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Russia: Gagarin's Death Is an Unsolved Mystery. . . or Worse

Moscow, 29 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Almost 30 years after world-famous cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin -- the first human in space -- crashed near Moscow, his teacher still struggles to find those he believes to be responsible for his best-known student's death.

Lieutenant General Sergei Belotserkovsky, who investigated the mysterious crash of the two-seat trainer that killed both Gagarin and and co-pilot Colonel Vladimir Seryogin in March 1968, contended in an interview with RFE/RL that there has been a cover-up.

The March 27 crash shook the Russian nation. The Politburo ordered Dmitry Ustinov, head of the Soviet defense industry, to take personal charge of the investigation commission consisting of government officials, air force commanders and aviation experts. As a prominent aviation specialist, Belotserkovsky was assigned to the inquiry. He had lectured both Gagarin and Seryogin at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, from which Gagarin graduated with honors in 1968.

After weeks of investigation, the commission reported no clear cause for the crash. A number of rumors then circulated. One was that the renowned airman had been flying drunk. Belotserkovsky denounces this suggestion.

"It's an outrageous lie. There was not a single drop of alcohol in his blood," Belotserkovsky says.

Belotserkovsky contends that the crash that killed Gagarin was caused by poor organization of flights and faulty ground equipment at the Chkalovsky Air Force Base on that day.

Belotserkovsky spent weeks digging up classified data from both the Soviet Air Force Command's archive and the Mikoyan Design Bureau which designed the trainer variant of the MiG-15 fighter, the UTI, that Gagarin flew to his death.

Belotserkovsky says he uncovered the following facts:

The weather was much worse than Gagarin and Seryogin were told when briefed for their routine flight. Cloud base was 300-400 meters, and thickening, though the two pilots were told it was 900 meters.

The only height finding radar at Chkalovsky was not functioning on March 27, 1968.

The radio navigation system was partly malfunctioning, preventing ground control from continuously monitoring the flight path of the MiG-15.

The ground controllers were so inattentive that when Gagarin and Seryogin crashed, the controllers failed to notice it and directed an Su-11 that took off from the air strip near the Moscow region settlement of Ramenki, erroneously, supposing it was Gagarin's trainer.

The MiG spiralled down in just one minute from the altitude of 4,000 meters, hitting a forest area near the town of Kirzhach 180 km from Moscow and 70 km away from Chkalovsky, 12 minutes after taking off.

Belotserkovsky said that the MiG's barometric altimeter as well as the rest of the two seater's avionics malfunctioned during the spin and could have misled the two pilots into believing they still had enough altitude to maneuver. He said they had managed to wrestle the aircraft from the spin, but at impact their barometric altimeter suggested their altitude was 200 meters above ground level.

Having spent decades researching the crash and having written four books about it, Belotserkovsky says he still doesn't know exactly what caused the trainer to fall into a deadly spin.

He notes, however, that the auxiliary fuel tanks mounted on the wings were so poorly designed that they reduced the plane's stalling angle of attack to one third, substantially increasing the possibility of falling into a spin.

Professor Belotserkovsky insists that the plane's inferior avionics, fuel tanks and ejection system weren't the primary cause. He says ground controllers should have borne the main responsibility for the death of his students, but they didn't.

Veterans of the Chkalovsky Air Base have disputed Belotserkovsky's cover-up theory. They have said the crash is simply a mystery that officialdom was unable to resolve.