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The key to a 50-year mystery: Two unspoken words that may have led to Gagarin’s crash

The first man in space was killed in a jet crash on March 27, 1968
Funeral of Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Seryogin, 1968 Vladimir Musaelyan, Vladimir Savostyanov/TASS
Funeral of Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Seryogin, 1968
© Vladimir Musaelyan, Vladimir Savostyanov/TASS

MOSCOW, March 27. /TASS/. The world’s first human being in outer space, Yuri Gagarin, crashed together with an instructor aboard a MiG-15UTI fighter jet 50 years ago due to an erroneous command on the ground, a member of the official investigation sub-commission Arseniy Mironov told TASS on Tuesday.

Mironov, a pilot and Doctor of Technical Sciences, headed the Gromov Flight Research Institute in the 1980s and was a member of the sub-commission within the expanded government commission that investigated the causes of Gagarin’s death.

The world-renowned cosmonaut perished in a plane crash on March 27, 1968 as he was performing a training flight aboard a MiG-15UTI trainer fighter jet together with pilot-instructor Vladimir Seryogin. Their plane crashed near the village of Novosyolovo of the Kirzhachsky district in the Vladimir Region in central Russia. According to the tragedy’s official version, the pilots made a sudden maneuver, which sent the plane into a super-critical flight mode and its stall (a sharp loss of its lift due to the improper airflow over the wing). The probe failed to find out what had caused this maneuver.

The price of two unuttered words

As Mironov says, a MiG-15UTI piloted by Andreyev was also performing missions close to the flight area of the plane piloted by Gagarin and Seryogin. The expert believes that Gagarin’s plane went into super-critical flight mode because of a maneuver to avoid a second MiG-15 aircraft that had suddenly emerged in the cloud cover.

As the expert says, he has been able to find an answer to the question about the cause of the first cosmonaut’s death after persistently reading the fragments of the deciphered radio exchange in its first version put down in a notebook.

"In response to Gagarin’s call at 10:29:57 "I have finished the assignment in the zone 20. I request permission to take the course of 320 degrees," the flight control head (or his assistant) immediately replied: "all clear," apparently seeing no dangerously close encounter of the markings of the Seryogin-Gagarin and Andreyev planes on the radar screen. If the flight control head had performed his duties, he should have immediately added to the "all clear" command just two words "without descent" after looking at the radar screen. However, these crucial words "without descent" were not uttered. As a result, the tragedy occurred," Mironov said.

Had the command been correct, Gagarin’s plane would have flown along the course at 320 degrees at an altitude of 4,200 meters above the Andreyev fighter jet. In this case, there would have been no dangerously close encounter and the world’s first cosmonaut would have not had to perform that fatal dodging maneuver, the member of the investigation sub-commission believes.

As Mironov notes, the experts failed during the official probe to find out who observed the radar at the time of the tragedy and should have seen the dangerously close encounter of the two planes’ markings on the screen.

Deliberate distortion

The expert believes that the actual situation at the time of the air crash was deliberately distorted. As an example, he highlighted the following episode in the investigation by the sub-commission.

"At an April 5 meeting, Andreyev, the pilot of the MiG-15UTI, was asked the following question: 'Amid what cloud cover did he perform his flight in his flight zone at an altitude of 3,000 meters?' The pilot gave an unexpectedly shocking answer: 'I flew beyond the cloud cover,'" the expert noted.

The sub-commission members, especially meteorology specialists, began to clarify: over a large area of the flight zone, there was a continuous layered cloud cover, with the lower edge at 600 meters and the upper edge at 5,000 meters but you flew outside clouds at an altitude of 3,000 meters?

"Then Andreyev, the experienced pilot, suddenly declared: ‘Perhaps, I got things confused and perhaps there was all-out cloudiness,'" Mironov recalls.

The expert then wrote down in his notebook: "He is confusing things," and thought: "Who wanted to distort the actual situation? Not Andreyev himself. Andreyev performed his assignment accurately and there are no claims against him."

According to Mironov, the dangerously close encounter of the two planes outside the cloud formation is less probable than inside the clouds - the pilots can visually spot themselves at a large distance and safely depart on time.

As a member of the investigation sub-commission believes, it can be presumed that the command to lead specialists astray from finding the true causes of the crash of the MiG-15UTI plane (the instruction given to Andreyev to say his flight was outside clouds) came from some high-ranking officials.

Besides, "it was noted that the continuation of the discussion with Andreyev was not supported by the sub-commission chairman and was quickly terminated."

Another aircraft version

Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov who performed the world’s first ever spacewalk, presented documents and charts on the plane crash of Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Seryogin in his book entitled: "Man and Outer Space" in 2017.

According to Leonov’s version, the MiG trainer got into a trailing vortex left by a supersonic Su-15 plane that flew close by. Leonov notes that he pledged not to name the pilot whose actions led to the deaths of the two pilots, according to his version.

"The aircraft that was there flew at an altitude of 4,200 meters at supersonic speed at a distance of 10-15 m from Gagarin’s plane, making it turn upside down and sending it into a deep spiral. Everybody says: ‘They fell into a tailspin.’ To enter into a tailspin, the plane would have had to decelerate to 350 kilometers per hour. Meanwhile, they flew into the ground at 750 kilometers per hour. It was a deep overturned spiral and the plane was turned upside down. That’s what really happened," Leonov earlier told TASS.