Up, Up and No Way: That Time Charles Manson Tried to Escape by Hot Air Balloon

August 07, 2017
By: Mike McPadden

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Photo by: LAPD/Pixabay


VACAVILLE, CA — Since being convicted in the wake of the 1969 TateLaBianca massacres, infamous homicidal hippie cult leader Charles Manson has been cited and punished more than 100 times for serious behavioral infractions.

One such incident, at the maximum security California Medical Facility in November 1982, may have proven to be potentially full of gas, but Charlie never got it off the ground.

It was then that authorities discovered Manson’s secret stash of a hacksaw blade, a “prison-fashioned” metal shank, 100 feet of nylon rope, and a catalog for ordering hot-air balloons.

Yes, Charles Manson apparently had been planning to escape from prison by soaring through the skies. The marijuana and LSD that searchers also turned up may well have been fueling this particular flight of fancy.

A guard initially suspected something was afoot when he noticed the door to the institution’s Protestant chapel had been bound shut with an electrical cord. After removing the cord, the guard found Manson inside, conspiring with three other inmates.

Solitary confinement subsequently grounded all four would-be fly-boys.

Manson’s airborne jailbreak ambition was not without precedent. Most famously, in 1979, the Strelzyk and Wetzel families managed to pilot a hot air balloon over the Berlin Wall to shake off the shackles of East German Communist oppression.

In fact, that saga served as the basis for Night Crossing (1982), a big-screen adventure that hit theaters just a few months before Charlie’s gravity-defying dreams got popped.

Other notable true-life balloon escapes similarly burst before takeoff.

In 1939, Canadian forces locked up Karl Rabe, a German U-Boat crew member, at their Lethbridge Internment Camp. Among Rabe’s four impressive tries to break free, he came closest by sewing together sleeping bags into a 24×10-foot balloon, but it failed to launch due to his use of incorrect gas to inflate it.

More recently, Greek crime boss Panayiotis Vlastos got shot and wounded during a dramatic 2013 escape gambit involving a helicopter, which he set up only after concluding that his original ideas regarding a hot-air balloon seemed too risky.

In 2014, a hot-air balloon made an emergency landing in the parking lot of Oregon’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. The device’s sudden appearance led to an immediate lockdown of inmates at the women’s prison over fears that a getaway caper was in motion. No one was injured.

Alas, balloon bust-outs from lock-up may be best left to the movies. For example, Gene Hackman, as arch-villain Lex Luthor, lifts off to liberty that way in Superman II (1981).

More in keeping with Charles Manson’s overall milieu, though, is the insane psychedelic comedy Skidoo (1968), in which Jackie Gleason takes LSD in his jail cell before turning a trashcan and a freezer bag into a balloon that he successfully sails through the air onto Groucho Marx’s yacht, where they smoke pot.

We can only wonder if Charles Manson ever caught that flick.

Watch Investigation Discovery’s Manson: The Prison Tapes on ID GO now!

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