The bin Laden raid had me thinking about how difficult evading enemy radar is (short answer: for you or I, impossible. For the guys with the necessary skills set, not inherently difficult).
Flying under 150 feet will get you under most any radar systems, and even under 500 feet should do it within a mountainous country like Pakistan, where radar stations are most typically situated on the tops of hills or mountains. Stealth pilots typically use a ‘Nap-of-the-Earth’ technique, flying into gullies and depressions in the earth to evade detection, and can fly as low as understory canopy layer (under 50 feet).
Whilst the Pakistan mission was impressive, the most daring ‘under the radar’ flight was by a relatively untrained West German teenager, in 1987: Mathias Rust (pictured in his orange jumpsuit, above).
At that time, the USSR was considered to have the most formidable and ruthless air defense systems in the world, and had already shot down both US spy planes and commercial airliners entering its airspace (and thus, unfortunately, inadvertently assisting a little known band called The Hype).
Saving up for 50 hours of flight lessons, Rust deviated from a flight from Helsinki Airport in a rented Cessna, and through a random series of defense errors (and no small amount of good luck) made it to the heart of Moscow. Once overhead, Rust changed his landing site from the Kremlin (which he noted had extremely high walls, which could easily have allowed the Soviets to hush up the whole thing). He briefly considered Red Square, however it was too full of people for a safe landing. So Rust landed nearby, just outside the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral, and not far from Lenin’s tomb.
Like the work of postwar German artist Joseph Beuys, Rust’s intentions were to create an “imaginary bridge” between the East and West. His aim was to reduce the tension and suspicion between the two Cold War sides (which perhaps makes it a sort of inverse-terrorism, with friendship instead of fear-mongering the objective).
Ironically, just like regular terrorist acts, there was an inadvertent and inverse effect resulting from Rust’s flight. Such was the embarrassment caused by the incident, that Mikhail Gorbachev was able to undertake the largest purge of old school generals since Stalin relatively unopposed – thus removing many of the opponents to his future reforms. Combined with the loss of sense of invincibility of the Soviet military, the flight played a small part in ending the USSR less than two years later.
For Rust, his future was not much more rosy: eighteen months spent in a Soviet prison, a $100,000 fine for his Finnish ‘rescue’ mission, jail time for an unrelated attempted murder of a co-worker and, later, also fines for fraud and shoplifting. He is apparently converted to Hinduism, and now lives as a professional poker player in Germany: appropriately enough for someone who had successfully called the biggest military bluff of all time.