WITH one spectacular flight, 19-year-old Mathias Rust has become as famous as Boris Becker, the 19-year-old tennis ace. And West Germans are torn between chuckling at the feat of flying a sports plane from Helsinki to Red Square and playing it down for Mr. Rust's sake until he is released. Rather disingenuously, the West German government press spokesman has been suggesting that Rust may have made a ``navigational error'' from Helsinki on his purported way to Stockholm.
No West German reporting can quite match the solemn chutzpah of the Soviet news media, of course, in reporting that the teen-ager landed ``in Moscow,'' without specifying the unorthodox and hallowed locale where he actually set down.
But the Germans, who are not noted for a Walter Mitty streak in their national character, are still at a loss to explain the exploit.
Americans instantly assume that this was a lark on the part of the quiet kid who quit his bank-apprentice job to spend every minute and pfennig on his love affair with flying.
And a few television commentators here, even letting Rust usurp the Bonn government's mulling over of arms control policy, have been unable to keep the corners of their mouth down as they read their reports. But Germans in general find the action mystifying.
Officials in his Hamburg flight club have muttered that Rust's private license would be revoked immediately over his irresponsible behavior and unauthorized use of their plane and have expressed puzzlement that this ``modest and reserved'' and ``precise and careful'' model student, with only 40 hours of previous flight time behind him, would do something so zany.
Reporters have seriously asked his parents whether there might be any political motivation behind this flight of fancy, and his parents have seriously said they doubt it.
But this has not stopped speculation on the left that he might have been demonstrating for peace and, on the right, that he might have been distributing fliers to free Rudolf Hess, the nonagenarian Hitler lieutenant, from jail. And even the countercultural newspaper Tageszeitung, which one would expect to enjoy a good joke on the establishment, vented its frustration over Rust's lack of discernible leftist leanings by grumbling that he was a ``terrifyingly average'' young man.
There are some glints of appreciation, however. The woman at my neighborhood store first said he must be immature. But on second thought she added, ``He has courage.''
Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said he ``laughed himself silly'' over the stunt. And a quickie opinion poll showed that 79 percent of West Germans laughed along with him. A higher 88 percent expressed ``respect'' for Rust's achievement, and 93 percent thought he belonged in the Guinness Book of World Records. On this side of the border, at least.
Although the 90 percent of East Germans who can receive West German television were probably glued to their sets as ARD-TV broadcast the film of the Cessna 172B setting down next to St. Basil's Cathedral, the East German press has not even told its readers as much as Soviet newspaper readers know.