Did Gagarin die because he followed instructions?

We've reconstructed the last 15 minutes of Gagarin's life. [Video Reconstruction]
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Final article. See the first segment on March 26.

What did the Soviet State Panel learn from investigating the deaths of Yury Gagarin and Vladimir Seregin?

1. The MiG-15UTI aircraft was in working order before hitting the ground. The training aircraft had two cockpits – both for a student and an instructor.

2. Both pilots were sober. Medics didn't find any alcohol in their blood. Gagarin and Seregin felt healthy before the flight, but weren't able-bodied when the plane crashed.

3. Two MiG-15UTI aircrafts took off shortly after Gagarin (whose aircraft was code signed "625"). They were followed by the MiG-15UTI training aircraft code signed "614." The 614 traveled parallel to Gagarin at an altitude of 3,000 meters. A total of 7 aircrafts were in the air at the same time as the 625.

4. Seregin was the last to control the aircraft. How was this determined? The pedals and pilot's shoes were destroyed at the same angle. It must have been a grueling task for the doctors on site. The pilots' bodies were utterly destroyed. The doctors identified their remains by the color of their underwear. Seregin was identified by pieces of his scalp and ears. Gagarin was identified by a mole behind his ear and the fingers of his left hand. A fragment of his hand remained on the engine operating handle. Its papillary lines were compared to Gagarin's fingerprints from his home phone, the glass on his office desk and personal letters.

5. The ventilation valve in Gagarin's cockpit was half open when the aircraft took off. As a result, the cockpit was depressurized. This is the "small detail" that I referred to in my previous article. Who opened the valve? Gagarin? Probably not. The valve was likely open when the pilots boarded the aircraft.

Monitoring the valve wasn't the responsibility of the aerodrome's mechanic, but rather the pilots. However, MiG-15UTI aircrafts assembled in the Soviet Union didn't have such valves. Gagarin's aircraft did, though, as it was built in Czechoslavakia. The pilots most likley paid no attention to it.

Who's to blame for the cockpit's depressurization

"No one is to blame for the open valve," said aviation engineer Igor Kuznezov. He participated in the Engineering Sub-Commission in 1968 that was tasked with investigating the tragedy. He began looking into the mysterious crash again in 2000. "The cockpit was depressurized when the aircraft took off. That's a fact. The pilots probably didn't know. They were well trained, but they didn't know they were losing oxygen at 4,000 meters."

Gagarin's aircraft took off at 10:18. Seven minutes later, at 10:25, the pilots reached an altitude of 4,200 meters. They then proceeded to execute their first assignment – two coordinated circles ("Figure 8's").

"It's clear they didn't know the cockpit was depressurized," Kuznezov said. But why didn't they use the oxygen tanks in the cockpit? That's difficult to say. They most likely didn't put their masks on when they were on the ground."

At 10:30, Gagarin informed the flight director that they had completed their first assignment. He requested permission to turn around and take the course "320," which meant turning left, entering the flight corridor and returning to the aerodrome. The request must have taken the ground officials off-guard. Gagarin hadn't finished his assignment. He still needed to execute a steep climb and nosedive. There was also enough fuel in the aircraft to last a full 25 minutes. If the pilot was urgently canceling his flight, then something was wrong. The director should have asked Gagarin what happened, but he didn't. And Gagarin didn't tell him.

"When pilots are in the air they can hear the conversations of other pilots with the ground station," Kuznezov said. "But there's also etiquette. I think Gagarin and Seregin didn't want to bother anyone. They didn't think the situation was critical. They thought they were two heroes and could handle anything."

"You can't fly that way!"

Let's throw out all the conjectures.

The pilots didn't tell the base they had a problem. That's a fact. But there's yet another mystery. Why didn't Gagarin take the 320 course, as he was supposed to do, according to official instructions?

Deputy Director Colonel Vyacheslav Bykovskiy saw that Gagarin was taking a different course on his radio-locator and later wrote: "Gagarin didn't take the 320, but rather flew in the opposite direction. You can't go that way!"

"There's an explanation for this. The cockpit was depressurized and the pilots followed official instructions on how to act in similar situations (which haven't changed since). The instructions say that pilots must urgently end their assignment, decrease altitude to 2,000 meters and return to base."

Valentina Gagarina was patronized by the astronauts from the first detachment. In the photo: Valentina Gagarina and Alexey Leonov (right)

The pilots had to urgently decrease altitude from 4,200 meters. But they couldn't turn left and take the 320. They risked crashing into the 614 that had taken off 5 minutes after Gagarin completed his figure 8. The 614 had probably caught up with the 625 and was flying nearby at 3,000 meters. Gagarin should have flown 12 o'clock, but he couldn't – a parachute group had just jumped near the Red October Aerodrome. He was left with only one option – to turn right and fly further into his zone where there were no other planes.

Furthermore, according to instructions, Gagarin should have urgently decreased altitude. But what does urgently mean? It can mean one thing for a civil aviation pilot and another for a fighter pilot like Seregin. Many of Seregin's colleagues say that he loved difficult manoeuvres. In 1954, he almost broke an aircraft when on a test flight – while forcing the plane to execute extraordinary manoeuvres.

Seregin took control of the aircraft before the crash. He was the last one to fly the plane. He made a tough manoeuvre and entered into a nosedive. The manoeuvre begins with the pilot turning the aircraft upwards, then making a wide arc and quickly descending. It's possible that Seregin wanted to show Gagarin this new manoeuvre, as the latter hadn't yet mastered aerobatics.

"In 1985, 17 years after the catastrophe, we had the technology to calculate the height where the nosedive began. I calculated 4,100 meters," Kuznezov said. "Everything fits."

Back in 1968, investigators had determined that the aircraft descended steadily. It approached quickly the ground, and the pilots didn't attempt to pull out of the manoeuvre. But Seregin was an experienced pilot. Why didn't he try to pull out of the nosedive?

"Because he and Gagarin weren't able-bodied enough to do it!" Kuznezov said.

Thus, Gagarin spoke calmly with the director and passed out several seconds later.

"Somewhere around 4,100-4,200 meters, the pilots either lost consciousness or entered a pre-collapsed state. This would have occurred in a depressurized cockpit quickly losing altitude."

Kuznezov explained his calculations.

Pressure was growing in the cockpit. At 4,100 meters, pressure is about 460 millimeters on the barometer, while it's 760 millimeters when on the ground. The pilots jumped 300 millimeters in less than half a minute. It's the same as submerging 50 meters into the sea in the matter of seconds.

The pilots also felt the effects of hypoxia. Gagarin and Seregin were in a depressurized cockpit for 6 minutes before entering into a nosedive. The accelerative forces from descending so quickly weakened their ability to withstand the growing pressure. Today's pilots are protected in similar situations. They have special costumes and pressurized helmets. However, at the time, pilots only wore leather jackets. In similar situations, pilots have died on military training flights in the U.S.

"In 1975, our medics prohibited pilots from descending faster than 50 meters per second," said Kuznezov. "But it was 1968 and Gagarin's aircraft was losing altitude at 145 meters per second – three times faster than the accepted norm."

"I can't say who lost consciousness first. What's important is that they didn't try to pull out of the nosedive at 2,000 meters. This means they were unconscious. They passed out during the 14 seconds when the aircraft descended from 4,100 to 2,000 meters.


Why have I placed so much stress on Kuznezov in this series of articles? He spoke with myriad participants from the government investigation and made multiple calculations. Also, although he is confident that his theory is accurate, he has left the door open for further developments. And he is genuine in his desire to learn what happened to Gagarin. Thus, he believes that a new state investigation should be launched to test all theories and draw an official conclusion.

"There is a law in aviation," Kuznezov said. "Each and every unsolved mystery is like a mine. If left behind, thousands of pilots are at risk. It could easily explode in a similar situation and take countless human lives."

Read also: "Who cut the straps off Gagarin's parachute?" [Archived Video]

Download a reprint of Komsomolskaya Pravda April 13, 1961. (.pdf)

Реконструкция гибели Гагарина.Восстанавливаем подробности последних 15 минут жизни первого космонавта планеты... Читайте: Гагарин погиб, потому что четко соблюдал инструкцию?

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