On April 12 of 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to escape gravity and circle the earth. He spent 108 minutes in orbit nearly 200 miles above the surface of the earth. He immediately became and international celebrity and was the poster boy of the Russian space program. But, he would die only seven years later in a mysterious plane crash under circumstances that have never been clear.
The official story was that Gagarin’s MiG-15 fighter jet went into a tailspin and crashed when he swerved to avoid hitting a bird. Aviation experts said that the explanation did not fit the facts, and rumors swirled for years about what might have really happened.
Some theorized that he was taking pictures and distracted; others thought that he or his copilot were intoxicated; still others suspected a politically-motivated murder. The Soviet government examined the claims but found no evidence to support them. However, ruling out those possibilities still failed to provide an answer to what may have caused the crash. It seemed that the mystery would remain forever unsolved. But, this year, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was permitted to see the accident report, and has finally revealed what happened what happened to his friend, 46 years after the fact.
Leonov said that the official report failed to note the presence of a second, much larger plane, an Su-15 that was supposed to be far above Gagarin’s plane. It was confirmed that the Su-15 was traveling on an unauthorized path that was far too close. Computer simulations of the crash details show only one viable explanation: the Su-15 flew too close to the MiG, causing the smaller plane to spiral out of control.
Leonov was not allowed to share the name of the Su-15 pilot. He told Russian Today only that he was a good test pilot, and that nothing could be solved by telling the world who he is. Chances are that the pilot’s name will never be known; however, one of aviation’s great mysteries has finally been solved.