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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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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.

“I realized because they hadn’t shot me down yet that they wanted to check on what I was doing there,” Rust says. He kept watching the Soviet airplane, “but there was no sign, no signal from the pilot for me to follow him. Nothing.” Soviet investigators later told Rust that the MiG pilot attempted to reach Rust over the radio but there was no response. Only later did Rust realize that the Soviet fighter could only communicate over high-frequency military channels.

After the two pilots had eyed each other for a minute, the Soviet pilot retracted the jet’s gear and flaps. The MiG accelerated and peeled away, only to return and draw two long arcs around the Cessna at a distance of about a half-mile. Finally, it disappeared.

From both the registration number painted on the side of the airplane (D-ECJB) and the West German flag decal on its tail, the MiG-23 crew should have been able to tell that Rust’s aircraft was neither a Yak nor Soviet. Marshall Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of staff of all the Soviet armed forces, admitted in a 1990 interview cited in Don Oberdorfer’s book From the Cold War to the New Era that the fighter pilot’s commander either did not believe the pilot’s report or did not think it was significant, so the information was never passed up the chain of command.

At 3 p.m., with the weather improving, Rust entered a Soviet air force training zone where seven to 12 aircraft—all with performance characteristics and radar signatures similar to Rust’s—were being used in training exercises such as takeoffs and landings.

Rust’s altitude probably helped him appear harmless. Had he attempted to evade radar, as many later speculated he did, the Soviets likely would have taken more aggressive action to stop him, but even in that scenario, the Soviets’ options for dealing with him were fairly limited. Since the KAL 007 tragedy, strict orders were given that no hostile action be taken against civilian aircraft unless orders originated at the very highest levels of the Soviet military, and at that moment, Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov and other top military commanders were in East Berlin with Gorbachev for a meeting of Warsaw Pact states.

As a security procedure, Soviet radar has aircraft under its control regularly reset their transponder codes at prearranged times. If a pilot failed to make the switch, his airplane’s radar signature would look “friendly” one minute and “hostile” the next, after the ground had switched over. On the day of Rust’s flight, 3 p.m. was one of those times. As Rust proceeded, a commander looking over the shoulder of a radar operator—apparently thinking Rust’s radar return was that of a student pilot who had forgotten to make the transponder switch—ordered the officer to change the Cessna’s radar signature to “friendly.” “Otherwise we might shoot some of our own,” he explained.

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