Wild plane ride to Missouri

Friday, April 10, 2009

It was tough to miss the story about the suicidal Canadian man, born in Turkey, who stole a plane and flew it halfway down the United States, hoping to be shot out of the sky by U.S. fighter jets. He landed on a rural road near Ellsinore, Mo., where he was arrested after hitchhiking to a convenience store.

Did you read that last line?

That's right, a nice Missourian, who was unaware of the illicit nature of the pilot's adventure, not only stopped to see if the troubled Canadian was OK after the plane landed, but he offered the guy a ride, then gave him $2 for a Gatorade.

I don't know what problems spurred Adam Leon (formerly Yavuv Burke) to make such a desperate act. But if he needed affirmation about the goodness of people -- including traits of generosity and trust -- then the young man from Ellsinore who picked him up would be a fair place to start.

Of course, the convenience store owners, who had been alerted to the plane's landing by friends who were following the news, also took appropriate action. She and her husband readied their guns in case there was trouble.

Both reactions are typical for Missourians: kindness and generosity on one hand, prudent self-reliance on the other.

At the time of this writing, I haven't read much more about the pilot, except that he has been charged with several crimes. When he entered American airspace, the Wisconsin National Guard intercepted him and directed him to land, sending warnings that he ignored. A quick check of his background by authorities revealed no concerns about terrorism, so no order was given to shoot him down, though the U.S. jets trailed him along his journey. His flight path, meanwhile, did not take him directly over major population centers, which also lessened the risk, according to government officials.

Readers of the news understand that terror cells often seek to stress the system to see how it responds before launching a "real" attack later, and one expects the government is reviewing all aspects of Mr. Leon's strange case. But for now it appears he was simply a troubled man with a peculiar death wish.


This episode reminds me of another wild Cessna ride involving a student pilot who crossed international borders. Twenty-two years ago, in May 1987, West German citizen Mathias Rust flew a Cessna 172 through the vaunted Soviet air defense system, eventually landing in Red Square. He made this flight a day after the major general in charge of KGB border guards told a crowd in Moscow that the Soviet people "could rest easy with regard to the sacred borders of their country."

Rust's flight caused a furor in the Soviet Union, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sacked several of his top generals as a result, calling the incident a "national shame."

Rust (no relation to the Cape Girardeau Rusts) served more than a year in a Soviet prison before being released on parole to German officials. An avid pilot, the illegality of his trip revoked his flying privileges, and Rust scraped the barrel of society for a while, struggling with psychological problems and being arrested for several crimes. According to a Washington Post story about his life, today he is a wealthy businessman who likes to play high-stakes poker. He walked away from one sitting of high rollers with $1 million in winnings, Rust once told media outlets.

"When I look back, I am of two minds about what I did," he told the Washington Post. "I caused myself a lot of problems, but it was my destiny and you have to live your destiny."

Who knows the final story about Adam Leon, other than that he is likely to spend time in an American or Canadian prison. But here's hoping his journey was purely about his own problems, and that he recovers well. As proved by the good Samaritan in Ellsinore who helped him with a ride and money for a beverage, there are lots of kind people around.

jrust@semissourian.com;

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