On this day 35 years ago, a teenage West German aviator called Mathias Rust flew a rented Cessna 172 light aircraft into the heart of the Soviet Union. The 18-year-old managed to evade the world’s most sophisticated air defense system before landing in central Moscow, a mere stone’s throw away from the Kremlin.
Rust’s flight began in Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1987. With only 50 hours flying experience at the time, Rust flew to Iceland via the Faroe Islands before journeying to Bergen, Norway.
The Cessna 172 had been modified to allow the extra flight endurance by removing seats and adding auxiliary fuel tanks.
On May 28, Rust reached Helsinki, refueled and advised air traffic control that he would depart for Stockholm. Once airborne, Rust went silent on the radio, turned off his radio equipment and disappeared from radar.
At 2:29pm, Rust and his plane were spotted on military radar, prompting MiG-23 jet interceptors to be scrambled. The fighters spotted a small white plane but were denied permission to engage. They lost contact before the German teenager disappeared from radar.
By 7pm, having avoided Soviet air defenses, Rust was over Moscow. He initially intended to land in the Kremlin but decided to land at Red Square in order to maximize publicity. Rust was flying over the city at 30ft above the ground and, owing to the crowds at Red Square, landed on a bridge adjacent to Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
As the sun was setting, the teenager taxied the Cessna into Red Square where crowds gathered round the light aircraft and sought autographs from Rust, who surprised onlookers by declaring that he was from West Germany.
Within two hours, Rust had been arrested. In September 1987, he was sentenced to four years in a labor camp. Despite the sentence, Rust never made it to the camp and was instead detained in a high-security detention center in Moscow.
The following year, in August 1988, having served 14 months, Rust was released by the Soviet Union as a goodwill gesture to the West following the nuclear treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
The significance of breaching the Soviet Union border is amplified by the case of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which only four years earlier was intercepted and shot down by a Su-15 fighter, having deviated from its flight path into Soviet airspace.
The downing of the Boeing 747 aircraft in 1983 killed all 269 persons onboard and prompted the United States to allow worldwide access to its Global Positioning System (GPS).
The story of Rust is one of bravery and luck, Rust himself said of the flight that it was intended to be seen as a bridge connecting the West and the East.
The Cessna 172, registered D-ECJB, has been on display since 2008 at the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin, Germany.