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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.

By 4 p.m., Rust crossed radar sectors near Lake Seliger, a popular summer retreat near the town of Kushinovo, about 230 miles from Moscow. As the radar return for the Cessna popped up on a new set of radar screens, controllers once again took note of the unidentified aircraft. Once again a pair of fighter-interceptors was launched to investigate, but according to a Russian report on Rust’s flight, commanders considered it too dangerous for the airplanes to descend through the low cloud deck, so visual contact was never made. Rust was now a little more than two and a half hours away from his destination.

About 40 miles west of the city of Torzhok, another radar controller saw the signal for Rust’s airplane and assumed it was one of two helicopters that had been performing search-and-rescue operations nearby. On his radar screen, he flagged it as such, and once again Rust’s airplane was marked as a “friendly.”

Rust flew on, leaving the Leningrad military district and entering that of Moscow. In the handoff report, the Leningrad commander related to his Moscow counterpart that his controllers had been tracking a Soviet airplane flying without its transponder turned on. But the report said nothing about tracking an unidentified airplane from the Gulf of Finland, nothing about fighter-interceptors intercepting a West German aircraft, and nothing about an unidentified aircraft on a steady course to Moscow. As such, the report set off no alarms.

For Rust, the flight was going flawlessly. He had no problem identifying the landmarks he had chosen as waypoints, and he was confident that his goal was within reach. “I had a sense of peace,” he says. “Everything was calm and in order.” He passed the outermost belt of Moscow’s vaunted “Ring of Steel,” an elaborate network of anti-aircraft defenses that since the 1950s had been built up as a response to the threat of U.S. bombers. The rings of missile placements circled the city at distances of about 10, 25, and 45 nautical miles, but were not designed to fend off a single, slow-flying Cessna.

At just after 6 p.m., Rust reached the outskirts of Moscow. The city’s airspace was restricted, with all overflights—both military and civilian—prohibited. At about this time, Soviet investigators would later tell Rust, radar controllers realized something was terribly wrong, but it was too late for them to act.

As Rust made his way over the city, he removed his helmet and began to search for Red Square. Unlike many western cities, Moscow has no skyline of glittering office towers that Rust could see and head for. Unsure where to go, Rust headed from building to building. “As I maneuvered around, I sort of narrowed in on the core of the city,” he says. Then he saw it: the distinctive turreted wall surrounding the Kremlin. Turning toward it, Rust began to descend and look for a place to land.

“At first, I thought maybe I should land inside the Kremlin wall, but then I realized that although there was plenty of space, I wasn’t sure what the KGB might do with me,” he remembers. “If I landed inside the wall, only a few people would see me, and they could just take me away and deny the whole thing. But if I landed in the square, plenty of people would see me, and the KGB couldn’t just arrest me and lie about it. So it was for my own security that I dropped that idea.”

As he circled, Rust noticed that between the Kremlin wall and the Hotel Russia, a bridge with a road crossed the Moscow River and led into Red Square. The bridge was about six lanes wide and traffic was light. The only obstacles were wires strung over each end of the bridge and at its middle. Rust figured there was enough space to come in over the first set of wires, drop down, land, and then taxi under the other wires and into the square.

Rust came in steeply, with full flaps, his engine idling. As planned, he came in over the first set of wires, dropped down, and flared for landing. As he rolled out under the middle set of wires, Rust noticed an old Volga automobile in front of him. “I moved to the left to pass him,” Rust says, “and as I did I looked and saw this old man with this look on his face like he could not believe what he was seeing. I just hoped he wouldn’t panic and lose control of the car and hit me.”

Rust passed under the last set of wires and rolled onto the square. Slowing, he looked for a place to park. He wanted to pull the airplane into the middle of the square, in front of Lenin’s tomb. But surrounding St. Basil’s Cathedral was a small fence with a chain strung across it that blocked his way. Rust pulled up in front of the church.

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