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Mon, May 28, 2007

Twenty Years Later, Pilot Chalks Up '87 Red Square Landing To Naiveté

"I Really Should Not Have Done It"

The fact that he's now a professional poker player should come as a surprise to no one that knows him. Mathias Rust started gambling and taking risks pretty early on in his rather unorthodox and turbulent life.

Rust did something on May 28, 1987 many thought was impossible at the time. He flew a rented Cessna 172B (file photo of type, center) over the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, and landed on the Moskvoretsky Bridge. He then taxied past St. Basil's Cathedral and parked near Red Square.

Rust was a 19-year-old pilot from West Germany when he shocked the world twenty years ago Monday by flying nearly 500 miles in some of the most heavily guarded airspace in the world and landing in the midst of the Soviet empire.

Why? Rust called his stunt a humanitarian mission, according to the Moscow Times. He said he'd wanted to meet with Kremlin leaders to discuss peace.

Rust, 39, has now focused his risk-taking nature on cards -- specifically, poker.

His career keeps him between Berlin and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and hub for his career, he says.

After landing, Rust was taken to the Lefortovo jail, and held until his September trial. He was convicted of illegally crossing into Russia and of malicious hooliganism and sentenced to four years in prison. Pardoned in August 1988, Rust returned home to West Germany.

Rust now regrets his actions. "I was naive, I really should not have done it," he said. "It caused me so much hardship."

After his release from jail, Rust's life turned turbulent. While performing required community service in 1989, he stabbed a nurse near Hamburg, Germany, and was sentenced 2 1/2 years in prison but was released after five months.

He was fined for stealing a cashmere sweater from a Hamburg department store in 2001 and has been found guilty on several minor fraud charges. He also divorced his second wife in 2004.

After several career failures, Rust turned to poker because, "I wanted to do something substantial that secured me financially," he said.

Of the trip itself, Rust says he remembers little.

"I was in a trance-like state from takeoff in Helsinki until I landed in Moscow," he said.

After renting the Cessna from his northern Germany flying club, he flew to Iceland to visit the site of the failed 1986 summit between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan. From there, he went to Helsinki, then to Moscow.

It was a coincidence that made the landing possible, Rust said. Electricity cables spanning the Moskvoretsky Bridge had been removed for maintenance just prior to his arrival.

"They were replaced the next morning, so when senior KGB officials visited the place, they could not understand how I could possibly have landed there," Rust said.

There are those who still contend Rust's flight was not an act of a teenaged political activist... but a calculated move by an enemy, according to the newspaper.

Anatoly Kornukov, a senior air defense commander at the time, said, "I thought then, and still believe, that this was a planned provocation," he said. "Everybody knew then that civilian sport airplanes would not be shot down."

Kornukov was commander of an air defense unit based in Sakhalin in 1983 where he gave the order to shoot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 killing 269 passengers and crew.

According to US aviation journalist and author Tom LeCompte -- who is writing a book about Rust and his famous adventure -- strict orders were in place that no hostile action was to be taken against any civilian aircraft unless they came from the highest levels.

At the time, claims were made that Rust's flight made a "mockery of Soviet air defenses" but they were exaggerated," LeCompte said. "He was carefully tracked by Soviet forces and was even encountered by a MiG fighter jet."

Consequences of Rust's flight had far reaching effects. Gorbachev fired several high-ranking officers and as many as 2000 others over the incident including Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov. It has been said Gorbachev used the opportunity to rid the military of those hostile to his reforms.

Rust finds little comfort in his moment in the spotlight. He said he never thought he'd pull it off in the first place. But, he believes perhaps something positive may, indeed, have come of his adventure.

"[The Soviets] took great pains to understand me and my motivations. If you think of what the Cold War propaganda did back then, and what Westerners and Russians thought of each other, then the outcome was in fact quite good," he said.

(Red Square photo by Dmitry Azovtsev, used with permission.)

FMI: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathias_Rust

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