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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 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.”

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.

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