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The Lost Cosmonauts – Vladimir Ilyushin


Vladimir Ilyushin today

Vladimir Ilyushin is the son of one of the Soviet Union’s best known aicraft designers, Serghei Ilyushin.
During the 1960s, Serghei Ilyushin was a politically powerful figure, a deputy leader of the Soviet Supreme and the recipient of three medals as “Hero of the Soviet Union”.
His son, Vladimir, was the most distinguished of soviet test pilots.
In 1959 he set the world altitude record, when he reached 30,000 meters in his Sukhoi-9 jet fighter. In 1960 he received the “Hero of the Soviet Union” medal for his high-altitude and high-speed test flights.

Ilyushin did not at first join the Cosmonauts’ Corps. He was not a part of the team that was pictured in a 1959 photo-reportage published in the popular magazine “Ogonyok”. At that time, he was concentrating all his efforts on gaining the world altitude record. Soon he realized that his record would pale when compared with the achievement of reaching Earth orbit. Perhaps because of his father’s considerable political clout, Vladimir Ilyushin was allowed to join the original cosmonauts a year after their group was originally formed. He reportedly went through a special intensive training program and quickly surfaced as the most talented cosmonaut in the group. In early 1961, some photographs were published in the Soviet Union, that showed Vladimir Ilyushin undergoing spaceflight training.

One of his colleagues had been launched into space in secret on February 2, 1961. Something went wrong during the early part of that flight and the pilot became unconscious. Unable to return to Earth before the beginning of the second orbit and forced to remain in space until the 17th orbit in order to avoid a forced landing on foreign soil, the cosmonaut perished in space.
Vladimir Ilyushin was scheduled for the following flight. The fault having apparently being rectified, his capsule, named “Rossiya” was launched in the morning of April 7th, 1961.

It has been reported that, once again, something in the capsule went wrong. Before completion of the first orbit, the pilot stopped responding to the radio calls from mission control. Ilyushin had lost consciousness and a tragic repeat of the February mission was unfolding. Due to the high profile of the pilot, it was decided to attempt an emergency landing during the third orbit. As a consequence, “Rossiya” would touch down in mainland China, a communist country, but one with strained relations with Moscow at that time.
The normal procedure for the Vostok landings called for ejection of the pilot from the capsule at about 20,000 feet, with the pilot touching down hanging from his own parachute. Being unconscious, Vladimir Ilyushin was unable to eject from “Rossiya” and sustained very serious injuries when the capsule hit the ground. He was badly hurt, but alive, gaining the honor of being the first man to return alive from orbit.
The Chinese authorities hospitalized Ilyushin and kept him in China for a year, as their “honored guest”, an euphemism normally reserved to describe foreign intelligence agents.

By the time of his emergency landing, news had leaked out among foreign communist correspondents in Moscow that a manned spaceflight was either on-going or imminent. Just one day after Ilyushin’s failed mission, a hurried decision was made in Moscow to launch the back-up pilot, Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin’s flight almost ended up in tragedy: at the time of de-orbiting, the descent capsule failed to disconnect from the service module. After several unsuccessful attempts, the landing craft finally separated, for no apparent reason. The de-orbiting manoeuver had occurred nearly ten minutes after its intended time and Gagarin landed in a remote area, away from the recovery teams. Regardless of this close-call, the mission was, at last, a success and Gagarin’s flight captured the attention of the world and effectively succeeded in covering up Ilyushin’s aborted mission. Vladimir Ilyushin recovered from the accident, returned to the Soviet Union in 1962 and eventually became chief test pilot at the Sukhoi Design Bureau. He is now (1999) a retired Air Force General living in a Moscow suburb.