Did a Cessna 172 beat the entire Soviet air defence forces, and single handedly begin the ending of the cold war? Well, on May 28th 1987, Mathias Rust single handedly penetrated Soviet defences by landing a Cessna most illegally, and much to the horror of the Soviet Air Force...right in the middle of Red Square.
Mathias, a private pilot, flew from Finland to Moscow, being tracked en route several times for short periods by Soviet air defence and interceptors, but the Soviet fighters never received permission to shoot him down, and several times was mis identified as a friendly aircraft, not the rogue foreign 4 cylinder Soviet penetrator that it was...
Refueling at Helsinki-Malmi Airport, Rust advised air traffic control that his destination was Stockholm, and took off at 12:21pm. Immediately after clearing the airspace, and signing off with traffic control, Rust turned his plane east. ATC attempted to contact him as he was transiting near the high traffic Helsinki–Moscow route, but Rust turned off all communications equipment aboard the Cessna.
Finnish air traffic control radar near Sipoo lost contact with the Cessna, and presuming an emergency, dispatched a rescue effort with the Finnish Border Guard patrol. A Border Guard boat arrived and discovered a oil patch near the place where Rust disappeared from radar and performed an underwater search with no results.
Rust's Cessna crossed the Baltic coastline over Estonia and turned towards Moscow. At 14:29 he appeared on Soviet Air Defense (PVO) radar and, after failure to reply to an IFF signal, was assigned combat number 8255. Three SAM divisions tracked him for some time, but failed to obtain permission to launch at him. All air defenses were brought to readiness and two interceptors were sent to investigate. At 14:48 near the city of Gdov one of the pilots observed a white sport plane similar to a Yakovlev Yak-12 and asked for permission to engage, but was denied.
The fighters lost contact with Rust soon after this. While they were being directed back to him he disappeared from radar near Staraya Russa. There is speculation that Rust might have landed near Staraya for a short period, citing that he changed his clothes somewhere during his flight, and may have waited out the Yak-12s in the vicinity.
Air defense re-established contact with Rust's plane several times, but confusion followed all of these events. The local air regiment near Pskov was on maneuvers and, due to inexperienced pilots' tendency to forget correct IFF designator settings, local control officers assigned all traffic in the area friendly status, including Rusts Cessna.
Near Torzhok there was a similar situation, as increased air traffic was created by a rescue effort for an air crash the previous day. Rust, flying a slow propeller-driven aircraft, was confused with one of the helicopters taking part in the rescue. He was spotted several more times and given false friendly recognition twice. Rust was considered as a domestic training aircraft violating regulations, and was issued the lowest priority.
Around 7:00 p.m. Rust appeared above Moscow's center. Initially intending to land in the Kremlin, but changed his mind after realizing that landing inside, hidden by the Kremlin walls, would have allowed the KGB to simply arrest him and completely deny the incident to the public. So, Rust choose an alternate that was far more noticeable...Red Square.
Heavy pedestrian traffic did not allow him a clear line, so after circling about the square one more time, Rust started his approach towards a bridge by St. Basil's Cathedral. Amazingly, trolly wires normally strung over the bridge had luckily been removed for maintenance that very morning.
Mathias and his fully intact Cessna 172 successfully touched down and rolled to a full stop on Vasilevsky Descent, directly adjacent to Red Square and the Kremlin, smack dab in the capital of the Soviet Union.
Rust's flight through the most formidable and unquestionably impregnable air defence system produced sizeable waves within the Soviet military, and ultimately led to the dismissal of many senior officers, including Minister of Defence Marshal of the Soviet Union Sergei Sokolov, the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, and former World War II fighter ace pilot Chief Marshal Alexander Koldunov.
The incident aided Mikhail Gorbachev in the implementation of his reforms, by allowing him to dismiss numerous military officials opposed to him whilst reducing the prestige of the Soviet military among the populace, thus helping bring an end to the Cold War.
Rust was rewarded by the Soviet Government for his actions, and sentenced to four years in a general-regime labor camp for hooliganism, disregard of aviation laws, and breaching the Soviet border. He was never transferred to a labor camp and instead served his time at the high security Lefortovo temporary detention facility in Moscow.
Two months later, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to sign a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, and the Supreme Soviet ordered Rust to be released in August 1988 as a goodwill gesture to the West.