Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Yuri Gagarin: Former Cosmonaut Offers First-Hand Account Of His Death

Yuri Gagarin 50 Year Tribute
Russian pilot and cosmonaut Vladimir Aksyonov has offered the most plausible account to date of the crash of the fighter jet that killed Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Vladimir Seryogin, a regimental commander at the cosmonaut training center where Gagarin was enrolled.

Aksyonov, a two-time Hero of the Soviet Union, was with Gagarin at a pre-flight medical exam on March 27, 1968, the day of the crash. He flew in a different plane on that fateful day.

Gagarin's Capsule - Vostok-1
Aksyonov presents his unofficial version of events in his book "Along the Roads of Trial", which has just been released in a limited printing.

Gagarin and Aksyonov saw the same doctor before boarding different planes

Outside the Polbin Higher Air Force School, where Gagarin was enrolled from 1955 to 1957, stands a concrete pedestal supporting the MiG-15 jet in which the world's first cosmonaut learned to fly.

"The first person to offer this version of the crash was Hero of the Soviet Union Sergei Anokhin, an experienced test pilot, and a member of the commission that investigated the disaster," Aksyonov told me.

"It was soon after the crash. He told me first not only because we were friends and knew each other so well that could finish each other's sentences, but also perhaps because on that tragic day I shared the same changing room with Gagarin, got my pre-flight medical clearance from the same doctor and was briefed about the weather by the same officer."

Aksyonov says that the crews then went to their separate aircraft, with Yury Gagarin assigned to fly in a MiG-15 with Vladimir Seryogin, and Aksyonov assigned to a plane conducting training in zero-gravity conditions.

Bad weather a factor
Aksyonov says that weather conditions on that day were difficult but still within the acceptable range: "The cloud cover was far from standard. Its lower edge was at an altitude of 600 meters. Then there was a solid mass of clouds up to 4,000 meters, with few openings. Beyond that there were no clouds; the sky was clear and visibility was very good. We were even shown photos of the upper edge taken by a weather plane."

Vladimir Aksyonov
Gagarin's last words
says that Gagarin's last message from the jet was that they had completed their mission to reach the upper edge of the cloud cover, at an altitude of 4,000 meters.

They were flying at a low speed but at a great altitude. Their next maneuver was to make a rapid descent and prepare for a dive through the cloud cover.

Minutes before Gagarin's death
"A descent can be performed in several ways," Aksyonov said. "There is the downward spiral with several rotations, or you can perform a half-roll and then pull out of the steep descent in the direction of the airfield. 

The second method - a quick descent with a half-roll - is used by pilots who want to finish their assignment quickly to allow other pilots to use the plane. Cosmonaut Yevgeny Khrunov was scheduled to fly on that day, and this is why Gagarin and Seryogin opted for for the fast dive."

Vladimir Aksyonov
Aksyonov believes that Gagarin and Seryogin were two to three seconds late in pulling out of the dive after the half-roll, causing them to end up in the thick cloud layer. But there could have been other factors as well: the greater altitude and density of the cloud cover at the point of entry compared with the general level, or the inadequate height at which the MiG-15 started the half-roll.

Causes of the tragedy in Aksyonov's account
"So the causes of the crash could have been bad weather, with the upper edge of the cloud cover 4 kilometers up, and the lower edge at a mere 600 meters," Aksyonov said. "There was also the pilots' failure (primarily Seryogin's) to judge the weather correctly, and also the sudden entry into the unbroken cloud layer at a high speed while diving, which rendered the pilots unable to fly steady using the instruments. Another cause of the crash was the inadequate height between the lower cloud edge and the point at which the pilots pulled out."

Soviet MiG-15 UTI
Entering tailspin
The aircraft unexpectedly found itself in dense clouds, travelling at high speeds, with the attitude gauges - primarily the bank and pitch indicator - behaving erratically. In these conditions, the plane will most likely enter a deep downward spiral, or, if they pilot is making energetic attempts to pull up, enter into a rapid tailspin. 

According to official findings, Gagarin and Seryogin's aircraft emerged from the clouds nearly vertical, and hurtled towards the ground at a speed of 700 kilometers per hour. At this speed, the MiG-15 took three seconds to fall the remaining 600 meters to the ground.

Gagarin and Seryogin did not try to eject   
"The fact that Gagarin and Seryogin did not try to eject themselves, or to establish radio contact with the ground, can be explained by their sudden entry into the cloud cover," Aksyonov said. "Both pilots were struggling to regain control of the aircraft. If the emergency had been caused by some outside factor, the pilots would have immediately reported it by radio."

He also noted the difficulty of piloting a heavy MiG-15 UTI fighter in a vertical position.

"At the lower point of any aerial figure or half-roll, aircraft speeds are at their highest - about 700 kilometers an hour," Aksyonov said. "So it is quite possible for a MiG-15 in rapid descent to overshoot the target altitude by a few hundred meters or even a kilometer."

Official report on Gagarin's death still classified
The government commission that investigated the circumstances of Gagarin's death was never able to pinpoint the true cause of the tragedy. Its report remains classified.

According to the official version of events, due to a change in air conditions (the commission did not specify what change) the crew performed a sharp maneuver and entered into a tailspin. The pilots, despite their efforts to right the plane, crashed to the ground and died. No equipment failures or malfunctions were reported. An analysis of the pilots' remains and blood revealed no traces of foreign substances.

Aksyonov rejects rumors that the pilots were drunk
The secrecy surrounding the accident has given rise to rumors and conspiracy theories. One widely repeated story is that Gagarin and Seryogin each drank a glass of vodka before flying. Official sources reject this claim, citing the fact that investigators found no alcohol in the pilots' blood. Aksyonov agrees with the official explanation on this point.

"That day was very important for Yury Gagarin, and everyone who knew the details and the pilots personally find speculation that Gagarin and Seryogin were drunk during flight preposterous," Aksyonov said.

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