Gagarin Case Still Unsolved
(His Airplane Crash is Still Unexplained)
The author of the following investigative report, Colonel Ing. Josef Pavlík, a pilot with comprehensive psychological education, flew MiG-15 UTI planes for 36 years, the same plane that Yuri Gagarin was flying when his plane went down. Pavlík amassed 1,000 hours in all conditions as both pilot and instructor. Now, on the basis of Colonel Pavlík’s flying experience, the results of the investigations of dozens of airplane crashes, but mostly from the various possibilities and explanations of why Yuri Gagarin’s plane went down from the point of view of the latest knowledge of the scientific branch of Human Factors, a startling and new conclusion has been reached, one which is now being made available to the professional aeronautics public and the general public as a whole.
March 27, 2008 marked the 40th anniversary of the day when Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first cosmonaut, and his instructor perished in a MiG-15 UTI crash. The causes of this tragic accident have been explained for many years by sources based on the official investigation of the then Soviet State Commission. The anniversary was commemorated in the March 30 edition of the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes in an article by Karel Pacner.
Documents concerning the investigation have been published by one member of the investigating commission, Professor S. M. Belocerkevskij. These were subsequently signed by pilot and cosmonaut A. Leonov and are the basis of the facts and inferences made herein. The first of these documents was included in the magazine Science and Life, where a short article entitled “The Last Flight” appeared in 1987. A subsequent article, “The Last Minutes of the Flight”, appeared in Pravda on January 18, 1988. Readers in the Czech Republic have been further informed about this interesting and seemingly hushed-up event in the professional journal Letectví a Kosmonautika, Aeronautics and Cosmonautics, as well as daily newspapers.
A further author, Milan Halousek, postulated five years ago on the 35th anniversary of the accident that he had found compelling sources which he posted on the website of Kosmos – News. The article was a translation of an article called “The Death of Gagarin, Facts and Inferences”, by S. M. Belocerkevskij. Up to Part 4, “Incontrovertible Facts and Conclusions”, (Kosmos – News No. 34) I unfortunately did not find any consequential information that could add something or move the case forward from what was known previously. Further publications and television programs did not bring to light anything of consequence as concerns the objective causes of the accident, for they were mostly concerned with Gagarin’s personality and family matters, with no attempt to investigate more specific matters.
The conclusions of the State Investigative Commission, whose objectivity had allegedly been guaranteed, are still inaccessible in the archives and vaults of the state. In all published documents, rather less probable causes are named, all of which are somewhat similar in nature and which have one goal – to defend the positive role played of both exceptionally famous people involved. There are sometimes unrealistic, even bizarre inferences that are implied, which serve to cloud the event rather than explain it.
No progress is possible without using new methods of research, new scientific knowledge and the latest investigative methods in the field of air safety. However, it should be made clear here and now that the main causes of the accident will likely never be discovered for a lack of objective evidence (most often taken from today’s black boxes). This article does not take as its goal to find a definitive solution but rather to take a deeper look at what actually happened.
Who was Gagarin? He was a man who knew no fear, a Columbus of space and a symbol of the exploration of the cosmos. All of this has been said and written many times. There is no doubt that he was the first man who had the courage and opportunity to enter a man-made and as yet unused means of transportation, and afterwards to enter a mysterious space – orbit - and then in the end to successfully survive and conquer this first attempt at space exploration, and live to tell about it afterwards.
He was chosen from among many candidates, and it is unclear exactly why it was he who was chosen. As we know, the first American astronauts were experienced, mostly well-tested pilots with large numbers of flight hours. Soviet experts, when they started planning manned missions into space, chose different criteria. They were mostly interested in men who had served aboard submarines, polar explorers, parachutists (see Těreškovová), and only then in pilots. The younger ones who were chosen were guaranteed that they would be used as cosmonauts for a longer period of time than their older counterparts would have been. Flight experience remained secondary. But this idea was soon to change…
Gagarin graduated from the Čkalov Military Air Academy in 1957. He served for a brief period in a combat unit but was soon chosen to be a candidate for a wholly new mission. He was the very first man to enter space on board the Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. At that time, he had not even completed the regular pilot training process, with 253 flight hours (sometimes reported as 340), a pilot second class, not first. It was only upon reaching pilot first class status that a flier could fly both night and day in both normal and more difficult conditions. Most of the time this level was reached with an average 100 annual flight hours in the space of five years, but Gagarin was far from this average. Missions with his combat unit were flown in MiG-15s and -17s, with training and control flights made in MiG-15 UTIs according to so-called charted combat preparations.
His deserved fame has been solidified by the many books written about his life after he returned from space. There is no mention, however, about his great desire to continue flying -besides a few general lines. It was not until a study done at Žukovský Academy which appeared on December 2, 1967, when he emphatically requested acceptance to a flight training program. At that time he was already a high-ranking officer who worked in the air force-space preparation program and who was responsible for monitoring subordinate pilots who were being prepared for flights to space.
It was he himself who wanted to return to space, but that would of course have meant finishing his own training to become a first class pilot, to be followed by instructor courses. The only way to do that would be to upgrade his flying credentials. The goal of instructing again was far off, unless of course some part of the training program was skipped or left out. And in this case the shortcut was possible. Gagarin was granted the right to fly again, apparently in November of 1967, but he began flying more frequently in March of 1968. Between March 13-22 he flew 18 flights of a total time of seven hours in a MiG-15 UTI with an instructor. He had taken, however, more than an eight-year break from flying, which we can assume was the result of a lack of interest in flying. Now he had to refresh his flight skills, and it is highly probable that these flights, with 18 take-offs and landings, were simply single flights around the premises of the airport that were sufficient to meet the standards of the authorities.
The instructor whose responsibility it was to confirm Gagarin’s ability to fly solo was an experienced war pilot and a hero of the USSR, Colonel Vladimir Serjogin, the commander of the air force’s cosmonaut preparation force. There should be no doubt about his qualifications, but it is unconfirmed whether he actually fulfilled all of the training flights, although it is probable that he did so.
Everyone who knows the training system and management of air force operations in our air force, which was an exact copy of that which was used in the VVS of the USSR, would have to wonder whether mistakes were made as concerns the preparation of the last flight of Gagarin and Serjogin.
Preparations for flights had two main points as mandated by the rules – pre-flight preparation, the day before the flight (4-6 hours) and a day-of-the-flight preparation the morning before the flight. In the known documents, a lot of attention has been paid to how Gagarin prepared himself pre-flight, paying heed to the simplest procedures. This last flight was nothing more than a take-off, a quick circle around the area and a landing in a one-seat plane. Instructor Captain Chmel was there with him, testing him (on what?). The commander of the squadron (training program) Colonel Ustimenko was present as well. It is not known, however, whether Colonel Serjogin actually took part in the pre-flight preparations, although this was his duty.
An even worse situation occurred on the day of the flight. As the information about the flight shows, there was more than one pilot (plane) at the airport on that fateful day. If that is the case, there should have been a joint pre-flight preparation that should have been led by a responsible person who would oversee the flights. This function could only be carried out by a commander, and each of them was obliged to do at least one hour before the beginning of preparations a trial flight to determine weather conditions in the area of the airport and in the space of the flight. This, apparently, never occurred. In the sources known this flight is listed only an hour later (!?). After beginning pre-flight preparations, the decision to continue rests exclusively with a meteorologist who makes the recommendation for carrying out the flight, whether it should be made under normal or more difficult conditions. At this time, he also explains the current and predicted weather conditions. There is no information about this event, either.
As we can see from previous articles, Colonel Serjogin did not conduct the preceding day pre-flight preparations. If this had been done, he would have helped Gagarin, but this apparently did not occur because he only arrived at the airport the day of the flight. Further descriptions of the pre-flight preparations are typical for Soviet practice. Colonel Serjogin, who allegedly led the pre-flight preparations, signed the documents as if he were there. In reality, although Serjogin was an instructor, he was in this case nothing more than a member of the airplane’s crew. He was therefore not authorized to sign the flight document, because the document should have been signed by the person who had actually prepared the flight. This joint document, for the two members of the crew, and a further document on their preparation, should have been signed by the person who had prepared the pilot. This person, a flight coordinator, would have also been responsible for the flight as such. Of course, why should such a high-level officer as Serjogin need a lower-ranking officer to supervise? It is highly probable that some pre-flight preparation took place, and that Serjogin and Gagarin were informed about the wind conditions, though possibly not fully. There is no mention of this, however. And this is where everything begins.
After arriving at the MiG-15 UTI, Gagarin and Serjogin were told that the technician was ready and that the routine checks had been made. They sat down in the cockpit, and Gagarin as the ‘student’ with number 625 began communications with the air traffic controller. This was most likely Lieutenant Colonel Ustimenko, the commander of the training squadron, although this is not known from the documents available. He led the pre-flight preparation, however, and that is the way it should have been.
The probable but never specified goal that Gagarin was supposed to fulfill and Serjogin to monitor is listed in the flight plan for military preparations of MiG-15 and MiG-17s (which was valid for all armies of the Warsaw Pact). It was number two and was called (Checkride) / Practical Test of Techniques of Flying – test, H = 2 – 8000 m, number of flights 1, duration 30 minutes, type of aircraft MiG-15 UTI, normal weather conditions.
After initiating communications with the air traffic controller, they communicated on the radio. There are two versions of what was said. The first one was published by Milan Halousek in Kosmos News Issue 30 and taken from Belocerkevskij’s article “The Death of Gagarin, Facts and Inferences” from 1992, the second from the same author in the article “The Last Flight” (Science and Life, 1987). If we excuse the translator in the first case for his inexact terminology, there are substantial differences in the two published versions. The air traffic controller, for example, while taxiing to the take-off position, prohibited Gagarin to turn onto the runway. Possibly another plane had landed. In the new interpretation, however, this was not the case. From the logic of events, however, it can be seen that Gagarin originally flew the flight plan (at least the first and second turns). He then communicated an “entry into the third”, in which case the turn would have resulted in a change in the communication channel; that would have completely changed the situation. This basic document would be worth looking into more deeply, and it is necessary to repeat the question if it was published in its full version. One thing is sure: In no case were his words typical for what should have been said in aeronautical terminology under difficult weather conditions, those in which he was flying.
After starting up the engine and taxiing to the runway, Gagarin took off at 10:18:45 in his MiG-15 UTI. After following the required steps as commanded by the air traffic controller, he reached an altitude of 4,200 m, which was zone (flying space) 20. Because of the weather situation, it was most certainly a flight under difficult weather conditions, with a low cloud layer that they would have had to fly through. It began at 900 m and ended 300 m higher. Gagarin notified the controller about it. Another layer began at 4,200 m, and it is probable that they measured its height themselves on the way up. No trial flight had been made to determine the weather conditions.
At 10:25:50, Gagarin announced that he had reached zone 20, and the air traffic controller gave him permission to proceed with his flying mission. Each such zone is demarcated by several orientation points, most by inhabited areas and their supposed centers. Reaching certain positions in those zones requires visual meteorological conditions, which means having a visual reference to the Earth’s surface at all times and good visibility in general. It is not clear how Gagarin and his instructor were able to reach these exactly determined locations when they were above the clouds without problems, as the radio correspondence indicates. This zone was apparently located 100 km from the airport, which is the approximate distance from Prague to Plzeň. With a supposed speed of 600 km/h (the usual speed of a MiG-15 UTI), the flight would have taken 10 minutes. According to Gagarin’s words, however, they were at the desired location in 6 minutes, 10 seconds, which would have required a speed of about one and a half times greater (exactly 970 km/h). It can be assumed, though only assumed, that this zone was not closer than reported. It is theoretically possible that the position of the plane could have been determined with the help of radar data, but there were problems with this special safety service, as was shown later during the investigation. According to other published documents, the air traffic controller had problems with this service.
It is quite clear from data from the flight instruments the flight was undertaken in instrument meteorological conditions until its bitter end. It has not been reported whether Gagarin had in the previous 18 years ever been trained in flying using instruments. It is assumed that he was not, but it is possible that Serjogin had allowed such flights with him in the past. On the other hand, this flight with its two crew members should have been easy enough for an average pilot in a one-pilot situation around the airport, even with Gagarin’s long break in flying.
On that day Gagarin was to fly his first solo flights on the flight path (called No. 4 by OBP) and planned only in visual meteorological conditions. The question remains, why did the crew take off on this training flight with the permission of the air traffic controller in poor weather conditions? The regulations would have strictly forbidden this as a violation of safety of training exercises and operations. It should be said that the solo flights around the flight route which Gagarin was to carry out after verification should have been possible with sufficient supervision at the airport (but this is not mentioned in any documentation). In the case of adverse weather, these flights should have been forbidden.
After confirmation of Gagarin’s ability to manage a solo flight around the flight path, it would be enough to undertake exercise No. 3 of the program – “Flying an airport traffic pattern/circuit”, altitude 500 m, number of flights 4, time period 6’, MiG-15 UTI, normal weather conditions. Why did Serjogin (it couldn’t have been anyone else) decide to continue in these weather conditions, even without a high-quality check of the worsening weather conditions? This we will never know.
So what was it all about? It was about the elementary elements of training every pilot (Gagarin too) should have mastered. The flight path meant only taking off, retracting the landing gear and flaps, a first and second turn, identifying a landing “T” in the flight, extending the landing gear after a third turn, after a fourth turn opening the high pressure valves and an easy landing.
The MiG-15 with both pilots flew through the lower cloudbank and reached an altitude of 800 m as confirmed by regulations to a position under the next cloudbank. Gagarin, after receiving authorization from the air traffic controller, began to carry out the pre-arranged flight task at an altitude of 4,200 m, apparently in an open space between cloudbanks. Of course the already mentioned training regulations for the exercise call for the following actions after reaching the zone:
- inform air traffic controller (which Gagarin did exactly),
- do a check of the zone (which is actually a visual control if the zone is empty)
- check flight instruments,
- check location of the airport and orient to it (this was not possible due to weather conditions)
- after depleting rear fuel tank begin flying exercise (this means in the first place turns with bank angles of 15 to 70 degrees, battle turns, spirals and rolls).
What exactly Gagarin was supposed to do on the basis of the pre-flight preparations or rather by the individual commands of Serjogin will remain secret forever. It is certain that this exercise starts with 360-degree turns with angles of bank of 15 degrees to the left and right, with these angles increasing to 30, 45 and 60 degrees. In the exercise plan there are further instructions:
- set an orientation point (this was not possible due to the cloud cover),
- adjust speed to 450 km/h with respect to the horizon,
- through coordinated movement of the control stick and foot pedals adjust the bank angle and pitch while staying at V = 450 km/h and increase the engine thrust so that the flying maneuver with banks of 60-70 degrees conforms to curves which correspond to combat regime,
- hold the bank angle and pitch attitude,
- crosscheck the flight data with the natural horizon (this was not possible due to the cloud cover), the airspeed indicator and vertical speed indicator,
- if the plane vibrates, ease the control stick forward, otherwise the airplane can go into a spiral or can even begin to stall (V = 330-360 km/h)!
And we have reached where we want to be. A detailed description of each exercise of the training curriculum, familiar to all in the then Soviet method of flight training (though unique in the world) will show us the way to solving the mystery of what happened.
From all accessible sources and the published radio correspondence it is clear that Gagarin did from a time of 6 minutes 20 seconds, that is from the beginning of carrying out his flying maneuvers in the zone until announcement of the uncertain end, carry out the maneuvers in the flying space. This can be done in no other way than a 360 degree turn, and further, as the exercise specifies, to continue in such turns. His last communication heralded a turn to a course of 320 degrees.
It may be advisable to report the length of the turns, in this case on a TL-39 simulator; but this, with small differences, is not sufficient for comparison. At a speed of 500 km/h, a turn of 360 degrees with a bank angle of 15 degrees takes 4 minutes, 15 seconds, at 30 degrees 2 minutes, 3 seconds, at 45 degrees 1 minute, 11 seconds, and at 60 degrees only 41 seconds. According to the radio correspondence, Gagarin had only 5 minutes, 20 seconds to work with, so how many turns could he have made and at what bank angles could he have taken them? We will never know. A radar record of the flight path of the flight would tell us, but it has never been discovered, if one ever existed.
So let’s take a look at this seemingly normal and usual element known as a turn, which is the basis of flying, underestimated by some especially in recent years but here in the Czech Republic quite carefully monitored as a means to prevent accidents. This can be seen by the published theoretical considerations, the well-tested equations and diagrams which have great meaning for flight safety and are one of the most likely ways that we can determine what happened to Gagarin.
We can state that when an airplane enters a turn its absolute velocity increases. It is therefore necessary to increase the thrust of the engine. When exceeding a certain bank angle the airplane loses speed and an intensive slowdown can occur, resulting in a fast change into a fall. This is called a curve, a seemingly simple flying maneuver, but only seemingly. There is a reason why ultra-light planes may not roll at an angle of more than 60 degrees, since exceeding such could lead to serious air accidents. That is why the Air Accident Investigation Unit pays so much attention to this.
It is a different situation in the armed forces. A military pilot who can fly both steep and medium level turns can win in battle. The greatest risk, however, is steep turns which are unintentional or in emergency situations attempted using instruments in low visibility.
We can assume that Gagarin was able to do a turn at a speed of 450 km/h as was prescribed by the flight exercise, but it should be pointed out that a 60-70 degree banked turn carries with it the risk that the aircraft could go into a stall or into a spiral at a speed of 330-360 km/h. All the evidence suggests that this is what could have happened under certain conditions. This is what we will try to explain here.
The investigating commission, or rather Professor Belocerkevskij and the others after him who have researched the last minutes of the fateful flight, have mostly concerned themselves with fictive causes such as Gagarin’s evasive maneuvers or a sudden change in the control stick. Only then do they admit the possibility of a sudden change to a critical steep turn, not to mention the chance of a stall. Attempts to find other reasons which might concern the proximity of other flying objects or a plane which might have influenced Gagarin’s machine are improbable at best.
So far no one has ever looked into the question as to why after such a short time Gagarin (more likely Serjogin) decided to return to base and communication to the air traffic controller of such, that the flight exercise of turns into 320 degrees had ended (although it more likely it had just begun). It can justifiably be assumed that reports which describe the difference in cloudbanks of the lower and upper layers, whereby between them was 3,600 m of empty space, are simply the wishes of those who are basically unable to imagine the real situation, which was known only to the two pilots. In known documents it is admitted that because of the cloud cover they did not have the horizon lines to help them orient themselves. Even more interesting, there was an unpredictable cold front moving their way. These always mean a worsening of weather conditions and the possibility of more dangerous flying.
It is therefore very probable that the return was caused by completely unsatisfactory weather conditions after a short consultation on the radio. This was an experienced instructor who would have been able to end the training mission with one command, especially since the flight had been planned for normal weather conditions. Why Gagarin, who as the investigating commission states conducted radio communication completely according to regulations, did not state the reason for his return is a great mystery. Every military pilot would confirm that the habit of announcing weather changes and the reason for return to base is completely natural, even necessary, and that these instructions are important for the air traffic controller to know exactly what is happening in the air (since he is the one who is responsible for the safe landing of the aircraft). Here again there is the possibility that this occurred, but the archives are still closed for us.
According to the radio correspondence, Yuri Gagarin began to ease into a turn to head back to the airport. The question remains, however, why he did so using the geographical coordinates, meaning the compass, and not with the help of radar devices which would have ensured a safe return to the airport. It would have been very difficult to determine the exact direction of the airport, because he was flying without being able to see the earth. This could have only resulted in some sort of crude estimate or the use of previous experience from past flying in the zone. In the conditions which the two pilots found themselves, a completely different message would have been expected: “Razvarot na dalnuju” (changing course to distant aircraft radio station). Its range was sufficient for the area where the MiG-15 UTI was at the time. It would have been enough to keep the compass arrow in the zero position on top, and return to the airport was guaranteed. If Gagarin had not been up to this task, the instructor should have intervened and taken them back to the airport, with descent and landing according to the OSP system (blind landing aid system). Because of the lower cloudbank and the experience of Colonel Serjogin, this maneuver should have been relatively easy. There was almost certainly a direction finder at the airport, and if the crew of the aircraft had wanted to find the course for the way home, it was enough to switch to Channel 4 of the cabin radio station and ask for the course. That would be in the radio correspondence if it had happened, however.
What happened on board the aircraft at this point is the question, because only here is it possible to ascertain what really caused the plane to go down. We can only assume where Gagarin was when he spoke his last words with the air traffic controller in the tower, whether he was still flying forward or if he had entered into a turn with some angle of bank. We also don’t know whether the plane had been flying in a clear space or whether it was in cloud cover (possibly from the cold front that had been forecast). One thing is sure, and we can be sure of it in further analysis of the situation: The flying must have been according to the instruments, and Gagarin was not fully trained for that (even though in the past at the beginning of his training for pilot second class he had flown in these conditions; that was, however, 10 years before). According to the objective analysis of Gagarin’s voice, everything was in order up to that point, but in just a few seconds a radical change took place. This was the beginning of the tragic events.
Let’s try to consider some of the possibilities which could have brought about this change:
- Due to his inexperience in flying by reference to instruments, Gagarin could have made a serious mistake in flying, for example hurrying into the 320 degree course he could have increased his bank angle without increasing speed. That could have resulted in a slowing down effect of the plane, with a subsequent stall or steep spiral following. It is also possible that that the plane went into a corkscrew spin, a well-known phenomenon. Briefly, with all probability the plane went into some type of unusual flying position with all of its possible negative consequences. Not even an experienced instructor, as Serjogin was, could have prevented the unthinkable from occurring.
- Already in the turn or at the end of it, Gagarin believed that everything was fine but some mistake occurred in the flying of the plane such as in the first case.
- Serjogin may have tried to take command of the plane (unfortunately we do not have a record of what he said), but he was unable to correct the mistake; it is also possible that he believed that all was well, since experience is no guarantee of effective performance. He may have been disoriented, which would have been a logical conclusion if any of the above had occurred. When there are two pilots in one cockpit who share responsibility for a certain emergency situation, a problem always arises as to which of them decides, and when the instructor takes over full control of the situation. Resolution of this situation is exceptionally difficult, and in a great majority of cases the result is a tragic end. This could also be an answer as to what may have happened.
The accepted facts and probable causal factors show that any of these versions could be chosen as a possible scenario. Worsening weather conditions and the loss of external visual reference, a turn in trajectory of the flight, an increase in speed, simply all of the objective influences of turns – any of these could have caused the stall.
On the basis of these factors, one of the many flight illusions could have occurred, including a “false horizon” before the plane entered a cloudbank. The Leans is a somatogyral illusion in which, after a prolonged gentle turn followed by a sudden return to level flight, a pilot will sense a turn in the opposite direction. Also possible is the most dangerous Coriolis Illusion, another somatogyral illusion caused by the movement of a pilot’s head in three dimensions. The pilot looks at the combined instrument information when manipulating the controls, and when the head is tilted out of the plane of rotation, the pilot experiences a sensation of rolling.
Gagarin Case Still Unsolved
JOSEF PAVLÍK Part II
Possible solutions of the mystery of our case as listed in the conclusion of the first part of this article were not taken into account in the past and are still not actively considered. One possible explanation for this is that two heroes of the Soviet Union could not have conceivably made such a serious mistake that their plane would have fallen from the sky, nor been the victim of some illusion that would have caused them to completely lose their spatial orientation for any reason! Briefly it is necessary to remember that in the Soviet Union a branch of science known as engineering flight psychology was widely known, but that in the investigation of such air accidents it was probably not taken into account at all. Statements in all known documents that investigation of the accident was undertaken with the utmost care and was unprecedented in the world is the greatest illusion of all. As far as Human Factors are concerned, it was only stated that Gagarin had been checked twice by doctors before the flight and been proclaimed completely healthy, and that no traces of alcohol had been found in his remains. This is not even the beginning step, however, for the evaluation of the causes of an air crash.
If we look into the matter further, there has been an almost unequivocal conclusion that it was a corkscrew spiral that brought Gagarin down, one with three, maybe even five turns. Both pilots apparently had enough time to correct the mistake, even to stop the rotation of the plane, but it seems that they waited to come out of the nosedive until they cleared the clouds and were able to see the Earth’s surface. It must be admitted that they likely did not have 3,000 m of free space above the lower cloud layer but that they were with the greatest probability from the very beginning in the clouds. For this reason they were not able to find their bearings. To claim that for this type of aircraft or any other similar one that it is easy to stop a spiral under these conditions is not possible. Even more so, since it is likely that the MiG-15 UTI plane tumbled irregularly, in what has been called a falling leaf effect.
In 1960, eight years before the accident, an order was given from headquarters for some reason (and it would be interesting to know what reason it was) that all pilots, for training reasons, should be taken into a falling leaf exercise by experienced instructors on the very same MiG-15 UTI plane. They were taken into a corkscrew fall and taught how to correct the problem. This training was conducted for all flying military units gradually (there are those who still remember), and this author as a commander of the squadron took part in this exercise with his pilots as well.
First of all, a white line was drawn in the center of the instrument control panel of all MiG-15 UTI planes, even in the one-seat MiG-15s, though the training was never conducted on these one-seaters. All of the planes’ instruments were tuned to their correct values before and during the training, as well as after the flight. If necessary, the instruments were recalibrated. I can state that even after 45 years, none of the pilots, not even the experienced instructors, were happy about this exercise.
The instructor took control of the flight at a certain altitude. In a horizontal flight path, the instructor decreased the speed to 250 km/h by releasing the directional control pedal completely and pulling back on the control column to the maximum, thus bringing the plane into a spiral. As soon as this happened, the pilot pushed forward on the column to the white line which was painted down the middle of the control panel and this, theoretically, brought them out of the spiral. Even the slightest deviation of the wing to the left or the right of this line meant a risk that the pilot would not come out of the spin, with all of the possible negative consequences. In only a few cases did the plane continue to spin, but when it did it was in the form of the falling leaf. Sometimes there was a delay in stopping the spiral. Today’s beginning pilots can only have nightmares about such an exercise, but back then it was a routine training exercise.
As has been said, it was not a pleasant part of flying, and it happened that some exercises resulted in some of our most experienced pilots considering catapulting out when the airplane did not respond the way it should have. After an undetermined amount of pilots completed this emergency amid some slightly rash action, the exercise was discontinued, and everything ended a short time thereafter. Those who had ordered it very possibly breathed a sigh of relief that the exercise had not ended in any serious air crashes.
To claim, or rather to actually believe that Gagarin and Serjogin were able to stop a possible rotation easily after a completely unusual airplane descent, to continue such in an ordered way and then wait for the moment when they were able to “fall” out of the clouds is nigh on to believing in fairy tales, from a professional flying point of view at least.
Those who are truly interested in learning about human beings’ abilities in such situations have a significant amount of both theoretical and practical knowledge at their disposal on the subject of Human Factors. Both pilots, the deeds of their past as a metaphorical medal of honor, were true heroes, but in this unusual situation they were nothing more than normal people. That is why it ended as it did. There was no other way it could end other than tragically. There was no escape.
What else to add? In the basic regulations of the Czechoslovak Military Air Force Let 1-1, which was nearly a word-for-word translation of the same regulations of the VVS USSR, it is written that each pilot or crew should bail out not later than at an altitude of 2,000 m. The possibility, legally, was there, but evidently it was not possible somehow. It has long been known that a pilot in a one-seater but especially in an airplane with dual controls are hesitant to hit the seat ejection button because they do not want to give up on correcting their mistake. It is highly probable that this is the way it happened with Gagarin and Serjogin.
Part of the mountain of documents on the causes of the problems of the two pilots was an evaluation into the accuracy of the instruments for spatial orientation and artificial horizon as an attempt by the authorities to ascertain why the two pilots had fallen to low altitude. Planes of the type MiG-15, -17 and –19 were equipped with AG-1 type (an automatic gyro indicator) with the means to visualize “view of the earth to the ground” with a firm symbol of a tiny plane on a screen and a moving horizon. It is the most common system in the world. This Soviet type had, however, one curiosity: The moving sphere in the background with a demarcated horizon was divided into two separate colored parts for straight flying. For some unexplained reason, however, the lower was blue (sky) and the upper brown (earth – see diagram). At first glance that seems to defy logic, and it is a certain curiosity. When a plane was descending, the brown part emerged from the top, with the blue emerging from the bottom. When the plane was in an ascent, the blue was emerging from the bottom. In the middle there was a line which was divided into angles lengthwise measured in degrees. During a flight vertically upwards then downwards (a somersault-type fall) the fields obviously alternated at every 180 degree turn. From today’s ergonomic point of view this is an extremely difficult case for spatial orientation, especially in the difficult weather conditions (in clouds), because it would make space orientation more difficult in unusual locations of the plane.
Gagarin and Serjogin had this type of artificial horizon on their instrument control panel (both were dependent on each other), and according to some documents the instrument panel was undamaged until it hit the ground. It is also true, however, that in some known documents we can speak of the ugly habit of modifying, or even falsifying data. This is of course the attempt to find any sort of cause that would not include the human element, because it is known that any instrument of this type has its technical limits. It is of course necessary to add that tens of thousands of pilots had and have flown with this artificial horizon successfully in all kinds of weather conditions, night and day, in clouds, wherever MiGs have been flown, and for all sorts of countries. I also flew hundreds of hours in all possible conditions. Only later were these ergonomic issues rightfully discussed.
It is certain that in the time emergency and unusual location that the plane found itself, a crew with even the most perfect artificial horizon would not have been able to save itself. It can be admitted, though, that the unusual color coordination of blue and brown for sky and earth could have had an effect on the beginning of the fall, from which there was no return; the only thing left to do was eject.
Up to now we have spoken of a corkscrew spiral, but it is more probable that Gagarin’s plane went into a free fall spiral thanks to an uncoordinated turn with a bounding angle of inclination and without sufficient speed. If a plane turns at an angle of more than 90 degrees, it ends up on its back; that would result in a fundamental change in the readouts of the artificial horizon, the result being total disorientation of the pilot. If there are two pilots on board at this decisive moment, they can come into conflict and the situation can become unsolvable with all of the negative consequences. Then the plane begins to fall fast and increase its speed. The usual pilot’s reaction is to a falling altimeter is to pull back on the stick, and in so doing pull the plane into some type of difficult to define arc back up. The problem can be that before he is able to do so, the plane is in some difficult if not impossible location. This is likely what happened at the tragic end of the flight after leaving cloud cover (a full free-fall), and it is shown to be true also by the information gathered according to the
imprints of the arrows on the instruments from the remains of the crashed plane.
The proof of this possibly less than courageous claim is the author’s own research in his work, whereby in flying by instruments on the TL-39 flight simulator, 25% of pilots were not able to manage a situation in which they were placed in an artificial horizon situation and lost all spatial orientation. In all of these cases the simulator system was unintentionally brought into spatial disorientation and a free fall spiral by the pilot. After 10 seconds of “flying” from an altitude of 1,200 m, the simulator ‘hit the ground’.
If we consider the course of the assumed trajectory of Gagarin’s plane after his and probably Serjogin’s loss of spatial orientation, these cases are quite similar. The behavior of these planes can be simulated by computer, so that a sufficient amount of evidence could be found to justify such a theory. What we cannot model today and will not be able to model in the future is the behavior of pilots in such a difficult situation, and how they react or do not react to an emergency.
So the cause of the loss of control and spatial orientation of the pilots that we have postulated will likely remain unexplained. The authors of published works up to know have for the known reasons (though they have no objective proof) hypothesized that pilots Serjogin and Gagarin, with the halos and reputations they had earned in the past, should have been able to somehow escape from the dangerous situation they had not caused. The main witness, Professor Belocerkevskij, even claims that the crew of the plane should have been able to act even at the end of the flight (in that he is not mistaken - they were still alive, but that is all), and that they energetically fought for their lives and the plane, using all the possible and even the most effective methods and solutions, although they were under the influence of a high amount of gravity. This is a very difficult theory to prove and support, however. When you are fighting for your life, you’re not passive, although sometimes you tend to act somewhat impulsively. Those who do attempt to save themselves act courageously. They are healthy pilots, well-trained and experienced. The training of Gagarin is documented objectively by evidence; how prepared Serjogin was in reality we do not know.
The suggestion that they would have been able to save themselves at 250-300 m and in two seconds is most unlikely. Those who know even the most elementary aspects of aerodynamics and who take in consideration the printouts of the instruments would know that it would take a much higher altitude and much different conditions. It is highly probable that at least one of the pilots, the one who was flying the plane in the last seconds, attempted the impossible – to bring her back up out of the free fall after flying out of the clouds even at that fateful altitude, which would certainly result in an increase in g-force. This would also have most likely been attempted already in the clouds.
The pride of the USSR, the first man in space and therefore the winner of the space race, a sacred hero, with him a war hero, an instructor and the head of the air training department for all other cosmonauts could not in any case officially be seen as making a mistake. That was most certainly the way it was in the past, and it seems to be so even now from the works published. That is why researchers have attempted to find some external cause to attribute to the accident, one that would have taken the plane to a low altitude and caused the plane to fall.
There is nothing left for us to do but attempt to explain this certainly most interesting airplane crash of a MiG by using a current scientific point of view and to learn as much as we can from it. That is part of why this article is being written. Gagarin is history, but we must live in the present.
Today we have at our disposal completely objective scientific results dealing with the reliability of people as operators who determine the fluid and safe operations in complicated technical and informational systems. This field looks at Human Factors. In aviation, we call this field ergonomics. If we apply its findings to the Gagarin case, it is clear that Human Factors were the main cause of the accident, on the basis of disagreement between the pilot and the fundamentally changing informational model, which was violated by the psychosomatic system guaranteeing effective and safe operation of flights. The result is an exceptional situation characterized by an emergency limited to seconds, to actual stress, unclear information and high risk, when even the best prepared pilot might not be able to manage the situation.
It is a situation in which orientation, defined as constant knowledge and exact recognition of all factors and conditions influencing a flight in a dynamic flying environment, constant and exact recognition of time, location and movement. Spatial orientation is then a critical part of overall situational orientation of a pilot. Its negative is spatial disorientation, which plays an exceptionally important role in the active prevention of airplane accidents. One of the definitions is as follows: “Spatial disorientation is the inability of a person to determine his true body position, motion and altitude relative to the earth or his surroundings.” From the point of view of a pilot, it is incorrect perception of any flying parameters displayed on instrument panel instruments or the combination thereof. It is the case when an image is superimposed by a type of artificial horizon with unusual and unnatural color differentiation of earth and sky.
Today we can distinguish between three types of spatial disorientation:
Type 1: disorientation of a pilot who is unaware of it; the pilot does not feel any discrepancy, he maneuvers using incorrect information even up to a fatal airplane accident (for example flying a plane into the ground).
Type 2: disorientation of a pilot who is aware of it and is therefore able to adapt (he feels several symptoms, doesn’t believe the instruments, illusions, dizziness, etc.).
Type 3: disorientation of a pilot who is aware of it but it is so strong that he is not capable of flying the plane, defending himself against it or adjusting to it.
The case of Gagarin and Serjogin was with the greatest probability the third type. Their ultimate fate, then, because of the circumstances as described, was more or less sealed. To summarize, from what has been reported and even from some less official documents, including some confirmed probabilities from other arguments, we must place this accident in the category of classic Human Factors, or failure thereof.
Up to now we have attempted a chronological as well as a more modern interpretation of the known facts about the accident. What can we conclude? First of all it is necessary to at least doubt the published claims that the official investigation of the events of this air catastrophe “is incomparable (meaning in the then USSR) but also including those investigations in other countries as concerns the diligence, consistency and justification of the work undertaken” (Kosmos News No. 31). Here it is possible to find some fundamental weaknesses which have been mentioned in connection with the evaluation of the course of preparation and actual flight. To admit a technical failure officially, which of course could have occurred, was at that time taboo: Soviet planes flew without any error, according to the media. Only in cases in which mistakes were made “in the other world”, that of civil aviation, was it possible to admit such mistakes. No one ever found out about military air accidents, even in internal communications, much less the public. Even the commission was likely not told the whole truth. The “technical causes” were therefore a cover for Human Factors, when the authorities looked for the cause of this or other plane crashes. The archives might tell the full story if one looked carefully. There was “space” for certain things to be hidden, and they were mostly hidden successfully. Even I, and I’m not afraid to say so, have been a witness to such practices, and it wasn’t so long ago.
As far as engineering is concerned, 12 years of operation of a plane is not a long time in terms of today’s or even past standards. Additional tanks added to old-style planes in the aerodynamics of planes of course played a role, but it could not have been a decisive one.
In the documents known to now it is described how Gagarin wanted to return to the cockpit quickly and enthusiastically. This was based on his new position (or was it so new?) as a flight instructor to prepare new cosmonauts for further missions. But if he had wanted to return to flying before, even without his leadership ambitions, he had enough time to do so, around eight years. His American colleagues had no problems returning to flying, as the number of their flight hours was significantly higher than Gagarin’s. As stated earlier, his further training up to the level of planned instructor activities was not only demanding, but especially because of his earlier lack of experience (pilot second class) and his lack of flight hours would have taken a significant amount of time, if it were ever completed at all. But who would have stood in his way?
Gagarin liked to fly at that time, and he was active on flight simulators, which by the way was connected to his dissertation work. If, however, such a primitive device as the one shown in the previously mentioned article “The Last Pilot” from the magazine Science and Life (1987) can be described as a real training device that helped him to gain the necessary experience, then it is no wonder that he might have been lacking. At that time in the USSR there were much higher quality flight simulators (not to mention space simulators), and this seeming piece of evidence of his training would be more of a hindrance than not. Whoever dared to print something like that, however, had no idea what the simulator really was.
And so Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, was allowed to fly again, with the blessing of the highest party and government officials. The role of the war hero, Colonel Serjogin, who sat in the back seat of the cockpit behind him during his last flight, was very unclear. It seems as if it was Serjogin himself who was in the end responsible for their fate. It was because of Serjogin that Gagarin’s flight training procedure was not rigorously adhered to. We also don’t know whether Serjogin actually flew with Gagarin in those eight training hours that are recorded, or whether it was someone else, nor what tasks were fulfilled. The fighter pilot preparation program should have of course been the foundation of the training, if of course Serjogin did not organize everything on his own. It even seems that their last flight is an indication of how risky the whole operation was, from beginning to the end. Otherwise we could speak of simple bad luck, bad luck that we can attempt to explain. The whole flight, although it was undertaken IFR instead of the prescribed method VFR, should have been so simple that even a pilot second class should have been able to manage it successfully, one like Gagarin, though he had attained that ranking eight years before. This is not to mention Serjogin, with his alleged long experience.
We don’t know, of course, and it would be interesting to find out, how far and under what conditions he had flown. No one has ever looked into that. Did he fly regularly, or only occasionally did he take people up as a control inspector? That was possible in those days, so there are all kinds of questions that we will never know the answers to.
If we leave aside a number of suppositions that have been often mentioned concerning the irreproachable life and work of these two famous people, as well as other considerations making up the whole system of preparation of this “last flight”, and we take into consideration other eventualities connected with the accident, there is nothing left to state but these undeniable facts:
On March 27, 1968, after take-off and ascension in a MiG-15 UTI, at 10:30 a.m. 10 seconds, Gagarin and Serjogin originally flew into a fairly close geographically undetermined Zone 20, at an apparent altitude of 4,200 m, in weather conditions which we cannot know but were clearly far from ideal. Gagarin announced his ascent to air traffic controllers in a steady voice, it appears. He went on to say that he had finished the task and was turning around into a 320 degree turn to return to the airport. Just 50 seconds after this pronouncement, upon leaving the clouds at 600 m (no one was there to measure the exact altitude), his plane, in a free-fall, crashed into the ground.
No one will ever know what really and truly happened between. It will be difficult to find out with any certainty what happened even if we do eventually have access to documents concerning the flight which may be somewhere locked away in some vault. There we will find some propagandistic measures and an investigation which most certainly followed the accident, but probably nothing more. If there is any way to come to some objective conclusion as to what really happened, it would have to be concluded that Colonel Serjogin was responsible for the accident, and here again the Human Factors enter the equation. Serjogin cannot be held responsible now, however, and I hesitate to indict him in any way. I know very well from my long years as a pilot that the there is a fine line between good luck and bad luck in such cases. Of course I do not want to disparage the hero status of either of them, Gagarin in space, Serjogin at war. No, just the opposite, I salute them and their heroic efforts. They were only human, however, and in no case could they have been infallible gods.
As the years have passed, some often quite strange conjecture about Gagarin’s accident has surfaced. Some information had to come out sooner or later, although it was released some 20 years later during perestroika. The former member of the investigative committee, Professor Belocerkevskij, was named to show the Soviet public and the world that once secret documents were now being opened. One document was made public which we can use even today. The professor has exclusive rights to this document even now. Though it was available from the very beginning, it belonged to the circle of people which knew Gagarin and Serjogin personally. (If other sources exist, I apologize for not knowing about them). All of the attempts to explain the causes of the accident, then, can be attributed to the work of Professor Belocerkevskij.
It is necessary to remember that the investigating commission as well as Professor Belocerkevskij did not have an easy task in explaining the causes of the accident. They were not allowed to doubt the reliability of Soviet air force technology, or to have any doubts about both of the heroes, nor even doubt the work of other actors and support personnel responsible for flying procedures. No one was publicly accused, and as has been said, the archives are still not completely open.
What followed was a desperate attempt to find any kind of external cause which would not harm any of the actors of the accident but that would be sufficient to explain how Gagarin had managed to bring the plane into its unusual and deadly situation. The same goes for Colonel Serjogin, although we don’t usually mention him in this phase of the flight. All the stated reasons are either naive or completely constructed, and it is difficult to accept any of them as evidence, whether it is the presence of some meteorological probe or the fly-by of another airplane.
The one area which has been left out completely, and probably on purpose, is the Human Factors and their effects, although the study of these in engineering psychology in certain scientific circles was quite developed in the USSR. What remained was only ideological phrases about the heroism of one or both of them in the last phase of the flight. It was not possible to figuratively look the public in the eye when saying so, however. The one obvious and completely fundamental mistake in the attempts made up to now to analyze what really happened up there is a still non-existent analysis of the Human Factors and with it the attempt to as objectively as possible explain the most probable course of events in the last moments of their fateful flight. We can admit that either one or both of them could have suffered from one or more of the more well-known and defined flight illusions. The result could have been a complete spatial disorientation and the plane ending up at the low altitude from which there was no return.
We have attempted to bring to attention the often underestimated and completely simple exercise which is the turning of a plane, which however has its dangers. The great irony in all of this is that Gagarin did not lose his life in a single pilot flight, which he would have most certainly been able to master in a one-seat plane. Rather, he died in a situation which was above the needs of his pilot training.
It is also surprising that none of the researchers who have looked into the case since 1968 (at least as far as is known to me) has ever come to any other objective and acceptable conclusion.
The question remains, then, why I have chosen to attempt to explain this mystery from today’s scientific point of view. The answer is clear: Gagarin’s case is for me a reminder of how important it is to fly safely. It has been necessary to point out the parallels with our modern situation, because not only 36 years ago but also today the investigation and prevention of airplane crashes (though it may seem a paradox) has been done without taking into consideration Human Factors, although it has long been known that around 80% of all serious airplane crashes are connected to them in one way or another. Nothing has changed here in our country even today. One member of the investigating commission is always a doctor whose task it is to verify whether a person in an airplane crash was competent to fly the plane as concerns his physical health (whether he had a valid physical examination on record). The doctor also has to be physically present at the scene of the accident, and if necessary guarantee the safe removal and evaluation of the bodily remains. That is all, however. The use of flying ergonomics, widespread in the world today, where the main area of interest is investigation into the Human Factors of the accident, is for some unknown and inexplicable reason still tabula rasa, unknown to our commissions. And that, unfortunately, without any attempt by the responsible parties to finally recognize and use some of the principles therein.
Why is this so? In the Czech Republic, there are both civil and military flight institutions, of course, which statutorily attempt to find solutions to safe flying and investigate airplane crashes and their prevention. This is the second year we have had (only as a result of the legislation of the EU) the Air Accidents Investigation Unit, but as we can imagine from its name, the Human Factors issue is not taken up. In the armed forces of the CR there is, previously as a part of the Air Force Command Unit, then as part of the General Staff – a department which deals with safe flying. In the military this department has a long tradition marked by of course various opinions on the importance of this area. One thing is sure, however, and I defy anyone to say it is not: In the Czech Republic airplane crashes are investigated without regard to modern, scientifically proven knowledge and the undeniable results of statistics that back them up. It is necessary to emphasize and underscore that accidents are only investigated from a purely professional aviation (methodology) and technical point of view.
The incontrovertible mission of Human Factors in civil aviation as well as military in making certain that flying remains safe remains completely left out. This highly important tool is not used. Not even the results of publications from around the world which objectively and emphatically show the alarming increase of airplane accidents for this reason are respected. This neglect of well-known knowledge of flying ergonomics and psychology (which we have attempted here to at least partially explain) in the safe operation of airplanes, along with active prevention of airplane crashes should seem incomprehensible, but unfortunately it is not so. It is necessary to conclude that the Czech Republic is very likely the only civilized country in the world which does not use this possibility in civil and military aviation, mainly for the reason that there is no professional workplace which concerns itself with this exceptionally important area.
That is why I have chosen to use Gagarin’s last flight as an example of what should be an unbelievable situation for some. This work was written as a serious warning and attempt to inform the responsible organs of the flying public that something is seriously wrong. Will one courageous individual among them be able, or rather willing, to answer this challenge?
It is for this reason that the case of Yuri Gagarin is still of great importance even today.