touch it with your hands. But Gutyrya went to the cinema ten times to see a film where they briefly showed the gas burner of a hot air balloon. Thanks to perseverance and observation, the man managed to obtain a lot of important information.

There was one more problem. In Czechoslovakia it was not so easy to get materials for the construction of a hot air balloon. The fabric for the aircraft had to be purchased from a raincoat factory. Gutyra pretended to be a coach of the boat section, busy setting up a sports station. But the first attempt was unsuccessful. Therefore, a new problem arose - what to do with the brainchild that did not live up to expectations.

Like a champion, Robert Gutyra fled with his family behind the Iron Curtain in a hot air balloon

It was impossible to just throw away the balloon. So Robert had to cut it into pieces and gradually burn it. A product that cost as much as a car, and on which so many hopes were pinned, was simply burning in a fire in the backyard of the house. But the champion was not going to back down and started all over again.

Robert's wife, Jan, helped him make a new model of the ball. She sewed strips of fabric on a sewing machine installed in the basement. The second aircraft turned out to be huge - 20 meters high and about 17 meters wide. Gutyra made a special basket reinforced at the bottom with a steel plate. She was supposed to protect the fugitives in case the border guards started shooting at the ball.

The escape was planned on the night of September 7-8, 1983. The children learned about their parents' plans only two days before the flight. The husband and wife told their family and friends that they were going on vacation. The day before, Robert transported the balloon piece by piece to a secluded place located 6 km from the border. At the appointed time, at night, 39-year-old Robert, his 36-year-old wife, 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son took a place in the basket and lifted the ball into the air.

Like a champion, Robert Gutyra fled with his family behind the Iron Curtain in a hot air balloon

They had to leave everything. The balloon's modest-sized gondola accommodated passengers, two bags with the most necessary things and a racing bicycle. Fortune was favorable to the fugitives. They started unnoticed by anyone and approached the border. The border guards saw a glow from the burner in the night sky, but did not understand what it was. They started firing flares, but they couldn't see the ball.

During a risky flight, an accident occurred that almost derailed everything. The gas cylinder feeding the burner suddenly stopped working. Fortunately, Robert managed to connect a spare one and the balloon did not lose altitude. But even leaving the border behind, the travelers were not safe. They flew in complete darkness over unfamiliar terrain. Robert did not see where he could land the device and was afraid of colliding with power lines or buildings.

But everything went well. The landing was hard and the balloon's passengers were thrown out of the basket when it hit the ground. But everyone escaped with only bruises and immediately continued on foot. Soon the family reached the small village of Falkenstein and surrendered to the local authorities.

Like a champion, Robert Gutyra fled with his family behind the Iron Curtain in a hot air balloon

Years later, Robert Gutyra said that he never regretted his decision. The further life of the champion’s family turned out simply wonderful. They emigrated to the USA and started everything from scratch. Robert did not return to big-time sports - his time had passed. But he did not regret it and devoted his life to his second profession - construction. Overseas, he and his family demonstrated hot air balloon flight several times. Now the homemade aircraft is in the Berlin Wall Museum in Germany.

Years later, Robert Gutyra returned to his homeland in Slovakia. He settled in the city of Luhačovice and opened his own business. The brave athlete died on April 21, 2021 at the age of 77.

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