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 3 of 8)
At the Tampere air traffic control facility in Finland, controllers noticed Rust’s near-180-degree change of course. As the radar blip headed south and then east across the water, passing through restricted Finnish military airspace, controllers tried to contact him and failed. At about 1 p.m., Rust’s airplane disappeared from radar screens. Fifteen minutes later, a helicopter pilot radioed that he spotted an oil slick and some debris on the water near where Rust’s airplane was last detected. A search-and-rescue operation was activated—only to be called off when news of Rust’s landing reached Finland. (Years later Finnish aviation authorities investigated a series of incidents in which airliners mysteriously disappeared from Tampere radar screens while in the same area.)
Meanwhile, at a radar station in Skrunda, now in the independent state of Latvia, Soviet military personnel were also tracking Rust. All foreign aircraft flying into the Soviet Union were required to get a permit and to fly along designated corridors, and Rust’s was not an approved flight. As the unidentified aircraft neared the coastline at around 2:10 p.m. Moscow time (an hour ahead of Helsinki), three missile units were put on alert.
From Helsinki, Rust’s flight plan was simple: Turn to a heading of 117 degrees and hold course. As he crossed his first waypoint, the Sillamyae radio beacon near Kohtla-Jarve, on the coast of the now-independent state of Estonia, he climbed to 2,500 feet above sea level, a standard altitude for cross-country flight, which would keep him about 1,000 feet above the ground for the entire route. He trimmed the airplane out and flew straight and level. He also put on his crash helmet. “The whole time I was just sitting in the aircraft, focusing on the dials,” says Rust. “It felt like I wasn’t really doing it.”
Soviet controllers continued to monitor the unidentified airplane’s progress. Now that it was well inland, army units in the area were put on high alert and two fighter-interceptors at nearby Tapa air base were scrambled to investigate. Peering through a hole in the low clouds, one of the pilots reported seeing an airplane that looked similar to a Yak-12, a single-engine, high-wing Soviet sports airplane that from a distance looks very similar to a Cessna. The fighter pilot, or his commander on the ground, perhaps thinking the airplane must have had permission to be there, or didn’t pose any threat, decided the airplane did not require a closer inspection.
Not long after being seen by the Soviet fighter pilot, Rust descended in order to avoid some low clouds and icing. For a brief period, his blip disappeared from Soviet radar screens. Once the weather cleared, Rust climbed back to 2,500 feet, and an image of the unidentified airplane appeared on the radar screen in a new sector, one whose commander ordered two more fighter-interceptors to investigate.
Now nearly two hours into his flight, Rust says the sun was shining when he saw “a black shadow shooting in the sky and then disappear.” A few moments later, from out of a layer of clouds in front of him, an aircraft appeared. “It was coming at me very fast, and dead-on,” Rust recalls. “And it went whoosh!—right over me.
“I remember how my heart felt, beating very fast,” he continues. “This was exactly the moment when you start to ask yourself: Is this when they shoot you down?”
From below and to the left, a Soviet MiG-23 fighter-interceptor pulled up beside him. With nearly three times the wingspan and more than 10 times the weight of Rust’s Cessna, the MiG seemed huge. Designed to fly at more than twice the speed of sound, the swing-wing fighter had to be put into full landing configuration—gear and flaps extended, wings swung outward—in order to slow it enough to fly alongside the Cessna. Its nose rode high as it hovered at the edge of a stall.