Matthias Rust, a 19-year-old amateur pilot from West Germany, takes off from Helsinki, Finland, travels through more than 400 miles of Soviet airspace, and lands his small Cessna aircraft in Red Square by the Kremlin. The event proved to be an immense embarrassment to the Soviet government and military.
Rust, described by his mother as a “quiet young man…with a passion for flying,” apparently had no political or social agenda when he took off from the international airport in Helsinki and headed for Moscow. He entered Soviet airspace, but was either undetected or ignored as he pushed farther and farther into the Soviet Union. Early on the morning of May 28, 1987, he arrived over Moscow, circled Red Square a few times, and then landed just a few hundred yards from the Kremlin. Curious onlookers and tourists, many believing that Rust was part of an air show, immediately surrounded him. Very quickly, however, Rust was arrested and whisked away. He was tried for violating Soviet airspace and sentenced to prison. He served 18 months before being released.
The repercussions in the Soviet Union were immediate. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sacked his minister of defense, and the entire Russian military was humiliated by Rust’s flight into Moscow. U.S. officials had a field day with the event–one American diplomat in the Soviet Union joked, “Maybe we should build a bunch of Cessnas.” Soviet officials were less amused. Four years earlier, the Soviets had been harshly criticized for shooting down a Korean Airlines passenger jet that veered into Russian airspace. Now, the Soviets were laughingstocks for not being able to stop one teenager’s “invasion” of the country. One Russian spokesperson bluntly declared, “You criticize us for shooting down a plane, and now you criticize us for not shooting down a plane.”
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