Imagine standing on Moscow’s red square in 1987, the time of the cold war, the iron curtain and a very inaccessible USSR / Soviet Union. And imagine seeing a plane passing just 10 meter above your head before it lands in front of the Kremlin on Russia’s most famous square. This is exaclty what German teenager Matthias Rust, who was just 18 years old at the time, accomplished on the 28th of May 1987.
It was some time after a summit between the US and Soviet presidents in Reykjavik had ended in a stalemate, and Matthias who had a passion for politics, felt he wanted to do something to make a difference. “I was thinking I could use an aircraft to build an imaginary bridge between West and East to show that a lot of people in Europe wanted to improve relations between our worlds.”
Rust was an inexperienced pilot with only 50 hours of flying experience when on May 13 he told his parents he was going to tour northern Europe in a rented Cessna airplane, in order to clock up hours towards his professional pilot’s licence.
His first stop was in the Shetland Islands, before advancing to the Faroe Islands where he spent a night each.
Next stop was the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, where he visited Hofdi House, the site of the unsuccessful talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. After that he flew to Bergen in Norway before he arrived in the Finnish capital, Helsinki on May 25.
He spent several days there trying to decide if he really had the courage to go through with his plan. He had good reason to be nervous, as the USSR had the largest air defence system in the world. Less than five years earlier, a South Korean civilian airliner had been shot down after straying into Soviet air space, causing the death of all 269 passengers on board.
In the morning of May 28, 1987, Rust refueled at Helsinki-Malmi Airport. He told air traffic control that he was going to Stockholm, and took off at 12:21pm. However, right after his final communication with traffic control he turned his plane to the east. Air traffic controllers tried to contact him as he was moving around the busy Helsinki–Moscow route, but Rust turned off all communications equipment aboard. Within minutes he had been picked up by Soviet radar, and less than an hour later a MiG fighter jet approached him.Rust was terrified, but instead of attacking him, the jet passed by and disappeared into the clouds.
A combination of unbelievable luck and human error had led to Rust’s plane being mistaken for a friendly aircraft. A plane crash the previous day, and an ongoing rescue operation, along with training for new pilots had led to confusion in the air and in control centres.
When Rust finally saw the spires and domes of Moscow’s red square buildings his relief quickly faded when he saw that an overcrowded Red Square full of people was going to make his landing there very difficult.On the ground, Soviet citizens were stopping and looked up in amazement as the small white plane circled just 30 ft (10m) above the ground.
In the end, Rust spotted a four-lane bridge next to St Basil’s Cathedral so he circled around one more time and touched down there. At around 7pm, just as the sun was going down, Rust taxied his plane into the square and climbed out of the cockpit to greet the curious onlookers which had gathered around him. Two hours later Rust got arrested.
In the Kremlin there was shock and plenty of red faces as the full extent of the humiliating incident became apparent. For President Gorbachev however it turned into a golden opportunity to rid himself of military officials whom he saw as standing in the way of his reforms. Within a couple of days the minister of defence had been forced to retire, and the head of the air defence services had been sacked. Over the next few months more than 150 people lost their jobs.
Rust was charged and pleaded guilty to violating international flight rules and illegally crossing the Soviet border and got sentenced him to four years in a labour camp.
Then in 1988, following the signing of a non-proliferation treaty by Reagan and Gorbachev, Rust was released as a gesture of goodwill after serving only 14 months.
Rust’s flight was seen as so incredible to Muscovites that it wormed its way into popular culture. For a while Red Square was jokingly referred to as Sheremetyevo-3 after Sheremetyevo-1 and -2 which are airports near Moscow.
Kickass stuff indeed!