The Notorious Flight of Mathias Rust
Ronald Reagan was president, there was still a Soviet Union, and a 19-year-old pilot set out to change the world.
- By Tom LeCompte
- Air & Space magazine, July 2005
(Page 2 of 8)
To prepare himself for his mission, he planned a practice flight to Reykjavik, the site of the doomed arms talks. It would be “a long time flying over open water with very little navigation aids,” says Rust. “I figured if I succeeded, I would be able to cope with the pressure of flying to Moscow.”
Rust meticulously planned his route and signed out a 1980 Cessna Skyhawk 172 from his flying club for three weeks. The four-seat airplane was equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks that boosted the aircraft’s range by 175 nautical miles to 750 nautical miles—range he would need in order to safely reach Reykjavik, and later Moscow. The club didn’t ask him where he was going, and Rust didn’t say. He packed a small suitcase, a satchel with maps and flight planning supplies, a sleeping bag, 15 quarts of engine oil, and a life vest. As a final precaution, Rust packed a motorcycle crash helmet. The helmet was for his final leg to Moscow, “because I didn’t know what [the Soviets] would do, and if I was forced down it would give me extra protection [in case of a crash].”
On May 13, 1987, Rust took off from Uetersen Airfield, outside Hamburg, and flew for five hours across the Baltic and North seas before reaching the Shetland Islands. The next day he flew to Vagar, on Denmark’s Faröe Islands, in the middle of the north Atlantic. On May 15 he flew to Reykjavik.
Rust spent a week in the Icelandic capital. He visited Hofdi House, the white villa that was the site of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. “It was locked,” Rust says, “but I felt I got in touch with the spirit of the place. I was so emotionally involved then and was so disappointed with the failure of the summit and my failure to get there the previous autumn. So it gave me motivation to continue.”
On May 22, Rust set out for Finland by way of Hofn, Iceland; the Shetlands; and Bergen, Norway. He landed at Malmi airport in Helsinki on May 25. Since leaving Hamburg, he had covered nearly 2,600 miles and had doubled his total flight time to more than 100 hours. He had proven to himself he had the flying skills he needed, but he still had doubts about his nerve. His resolve constantly wavered: Yes, it was something he had to do/No, it was crazy.
The night of May 27 was a restless one for Rust. In the morning he drove to the airport, fueled the Cessna, checked the weather, and filed a flight plan for Stockholm (“My alternate if I chickened out,” he says), a two-hour trip to the southwest.
At about 12:21 p.m., Rust took off. Controllers at Malmi had him turn west toward Stockholm, asking him to keep the airplane low to avoid traffic. Although the Cessna was equipped with a transponder, a device that transmits a response to radar interrogation and thus helps to identify an aircraft, Helsinki controllers didn’t assign him a setting, so he turned the device off—the controllers would track Rust’s airplane by the reflection of radar signals off its metal skin. Rust held course for about 20 minutes, at which point controllers radioed to say he was leaving their control area. Rust thanked them and said goodbye.
He continued toward Stockholm for several minutes; then, as he closed in on his first waypoint, near the Finnish town of Nummela, he chose. “All of a sudden, I just turned the airplane to the left [toward Moscow],” he says. “It wasn’t really even a decision…. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t excited. It was almost like the airplane was on autopilot. I just turned and headed straight across [the Gulf of Finland] to the border.”