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Friday, April 11, 2008

AN UNLIKELY COMBINATION OF EVENTS

I don’t know the truth of what happened to Yuri Gagarin, and it is unlikely I ever will. And if it seems strange that someone so famous could die so mysteriously you must remember that he was a hero of the Soviet Union, a place and a time where truth and lies were so intermingled as to make reality as thin as tissue paper. On March 27, 1968, so the story goes, Yui died in the crash of a training jet, and not even his widow or daughters will ever know with certainty what really happened to him. In the Soviet Union, rumors were part of the disguise. It was a very different world.
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In 1961 the average yearly income in America was $5,315.00 and gallon of gas cost 27 cents. The city of Seattle completed the tallest structure west of the Mississippi river, the Space Needle. The 200th McDonald’s opened in Southern California. The hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls produced electricity for the first time. An X-15 rocket plane reached the edge of space at 31 miles high, and President John Kennedy asked Congress for $531 million to “…put a man on the moon in this decade.” And on April 12, the Soviet Union launched the first man into space.
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His call sign was “Cedar”. The 5’ 2” cosmonaut was a typical fighter jockey, self confident and cocky, described as “virtually unflappable” by his instructors. He was launched from the dessert steppes of Tjuratam, Kazakhstan, just after 9AM (Moscow time) and he whistled a tune during his 90 minute orbital flight. “The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows, Where her son flies in the sky.” But unlike the American astronauts who landed at sea, Yuri had to eject from his Vostok 1 spacecraft at over 15,000 feet. And instead of an aircraft carrier, on landing Yuri was greeted by an old woman, her granddaughter and her cow. But once the Soviet leadership was certain he had survived he became a prop in the propaganda wars. And like Alan Shepherd, America’s fist man in space, Yuri longed to fly again, this time to the moon. He was trying to get there, when he died.
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The Soviet leadership showered him with medals and awards. He was made a deputy to the Supreme Soviet, the rubber stamp congress. But all the glittering medals soon grew dull and he was allowed to return to Star City, the home of all Cosmonauts, in the Moscow suburbs. But he was not allowed another space mission. He worked on spacecraft design, and was eventually promoted to the rank of a full Colonel. He became deputy training director for the cosmonaut corps, and in 1968 he began the process to re-qualify as a fighter pilot, perhaps as his first step back to flight status.
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On January 10, 1968 the U.S. lost its 10,000th military airplane over Vietnam. The average income in the U.S. was up to $7,850 a year, and gasoline was up to 34 cents a gallon. On January 23rd, North Korean naval boats captured the US Intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, and its 83 man crew. On January 31, 70,000 North Vietnamese troops launched the Tet offensive by briefly capturing the U.S. embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, and during just the second week of February the United States suffered 543 dead and 2,547 wounded in Vietnam; for that week alone. And on March 27 at 10:17 AM Yuri Gagarin climbed into the front cockpit of a MIG-15UTI trainer with Colonel Vladimir Seryogin in the rear seat. On takeoff they pushed the throttles to 9,000 rpm’s and headed for Kirzhach, 30 miles to the Northwest of Moscow.
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The weather was horrible, and a heavily overcast quickly enveloped the Korean War era fighter/trainer. The Mig 15 was small by modern standards, just 33 feet long, with a 35 ft. swept back wing span. It was capable of well over 600mph and had a ceiling of over 50,000 feet. But the “Babouskha” (grandmother) also had a tenancy to stall and go into a tight spin at anything under 160 mph. In fact, according to one pilot who recently flew a similar two seat Mig 15UTI trainer, “Turning at that speed could be a delicate exercise, and inadvisable at low altitude. The Mig didn’t seem to care for doing anything under 250 knots.”
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Minutes after take off Seryogin requested permission to alter course. It was granted. But those were the last words heard from the aircraft. Fellow Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was flying a helicopter in the area and he heard two loud booms. An investigation reported that a Sukhoi 11 was also in the area, also in the overcast, and had gone supersonic. That would have accounted for the first boom Leonov heard. The second was probably Gagarin’s Mig slamming into the ground. So great was the impact that no human remains could be positively identified. The plane’s clock was stopped at 10.31 AM. Yuri Gagarin was only 34 years old. He left behind a widow and twin daughters.
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Two hundred officers and technicians conducted a thorough investigation. But because of the Soviet obsession with secrecy the report on the crash was never released to the public. And so rumors filled the void. Rumor said the pilots must have been drunk, the plane must have been sabotaged by a jealous superior, the parachute cords were cut and the ejection seats were disconnected, the plane had hit a weather balloon or a bird or someone had forgotten to close a vent or the Mig had been caught the turbulence of another aircraft. There are a hundred theories, and you can argue that, like the Kennedy assignation theories, an open investigation would never have refuted them all. And given the provable conspiracies that governed the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century, it will likely never be possible to say with any absolute certainty why Yuri Gagarin died. But there does seem to be a most likely sequence of events.
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The SU-11 had been intended as an all weather interceptor, and was capable of almost twice the speed of sound. But the Soviet design bureau considered it a failure, and it was no longer in production. The most likely assumption is that the Sukhoi pilot was disoriented by the dense overcast and was lower than he thought when he lit his afterburners. The radar system that was supposed to provide altitude information to all pilots in the area was out of order for the day. So the SU-11 might have roared past within 2-300 feet of Gagarin and Seryogin’s jet, maybe even closer. The turbulence produced by the SU-11 would have robbed the wings on the smaller Mig-15 of their lift, particularly if it was flying slower than 160 mph, and dropped it into a flat spin. In the overcast, whoever was piloting the Mig would have unable to orient himself before impact in the trees. If either plane had taken off a minute sooner or later they would have never come close to each other. So the death of Yuri Gagarin was most likely a combination of unlikely events; a bad day for a radar system to be down, a bad day to fly, a nasty combination of flight characteristics and some very bad timing. Combat pilots like Yuri call such combinations of unlikely events just plain bad luck.
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