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(David Povilaitis)

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

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ON A MILD SPRING DAY IN LATE MAY 1987, military analyst John Pike was at the U.S. embassy in Moscow on business when he looked out the window and saw a small airplane circling over Red Square. Gee, that’s peculiar, thought Pike. There’s no private aviation in the Soviet Union. Hell, there’s no private anything.

The aircraft belonged to West German teenager Mathias Rust—or, more accurately, to Rust’s flying club. In a daring attempt to ease cold war tensions, the 19-year-old amateur pilot had flown a single-engine Cessna nearly 550 miles from Helsinki to the center of Moscow—probably the most heavily defended city on the planet—and parked it at the base of St. Basil’s Cathedral, within spitting distance of Lenin’s tomb. Newspapers dubbed the pilot “the new Red Baron” and the “Don Quixote of the skies.” The stunt became one of the most talked-about aviation feats in history. But it was politics, not fame, that motivated Rust.

There is nothing in Rust’s neat two-bedroom apartment outside Berlin—no mementos, no photographs, no framed newspaper headlines—nothing at all to indicate that for a few short weeks 18 years ago he was the most famous pilot in the world. But the memory of the flight has stayed fresh. “It seems like it happened yesterday,” says Rust, now 36. “It’s alive in me.”

As a child in Hamburg, Rust had been preoccupied by two things: flying and nuclear Armageddon. Belligerence and distrust marked East-West relations of the time. U.S. President Ronald Reagan seemed to be on a personal crusade against the Soviet Union. Many Germans were on edge. “There was a real sense of fear,” Rust says, “because if there was a conflict, we all knew we would be the first to be hit.”

To many Europeans, Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascendancy to the Soviet leadership in 1985 offered a glimmer of hope. Glasnost, his policy of transparency in government, and perestroika, economic reforms at home, were radical departures from the policies of his predecessors. So when the U.S.-Soviet summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986 ended without an arms reduction deal, Rust felt despair. He was particularly angered by Reagan’s reflexive mistrust of the Soviet Union, which Rust felt had blinded the president to the historic opportunity Gorbachev presented.

Rust decided he must do something—something big. He settled on the idea of building an “imaginary bridge” by flying to Moscow. If he could reach the Soviet capital, if he could “pass through the Iron Curtain without being intercepted, it would show that Gorbachev was serious about new relations with the West,” says Rust. “How would Reagan continue to say it was the ‘Empire of Evil’ if me, in a small aircraft, can go straight there and be unharmed?” Rust also prepared a 20-page manifesto he planned to deliver to Gorbachev on how to advance world peace.

Rust had taken his first flying lessons only a couple of years before his decision to fly to Moscow. A data processor at a mail-order trinket company, he spent all of his money (and some of his parents’) flying. But by the spring of 1987, he had barely 50 hours of licensed flight time, and had completed just a handful of cross-country trips.

“I thought my chances of actually getting to Moscow were about 50-50,” Rust says, noting that in 1983, the Soviets blew Korean Airlines flight 007 out of the sky after it strayed into Soviet airspace near the Kamchatka Peninsula; all 269 persons aboard were killed. “But I was convinced I was doing the right thing—I just had to dare to do it.”

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].”

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