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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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He shut down the engine, then closed his eyes for a moment and sucked in a deep breath. “I remember this great feeling of relief, like I had gotten this big load off my back.” He looked at the Kremlin clock tower. It was 6:43 p.m., almost five and a half hours since he’d left Helsinki.

He got out of the Cessna. Expecting to be stormed by hordes of troops and KGB agents, Rust leaned against the aircraft and waited. The people in Red Square seemed nervous or stunned, not sure what was going on. Some thought Rust’s airplane might be Gorbachev’s private aircraft, or that it was all part of a movie production. But once the crowd realized that Rust and the Cessna were foreign—and that he’d just pulled off one of the most sensational exploits they had ever witnessed—they drew closer.

“A big crowd had formed around me,” Rust says. “People were smiling and coming up to shake my hand or ask for autographs. There was a young Russian guy who spoke English. He asked me where I came from. I told him I came from the West and wanted to talk to Gorbachev to deliver this peace message that would [help Gorbachev] convince everybody in the West that he had a new approach.”

The atmosphere was festive. One woman gave him a piece of bread as a sign of friendship. According to Rust, an army cadet told him that “he admired my initiative, but that I should have applied for a visa and made an appointment with Gorbachev—but he agreed that they most likely would not have let me.”

Rust did not notice that KGB agents were moving through the crowd, interviewing people and confiscating cameras and notebooks. More than an hour after the landing, two truckloads of armed soldiers arrived and roughly shoved the crowd away. They also put up barriers around the airplane.

Three men emerged from a black sedan and introduced themselves. The youngest, an interpreter, politely asked for Rust’s passport and whether he was carrying any weapons. They then asked to inspect the aircraft. After a few more questions, they asked Rust to get into the car. The mood, Rust says, was still very friendly, almost mirthful. The Cessna was hauled to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport and disassembled for inspection. Rust was taken to Lefortovo prison, a notorious complex the KGB used to hold political prisoners.

Given the level of planning put into the flight, as well as the number of obstacles that had apparently been overcome, the Soviets could not believe that this was the work of one man, much less an idealistic boy. Investigators believed Rust’s journey was part of a much larger plot. Take the date itself, May 28. It was Border Guards Day. Many speculated Rust chose that day thinking the border would be more lightly defended, or perhaps to maximize the embarrassment the flight would cause the military. “I didn’t know about it,” Rust says. “I said, ‘I’m a West German. How should I know about your holidays?’ It was just a lucky circumstance.” His interrogators also accused him of obtaining maps from the CIA or the German military, but when the Soviet consul general in Hamburg was able to obtain the same maps from a mail order company, as Rust had, the interrogators relented.

Rust’s investigators showed him photographs of the bridge he’d landed on. In the photos, many sets of wires stretched across the bridge, each about six feet apart. They asked Rust how he could possibly land with so many wires in his way. Perplexed himself, Rust explained that when he landed he could see only three sets of wires. Upon further investigation, the Soviets learned that the morning of the day Rust landed, a public works crew had removed most of the wires for maintenance; they were replaced the next day. “They said I must have been born with a shirt”—a Russian expression meaning born lucky.

One German periodical published a story saying Rust did the stunt on a bet. Another reported that he did it to impress a girl. Yet another said he did it in order to drop leaflets seeking to free nonagenarian Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s lieutenant, from jail. The Communist newspaper Pravda accused Rust of being a patsy in an international plot in which he was supposed to have been shot down and killed in order to provoke an international incident. However ridiculous the rumors were, the Soviets methodically looked into every allegation.

On June 23, 1987, the Soviets completed their investigation. Shortly afterward, prosecutors charged Rust with illegal entry, violation of flight laws, and “malicious hooliganism.” Rust pleaded guilty to all but the last charge. There was, he argued, nothing malicious in his intentions.

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