Matthias Rust’s Daring Flight

Throughout the most of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was deemed to have been surrounded by an impenetrable airspace. There was that U2 incident in 1960, and in 1983, a civilian airliner was shot down for failing to respond to Soviet interceptors. But on May 28, 1987, this myth of Soviet might would be challenged by a West German teenager.

Matthais Rust spent his allowances to take 50 hours worth of flying lessons before embarking on an unauthorized flight from Helsinki to the heart of Moscow. Rust was picked up by radar. A Soviet fighter jet was in pursuit, but it could only communicate on military frequencies that Rust’s Cessna couldn’t receive. The Soviets assumed that he was either on a search-and-rescue mission or a student pilot. Six hours later, he made it to Moscow, and decided to land just outside the Kremlin walls. (He worried that if he had landed inside, the Soviets would arrest him and deny the whole thing). He landed by St. Basil’s Cathedral and taxied into the Red Square. Although he mingled with the people there–who thought he was part of an airshow–the KGB was also on spot to arrest him.

For violation of the Soviet airspace and oddly enough, hooliganism, Rust was put on trial. He served 432 days of his four-year sentence. The boy whom the media called “the new Red Baron” or “Don Quixote of the skies” never flew again. Inside the Kremlin walls, Mikhail Gorbechev would use the incident to shake up the Soviet military industrial complex and sack his top-brass. Looking back on it, Rust’s escapade was historic. His landing in Red Square was an unignorable symbol, the writing on the wall, a sign that the all-powerful Soviet Union was no longer fully in control. At the time, however, no one recognized its significance.