The 1980s was a turbulent era of both hostility and reform for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. On its southern border, the Soviet Army was engaged in a war against an Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan, in 1983 the Soviet Air Force mistakenly shot down a South Korean airliner near Moneron Island resulting in the death of all 269 passengers and crew on board and the world had barely averted an outbreak of nuclear war in Europe following a mistake during Exercise Able Archer in West Germany. In the period from 1980 through 1987, the Soviet Union saw a change of leadership three times with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev dying in 1982 and being replaced by Yuri Andropov in 1982. Andropov would pass away in 1984 and be replaced by Konstantin Chernenko. Chernenko would pass away in 1985 and control of the Soviet Union was passed on to Mikhail Gorbachev.
The era was marked by intense belligerence and distrust between the nations of the West and the Soviet Union and her allies. American President Ronald Reagan had ramped up tensions with increased military procurement and anti-Soviet sentiment which thus put many people in Germany on edge. The threat of war loomed over Europe like never before. There was however a glimmer of hope for Europe, with the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev to the office of Premier of the Soviet Union. With his policies of Glasnost, Perestroika and economic reforms across the Soviet Union things were beginning to head in a different, generally new direction from that taken by former Soviet leaders. The world held its breath in hopes of an agreement towards the reduction of arms between the United States and Soviet Union held at Reykjavik, Iceland in October 1986. The summit ended without progress thus laying the framework for one of the most daring events of the Cold War.
A 19 year old West German named Mathias Rust, decided to take matters into his own hands and in turn change the course of world history. Rust who had grown up in Wedel near Hamburg, West Germany was an amateur pilot who like many Europeans felt despair in the failed attempt at Cold War rapprochement. Working as a data processor for a mail order trinket company, Rust invested much of his earnings into flying lessons. Aviation had long been a subject of interest for Rust since his childhood. After the US-Soviet summit in 1986 proved fruitless, Rust came up with the daring idea of creating an 'imaginary bridge' by flying directly to the Soviet capital of Moscow. He became obsessed with the idea of flying to Moscow and passing through the Iron Curtain without being intercepted to prove to the world that Gorbachev was serious about taking a new stance and establishing relations with the nations of the West. Once in Moscow, Rust planned to deliver a twenty page document he had prepared to Mikhail Gorbachev in an effort to advocate world peace.
The risks Mathias Rust would take were great, on 1 September 1983, a Soviet Air Force Sukhoi Su-15 Flagon interceptor had shotdown Korean Air Lines Flight 007 a Boeing 747-230B carrying 269 people over the Sea of Japan. All 269 passengers and crew had been killed including an American Congressman. The Soviet response of denial and later change of stance claiming that the airliner was on a spy mission had ramped up Cold War tensions and escalated anti-Soviet sentiment. Would Rust suffer the same fate? He was willing to chance it, convincing himself that he was doing the right thing ultimately.
He began formulating details of his plan when with only roughly fifty flight hours to his credit, he departed Uetersen near his home of Wedel in a Cessna F172P he had rented from a local flying club for a period of three weeks. The airplane had been modified for extended range by replacing additional seating with auxiliary fuel tanks. The addition of these tanks boosted the tiny airplanes range by 175 nautical miles giving the airplane a range of 750 nautical miles. In preparation for his journey, Rust packed a small suitcase, a satchel with flight planning supplies, maps and aeronautical charts as well as a sleeping bag, fifteen quarts of engine oil, a life vest and a motorcycle crash helmet which he planned to use as extra protection in the event of a crash due to Soviet intervention.
His journey began on 13 May 1987 when he left Uetersen and made the five hour journey across the Baltic and North Seas before reaching the Shetland Islands. The following day, he departed the Shetland Islands where he flew to Vagar on Denmark's Faröe Island. Two days into his journey on 15 May 1987, Rust made it to Reykjavik, Iceland where the ill fated US-Soviet summit had been held to no avail. He spent a week in Reykjavik visiting the Hofdi House where US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had met for the 1986 Reykjavik Summit. Visiting the site reinforced Rust's resolve to make it to Moscow and accomplish his mission.
On 22 May 1987, departed Iceland for Finland stopping off in Hofn, Iceland, the Shetland Islands and Bergen, Norway landing at Helsinki-Malmi Airport in Helsinki, Finland. Since leaving Uetersen, Rust had nearly doubled his flight time by more than 100 flight hours and crossed a distance of almost 2,600 miles. With the reassurance that he had the skills necessary to accomplish his flight, he made the decision that he would carry on with his plan and make it to Moscow at all costs. After a restless night, Rust made his way to Helsinki-Malmi Airport on the morning of 28 May 1987 where he refueled the Cessna, checked the weather and filed his flight plan designating Stockholm, Sweden as his destination. Stockholm would be alternate route in the event that he decided to abort his journey to the Soviet Union.
At 1221pm he departed Helsinki, with air traffic controllers directing him west in the direction of Stockholm. He was instructed to fly low level to avoid incoming air traffic destined for Helsinki and although the Cessna had a transponder on board, the airport did not assign him a transponder code. Rust turned the transponder off and held is course for Stockholm for roughly twenty minutes before exiting Helsinki's control area. As he approached the first way point of his filed flight plan, near the town of Nummela, Finland he turned the aircraft left towards the direction of Moscow. Air traffic controllers began to track the nearly 180 degree deviation in Rust's course radioing his airplane to no response. At one point Rust even flew through restricted Finnish military airspace before disappearing from radar completely. The Finnish Coast Guard, the Rajavartiolaitos dispatched a helicopter which reported finding an oil slick near Rust's last known location at the time of his disappearance. A search and rescue party was dispatched to the area to search for the missing aircraft.
At a radar station in Skrunda in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, Soviet military authorities began tracking Rust. As per protocol all foreign flights entering Soviet airspace were required to have a permit that authorized them to fly into the Soviet Union along specially assigned air corridors. When the aircraft was designated as not flying along official corridors, it was acknowledged that the aircraft was not authorized to enter Soviet airspace and was therefore not an approved flight. As Rust approached the Soviet coastline, three air defense missile units were put on high alert. When Rust crossed the coast of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, he climbed to an altitude of 2,500 feet above sea level a standard altitude for cross country flight. He adjusted the aircraft's trim and maintained a straight and level attitude. It was also at this point that he strapped on the motorcycle helmet. He would be assigned the combat number 8255 by Soviet military forces after he failed to respond to identification signals.
Soviet Army units were put on a state of high alert as Rust's airplane continued further and further inland with two Soviet Air Force interceptors being scrambled from the nearby Tapa airbase. Observing the airplane from a hole in the clouds, one of the pilots reported that the airplane resembled as Yakovlev Yak-12 Creek utility airplane and requested permission to engage the aircraft. The pilot received no permission to engage the airplane and the decision was made that the airplane required no further investigation. Shortly after this, Rust descended to avoid a mass of low lying clouds and icing. It was during this period that he disappeared from Soviet radar screens. When the weather cleared, he climbed to an altitude of 2,500 feet where once again he appeared on Soviet radar screens.
Now in a new district of Soviet military authority, two more interceptors were scrambled to investigate the unidentified aircraft. Nearly two hours into his journey, two Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 Flogger interceptors approached him at high rates of speed. The supersonic fighter turned and pulled up adjacent to Rust's Cessna having to be placed into full landing configuration in order for it to fly slow enough to fly alongside the tiny Cessna. The pilot now on the edge of stall speed, attempted to contact Rust with no response. It was later determined that the fighter could only communicate over high frequency military channels. After several moments, the Soviet pilot disengage, retracting his landing gear and accelerating two fly two arcs around the airplane before disappearing.
With both the flag of the Federal Republic of Germany and the registration serial D-ECJB on the tail, the MiG pilot knew the airplane was not a Yak-12 nor was it a Soviet aircraft and determined the aircraft did not pose a threat to the Soviet Union and thus disengaged.
As he continued on his flight, Rust entered a Soviet Air Force training zone where his altitude helped him appear harmless and thus avoided his being intercepted by Soviet military aircraft. Following the shoot down of the airliner in 1983, Soviet protocol had been changed so that no civilian aircraft could be engaged unless orders were received from the highest levels of the Soviet military command structure. It was determined at one point along his trip that Rust was a student pilot, and Soviet military personnel assigned his airplane a friendly radar code.
By the time he reached Lake Seliger about 250 miles from Moscow, for a third time Air Force interceptors were scrambled to investigate however the fighters never descended below the cloud cover to make visual contact with the small airplane as it was determined two dangerous to descend below the low lying cloud bank. As he approached forty miles west of the town of Torzhok, Rust was confused for one of two helicopters participating in a Soviet search and rescue operation for an air crash the previous day and again Rust's airplane was assigned a friendly code by Soviet air defense radar. Shortly thereafter, Rust departed the Leningrad military district and entered the Moscow military district. Reports were passed on between military district commanders regarding the tracking of an unidentified aircraft however information regarding the origins of the aircraft from the Gulf of Finland or that it was West German marked or its seemingly steady course towards Moscow were not included in the report.
At around 6pm Rust approached the outskirts of Moscow. With the city's airspace restricted to both military and civilian air traffic, radar controllers soon realized something was wrong. As he made his way over the Soviet capital, Rust removed his helmet and began scanning the cityscape for Red Square. He proceeded to fly from building to building he suddenly saw the turreted silhouette of the Kremlin and he began heading in its direction looking for a place to land. After rejecting an idea to land within the walls of the Kremlin amongst fear of being arrested by the Soviet KGB, he picked a spot between the Kremlin and Hotel Russia, a bridge that crossed the Moscow River and led directly into Red Square. The bridge was six lanes wide with light traffic and the only obstacles were wires strung over each end of the bridge and its center. Rust determined he had enough space to fly over the first set of wires and land before taxiing the rest of the way into Red Square.
Cutting his engine to idle and extending his flaps to full position, Rust dropped down over the first set of wires and flared the plane for landing. He barely avoided a collision with a Volga automobile before rolling along in the direction of Red Square. Originally planning, to park in the middle of Red Square just before the tomb of Vladimir Lenin, this plan was discarded a small fence chain strung about surrounded St. Basil's Cathedral and thus prevented this plan from taking effect. He chose instead to pull up in front of the Cathedral itself. After nearly five and a half hours since leaving Helsinki, he had arrived in Moscow. As he climbed from the Cessna, he was expecting to be apprehended by KGB agents but was instead greeted by curious onlookers who recognized both him and the aircraft as being foreign. The crowd was overly friendly many asking Rust for autographs. Atleast one person gave Rust a loaf of bread as a sign of friendship.
Soon thereafter, the KGB arrived confiscating cameras and notebooks while also interviewing witnesses. Soon two trucks arrived at the Square with soldiers to contain the seen and dismiss the crowd that had gathered around the young West German. Rust was soon approached by an interpreter who asked for his passport before ushering him towards a waiting vehicle. The Cessna was removed from the Square and taken to Sheremetyevo International Airport where it was disassembled for inspection by Soviet military authorities. Soviet authorities believed he had been part of a larger plot to attack the Soviet Union and during his interrogation he was accused of being a spy for the CIA or the West German military. They used the fact that the date 28 May was Border Guard Day in the Soviet Union, and that he may believe that with the celebrations that the Soviet border would be more lightly defended. The Soviets confiscated his maps initially using them to fuel their accusations of his presence as being one of intelligence gathering however this theory was defeated when the Soviet consulate in Hamburg was able to obtain the same maps from a local mail order company.
The Soviet investigation team produced pictures of the bridge into Red Square inquiring how he'd managed to land with all the wires in the way. Responding that there were only three sets in position when he landed, the Soviets learned that a public works crew had removed most of the wires for maintenance. The Soviet investigation into the incursion was concluded on 23 June 1987. He was charged with illegal entry into the Soviet Union, violation of flight laws and malicious hooliganism. Rust would plead guilty to the first two charges but plead innocent to the hooliganism charge. After a three day trial, on 4 September 1987 he was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison. The prison was more restrictive than being sent to a Soviet gulag labor camp but it ensured Rust's safety nonetheless. He spent his time in prison quietly with special privileges such as permission to work in the garden and permission to receive visits from his parents every two months.
In November 1987, American President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which eliminated nuclear and conventional ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges between 300 to 3,400 miles in Europe. As a goodwill gesture towards the West, the Supreme Soviet ordered that Rust be released from Soviet detention. He arrived in West Germany on 3 August 1988 with his return being accompanied by huge media attention.
The incident caused a great deal of damage to the credibility of the Soviet military system. The authorized and unchallenged incursion allowed Mikhail Gorbachev to dismiss many of the greatest opponents to his reforms. The Soviet Minister of Defense Sergei Sokolov, along with the Chief of Soviet Air Defense Alexander Koldunov were among the highest ranking officials dismissed over the incident along with hundreds of other military officers. Some of the officers were revered heroes of the Soviet Union having gained fame for their exploits during the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. The upheaval would be the greatest turnover of military personnel in the Soviet Union, since Josef Stalin initiated extensive purges of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Rust's flight also changed the perception that citizens of the Soviet Union had of the Soviet military. The myth of Soviet military supremacy and superiority was defeated as were Soviet propaganda reports that the West was constantly searching for methods to penetrate the resolve of the Soviet people.
For the effort of the search party launched following his disappearance near the Finnish border, Rust was fined a sum of some £62,500 or about $100,000 USD.