ON A MILD SPRING DAY IN LATE MAY 1987, military analyst John Pike was at the U.S. embassy in Moscow on business when he looked out the window and saw a small airplane circling over Red Square. Gee, that’s peculiar, thought Pike. There’s no private aviation in the Soviet Union. Hell, there’s no private anything.
The aircraft belonged to West German teenager Mathias Rust—or, more accurately, to Rust’s flying club. In a daring attempt to ease cold war tensions, the 19-year-old amateur pilot had flown a single-engine Cessna nearly 550 miles from Helsinki to the center of Moscow—probably the most heavily defended city on the planet—and parked it at the base of St. Basil’s Cathedral, within spitting distance of Lenin’s tomb. Newspapers dubbed the pilot “the new Red Baron” and the “Don Quixote of the skies.” The stunt became one of the most talked-about aviation feats in history. But it was politics, not fame, that motivated Rust.
There is nothing in Rust’s neat two-bedroom apartment outside Berlin—no mementos, no photographs, no framed newspaper headlines—nothing at all to indicate that for a few short weeks 18 years ago he was the most famous pilot in the world. But the memory of the flight has stayed fresh. “It seems like it happened yesterday,” says Rust, now 36. “It’s alive in me.”