What would a teenager possibly do if he decided that he’s had enough of the political tension known as the Cold War during its era? Write an open letter? Start a protest and distribute leaflets? Maybe join an organization denouncing the conflict? To the 19-year-old amateur pilot named Mathias Rust, the best thing to do was create an “imaginary bridge” to promote world peace. Do you think it worked?

The Beginning

It all started when Mathias Rust got fed up with the whole Cold War thing between the United States and the Soviet Union that was going on and decided that he would end the tension. The only flying experience that he had at that time was about 50 hours. He was definitely inexperienced. To him, that was more than enough to enable him to carry out his plan of creating an “imaginary bridge,” perhaps to bridge the gap between these two nations?

“I thought every human on this planet is responsible for some progress and I was looking for an opportunity to take my share in it,” he said.

Flight map of Mathias Rust in May 1987. (Europe_laea_location_map.svg: Alexrk2 Flugroute von Mathias Rust.svg: NordNordWest derivative work: AkeosnhaoeCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

On May 13, 1987, he began his mission by departing from Uetersen near Hamburg on a Reims Cessna F172P that he rented out. Before flying, he modified it by removing some of the seats and replacing them with auxiliary fuel tanks. For the next two weeks, he traveled across northern Europe, visited the Faroe Islands, spent a week in Iceland, and even dropped by Bergen on his travel back. He thought of attempting to reach Moscow, something that he was quoted saying even before his departure. He went to Iceland, where he visited the site where the United States and the Soviets had unsuccessful talks in October 1986. He went there to test his piloting skills.

Crossing the border

On the dawn of May 28, 1987, Rust felt he was ready. He refueled first at Helsinki-Malmi Airport, told air traffic control that he was heading to Stockholm, and immediately turned his plane eastward after his final communication with traffic control. Seeing that he was not moving Stockholm-ward and was instead headed to the busy Helsinki-Moscow route, they tried to contact him but to no avail, as Rust had already shut down all his communication equipment.

He crossed the Baltic coastline over Estonia and then turned towards Moscow. The Soviet Air Defense (PVO) radar picked up his signature and tried to determine if he was a friend or foe, but he did not answer the call sign. Because of that, three missile battalions were alerted, although no orders to fire at him were given. One of the two interceptor pilots sent to investigate asked for permission to engage but was denied.

They tried to re-establish contact with Rust’s plane three times, but he never answered. His boldness was even spiced up with luck when the local air regiment that day were inexperienced pilots who forgot correct IFF designator settings and incorrectly assigned all traffic in the area on friendly status, Rust’s plane included.

The Cessna 172 Mathias Rust used for his famous flight from Finland to Moscow in 1987. (Andrey Belenko from Moscow, RussiaCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Near Torzhok, he was mistaken for one of the helicopters taking part in the search operations looking for him. At around 7 PM, he wanted to land in the Kremlin but changed his mind as he thought that the Kremlin walls could easily conceal them if the KGB arrested him and deny the incident right after. Instead, he went to Red Square and decided it would be his landing spot. The place was crowded with people, and he had to circle the square a few times before finally landing on a bridge by St. Basil’s Cathedral. The curious passersby approached him, with some even asking for autographs. When he was asked where he was from, the bystanders were more than surprised to find out he was from West Germany.