On May 1, 1960, a lone CIA U-2 spy plane took off from a forward operating base in Peshawar, Pakistan for what would be one of the most fateful flights of the Cold War era. After more than 5 years of uneventful US overflights of the Soviet Union, this mission, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, would change the strategic balance of the Cold War.
Powers’ mission was to take him on a marathon flight over several reconnaissance targets of interest – the Baikonur missile test facility, the Sverdlosk industrial center, the ICBM bases at Plesetsk, the submarine construction yards at Severodvinsk, and the Soviet Northern Fleet base at Murmansk – before recovering at the NATO base at Bodo, Norway.
Halfway through his flight, before reaching Sverdlosk at an altitude of 70,500 feet, an SA-2 surface-to-air missile exploded aft of his aircraft, sending the U-2 spiraling downward. Powers survived and was promptly apprehended by Soviet authorities. In one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War, Powers was tried in the Hall of Columns at the Kremlin in a highly-publicized proceeding that began on August 17, 1960. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage.
For the next 18 months, the US government negotiated for his release and settled upon a trade for convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Interestingly, the idea for the trade originated with Powers’ father, Oliver. In November 1961, acting Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Charles Cabell notified Secretary of State Dean Rusk of the CIA’s support of a trade. The actual trade was coordinated and negotiated by James Donovan and was later dramatized in the movie “Bridge of Spies.”
Following President Kennedy’s final approval in February 1962, Powers was traded for Abel at a bridge in Berlin that connected the East and West Germany. Powers was immediately flown back to the United States for a comprehensive debriefing. The CIA convened a so-called “damage assessment team” to determine what impact Powers’ shoot-down and subsequent interrogation/imprisonment had had on US airborne intelligence efforts. Considering that Powers was extensively involved with the U-2 program from its beginnings, it was assumed that he had revealed everything to the Soviets. Instructions to U-2 pilots of what to do in case of capture were scant at best. They were advised to “tell everything since they’re going to get it out of you anyway.”
Some pilots flew on Soviet overflights with cyanide capsules and Powers was given a poison-tipped needle with which to inject himself in the event of capture, but it was seized from him when he was apprehended after bailing out. After a two week debrief, the damage assessment team concluded that the damage done by Powers’ capture was minimal and were satisfied that he had revealed as little classified information on the U-2 program as possible.
This, however, wasn’t sufficient for the newly-appointed DCI, John A. McCone, who, despite a letter of support from former DCI Allen Dulles, demanded a further examination of Powers’ actions while in Soviet custody. A new board of inquiry headed by federal judge Barrett Prettyman was convened to investigate the matter further. Testimony from agency experts who had debriefed Powers was taken, a thorough examination of Powers’ background was performed – including interviews with his doctors, fellow pilots and commanders from his former Air Force units, and Powers agreed to a voluntary polygraph examination. Soviet photographs taken of the U-2 wreckage were reviewed by Lockheed Skunk Works engineer Kelly Johnson (who designed the U-2), who found them consistent with Powers’ story. DCI
McCone remained unconvinced and subsequently ordered the Air Force to have its own panel of experts review the evidence. The US Air Force echoed the Prettyman Board’s findings. The only possible bit of information contrary to Powers’ testimony to emerge was a possible procedural error by Powers in maintaining his course/altitude.
DCI McCone ordered the Prettyman Board reconvened to re-examine the evidence but their second report remained essentially unchanged from their original findings. In March 1962, Powers himself testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee which commended his actions and conduct during the mission and his subsequent capture.
Despite all of this, any findings exonerating Powers weren’t released to the public and the sensationalized press of the day resulted in a very negative public portrayal of Powers. With no public statements from government officials commending Powers for his efforts to withhold classified information from the Soviets during his 18 month internment, his motives and loyalties were questioned. His 1962 divorce from his wife further stained his reputation in the press. Powers was snubbed by President Kennedy who had already warmly received other pilots who had been shot down and captured by the Soviets and, in 1963, DCI McCone awarded the CIA Intelligence Star to all the Soviet overflight U-2 pilots except Powers. It wasn’t until 1965 that Powers got the Intelligence Star from McCone’s successor.
CIA U-2 pilots were all drawn from USAF units with the agreement that they would temporarily be on leave from the Air Force for their tour of duty with the CIA, after which they could return to their USAF unit and active duty. Though there was significant initial opposition to Powers’ reinstatement with the Air Force, it was approved pending the conclusion of all the investigative proceedings. In the interim, Kelly Johnson hired him as a U-2 test pilot at Lockheed in support of upgrades and developments being worked on for future U-2 versions.
In late 1963, Powers was offered a chance to return to the Air Force, but he elected to remain at Lockheed working for Kelly Johnson. In 1969, with the end of U-2 production work, Kelly Johnson reluctantly had to furlough Powers as Lockheed was unable to place Powers in any other program. Kelly Johnson would write in his test logs “I must let Gary Powers go. I have protected him for about seven years…“
Powers subsequently found work flying for a Los Angeles radio station as a traffic reporter and subsequently went to work for KNBC as a helicopter pilot. On August 1, 1977, Powers and his cameraman, George Spears were flying back to the KNBC heliport in Burbank in a Bell Jet Ranger 206 after covering a brush fire in Santa Barbara, when for reasons unknown, the helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed near the Sepulveda Dam in the San Fernando Valley community of Encino. Powers and Spears were killed instantly.
Powers was laid to rest with honors at Arlington National Cemetery. On May 1, 2000, on the 40th Anniversary of his shoot-down, USAF and CIA officials posthumously awarded Francis Gary Powers the Prisoner-of-War Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the National Defense Service Medal. The ceremony with Powers’ family took place at Beale AFB, home of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing which today still operates the U-2. At the conclusion of the ceremony, a lone U-2 made a low-level flyby.
Powers’ shootdown in 1960 marked the first time a surface-to-air missile successfully brought down a hostile aircraft and his overflight would be last US overflight of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union would go on to develop one the most comprehensive air-defense systems in the world, which would dictate US strategic planning well into the 1990s, causing a shift towards low-level penetration bombers, stealth, and most importantly, a reliance on satellites to provided imagery of Soviet installations and activities.