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In 1987, a German teenager and novice pilot named Mathias Rust set out on a two-week flight where he visited several countries in Europe.
What was remarkable about the flight wasn’t the age of the pilot or the distance he traveled. The reason people still remember it is where he ended up.
Learn more about The Highly Improbable Flight of Mathias Rust and what happened in its aftermath, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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1987 was a pivotal year in the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was in the waning years of his presidency and the new Soviet General Secretary was Mikhail Gorbachev, who still didn’t have a solid grip on power.
Both sides were still at a very high level of tension and alert with thousands of missiles pointed at each other and soldiers on watch 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, looking to detect the slightest intrusion of sovereign air space.
This was the state of the world when Mathias Rust was 19 years old. He lived in the small town of Wedel, West Germany which was located on the Elbe River, just outside the city of Hamburg.
He had taken an interest in flying and had taken flying lessons to become a pilot. He had logged 50 hours of flight time, which was just enough to get a pilot’s license, but not really enough to be considered an experienced pilot.
In May of 1987, Mathias told his parents he wanted to do a tour of Northern European countries to log more experience towards getting his professional pilot’s license. It was an ambitious project for someone still in his teens and with only 50 hours of flight experience, but it wasn’t totally crazy either.
He rented a small Cessna aircraft from a local flying club that had the back seats taken out and replaced with fuel tanks to extend the range of the plane.
On May 13 he set out and did exactly what he said he was going to do. From Hamburg, he first flew northwest to the Faroe Islands, located roughly midway between Scotland and Iceland.
From there he continued to fly northwest to Reykjavik, Iceland. Here he visited the Höfði House which was where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had met the year before.
From Iceland, he flew to Bergan, Norway, and then to Helsinki, Finland.
He had been on his flying trip for a little over 2 weeks at this point. He had now doubled his flying time to 100 hours and had flown several challenging routes over open water.
On May 28, at 12:21 pm, he left Helsinki and told flight control that he was heading to Stockholm.
However, he didn’t go to Stockholm.
About 20 minutes into his flight, once he passed the Finnish city of Nummela, which was northwest of Helsinki, Mathias turned the plane to the left and started heading east.
As he left the Helsinki air control area, he thanked the air controllers and then turned off his transponder and communications.
Mathias was going to Moscow.
The idea of flying to Moscow had been in the back of his mind ever since he started his trip. He had proven he could fly the distance from the earlier stops on his trip and his plane had enough fuel.
However, until the last minute, he didn’t know if he was going to actually follow through with the plan.
He envisioned some grand gesture in the name of world peace where he and his plane would create an “imaginary bridge” from west to east.
When the Finnish air control lost track of him, they initially thought he had must have crashed. The Finnish coast guard was sent out, and they actually found an oil slick which they assumed was caused by his plane, but they could find no other evidence.
Mathias and his Cessna kept heading towards Soviet Airspace over the Baltic Sea.
I should note that it was only five years previously that the Soviets shot down a Korean Airlines passenger jet full of people for violating their airspace. The Soviets didn’t mess around.
..and they knew he was coming.
Soviet air defenses clearly saw him on their radar.
The Soviet 54th Air Defence Corps, which managed the surface to air missiles in the region was the first to start tracking him.
They tried to identify the aircraft using a military IFF system. IFF stands for “identify friend or foe”, but his plane wasn’t responding to it.
Two MIG-23 jet fighters were sent to intercept the plane. They reported that the plane looked like a Yak-12, which was a Soviet training aircraft that sort of looked like a Cessna.
The fighters ask to engage the aircraft, but their request was denied.
The fighters actually flew alongside the Cessna and had to lower their landing gear in order to fly slow enough.
It turns out they tried to contact him via radio, but they were using higher frequency military bands which Mathias didn’t have in his plane.
He briefly dipped down to a lower altitude to avoid icing and was lost by Soviet radar.
He reappeared in a different Soviet air control zone, and luck was on his side. There had been a plane crash the day before. Radar operators assumed he was a rescue helicopter, and people who identified the plane just thought it was a Soviet training aircraft.
The funny thing was, his plane had a West German identification number on the side as well as a West German flag.
He eventually made it all the way to Moscow. His first plan was to land inside the Kremlin, but given the walls of the Kremlin, he could be arrested and the whole incident covered up.
So, he decided to land right in Red Square.
He circled several times trying to get people to clear out so he could land, but no one was moving, so he decided to land on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge which is right next to St. Basil’s Cathedral.
His landing couldn’t be hidden. A British doctor in Red Square managed to capture it on video. It was clearly seen by people in the American embassy.
When the plane came to a stop, he was surrounded by people, some of who asked him for his autograph. When they asked him where he was from, they were shocked when he told them, West Germany.
According to Rust himself, “People were smiling and coming up to shake my hand or ask for autographs. There was a young Russian guy who spoke English. He asked me where I came from. I told him I came from the West and wanted to talk to Gorbachev to deliver this peace message that would [help Gorbachev] convince everybody in the West that he had a new approach.”
The event became an international news story almost instantly. A teenager flying a small civilian aircraft managed to land in Red Square, right in the heart of Moscow. It would have been the equivalent of a Cuban pilot landing a plane on the Mall in Washington DC.
Needless to say, Mathias Rust was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for “hooliganism, for disregard of aviation laws, and for breaching the Soviet border.”
He was released after 14 months.
Most people who heard the story at the time thought of it as an odd and quirky incident. A few days after it was reported, the news cycle was on to something new.
However, to the Soviet military and to other international military observers, it was anything other than a quirky incident.
The 19-year-old German had embarrassed the vaunted Soviet air defense system.
The flight became the excuse Gorbachev needed to clean house in much of the Soviet military. Many military leaders were hardliners who were resistant to Gorbachev’s reforms.
Days after Rust’s landing, the Soviet Minister of Defense Sergei Sokolov, and the head of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, Alexander Koldunov, were both sacked.
Within weeks, hundreds of other officers had been fired or replaced.
It was reported to have been the largest purge of military personnel since Stalin.
For a while, locals in Moscow called Red Square Sheremetyevo-3. The joke is that Sheremetyevo 1 and 2 are local airports.
After Rust’s release and return to Germany, he wound up in trouble with the law several times. In 1989 he stabbed a female coworker who rejected his advanced and was in prison for 15 months. In 2001 he was arrested for shoplifting and in 2005 for fraud.
His pilot’s license was revoked when he returned to Germany and he has never flown again.
As for the plane, it was sold to a Japanese group, and in 2008 it was returned to Germany. Today it is on display at the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin.
The Perestroika and Glasnost reforms ushered in by Gorbachev played a vital role in the last years of the Soviet Union. Those reforms which played a huge part in the collapse of the Soviet Union were in no small part helped along by a Cessna flying West German teenager.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener CMA 8 over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
What an amazing thing! Freaking Amazing. Well done. Come to NYC and dinners on me. Thank you. Please keep making these and make as many as you can.
Thank you very much CMA 8. As long as people keep listening, I’ll keep making them.
By the way, I’ll be in New York in Midtown Manhattan from January 25 to the 28th. By the way, I like steak.
Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.