Accessibility links

Breaking News

Fifty Years Later, Gary Powers and U-2 Spy Plane Incident Remembered

The engine of the downed U-2 plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers on display in Moscow in November 1960
The engine of the downed U-2 plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers on display in Moscow in November 1960
On May 5, 1960, the world first heard the news that an American aircraft had been shot down over Russia.

Officials in Washington initially claimed the plane was an unarmed weather research plane.

But the aircraft was not engaged in meteorological research, it was a U-2 spy plane deployed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA had been engaged in aerial espionage over Soviet Union since 1956, with missions designed to photograph military bases and other sensitive sites.

The Kremlin had known about the U-2 program all along but had been unable to respond. By 1960, it had developed the technology needed to launch countermeasures. On May 1, it used a newly designed S-75 surface-to-air missile to shoot down a U-2 plane and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers.

Powers, who had taken off from a U.S. military base near the Pakistani city of Peshawar, made a brief stop at Incirlik air base in Turkey before heading for the Urals. He was downed over Sverdlovsk.

The CIA was certain that Powers was dead. State Department spokesman Lincoln White attempted to portray the flight as a civilian mission that accidentally strayed off course after the pilot's oxygen supplies ran low.

"It is entirely possible the plane continued on automatic pilot for a considerable distance and accidentally violated Soviet airspace," White said.

Powers in his special pressure suit for stratospheric flights, in Russian detention in November 1960
But as the United States was soon to learn, Powers was not dead. His plane had landed nearly intact, and he had been taken into Soviet custody.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced the capture in an address to the Supreme Soviet, and leveled an angry threat against the United States if it refused to abandon its CIA spy missions.

"Don't you fly into the Soviet Union! Don't you fly into the socialist countries!" Krushchev demanded. "Respect sovereignty and know your limits! If you don't know your limits, we will strike!"

Signal Event

The incident went on to become a notorious chapter in the history of the Cold War. But its roots stretched back to at least 1954, when American intelligence workers realized they lacked reliable data on the Soviet Union's offensive arsenal -- particularly its nuclear weapons, and delivery systems like missiles, submarines, and strategic bombers.

Reports from agents in the field were few and far between. So the idea was hatched to use aerial photography as a new way of collecting information.

In order to do that, U.S. intelligence had to solve two problems at once: a) creating a high-altitude plane that could fly beyond the reach of Soviet fighter jets, and b) designing a camera that could capture accurate images from that range.

Francis Gary Powers Jr. and the U-2 wreckage at Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow on April 30
The camera came first. Edwin Land, the head of the CIA's scientific and technical council, worked with astronomer and optician James Baker to create a camera capable of capturing images from an altitude of 18,000 meters. The camera's resolution was four times greater than that of any aerial cameras at that time. It could capture the image not only of a person on the ground, but also of the rifle in his hands. It also used super-thin film that allowed for as many as 4,000 shots in a single overflight.

Engineer Clarence Johnson followed by creating the U-2, a sleek aircraft with long, glider-like wings that could reach altitudes of 21,000 meters -- far higher than the reach of the Soviet fighters, missiles, and radar of that time. The U-2 had its first test run in 1955 and surveillance flights over the Soviet Union began the next year.

A 'Normal' Guy

Powers, a veteran of the Korean War, was one of the first pilots to conduct the mission, and made numerous flights before he was shot down in 1960. His son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., was born five years after his father's capture in the Soviet Union. He says that for all his adventures, his father was, at heart, a simple man.

"My father was a normal person. He was raised in southwest Virginia, in Appalachian coal country. He was the first of his family to go to college. He wanted to fly airplanes from a very early age, and upon graduation from college in 1950, he enlisted in the Air Force," says Francis Gary Powers Jr. "My father was somewhat shy, an introvert. He didn't like to speak in front of crowds. And that all changed after he was shot down and subjected to a trial in the Soviet Union, and then came home and gave lectures and appearances. But for the most part, he liked to be with himself or very close friends."

After his crash, Powers was interrogated for months by the KGB before being convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in jail. Less than two years later, he was released in a swap for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

Powers was initially criticized by the U.S. government for failing to destroy the plane's camera and photo records, and for not committing suicide, before the information could fall into Soviet hands. With time, however, Powers was exonerated and went on to work as a test pilot and a traffic reporter. He died in a helicopter accident in 1977 at the age of 48.

Powers (right) listens to the verdict being pronounced at his Moscow trial for spying.
Powers' son explains what drove his father as a young man to leave the Air Force and begin working with the CIA.

"He's indicated that, as an Air Force pilot, he liked the duties, he liked flying the airplane, he liked the missions he was on as an Air Force pilot," he says. "However, when he was approached by the CIA to fly a new, top-secret airplane -- doing something patriotic for his country that would also pay better than an Air Force salary -- these were all motivations for him to enlist and volunteer for the U-2 program."

Mind The Gap

Powers conducted a total of 27 flights over the Soviet Union and communist-bloc states. Powers Jr. says the work of his father and other U-2 pilots had great military strategic significance for the United States because it assured U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and American defense planners that they were not falling behind the Russians militarily -- that there was in fact no "missile gap."

The discovery, historians argue, saved the United States billions of dollars in needless arms costs. Powers Jr., who has co-founded the Cold War Museum dedicated to relics from the U-2 incident and other Cold War events, says the realization also gave the U.S. more leverage in future negotiations with the Soviets.

"As a direct result of the U-2 flights the American government, President Eisenhower knew that there was no missile gap, there was no bomber gap," Powers says. "He knew that the Soviets did not have more weapons in place than we did. And that was used to help with negotiations between Eisenhower and Khrushchev at the time."

Ironically, before the plane carrying Powers was shot down, Eisenhower was forced to keep to himself his knowledge that there was no missile gap, or risk revealing the highly successful U-2 missions.

Khrushchev, for his part, knew about the CIA's U-2 program but was unable to expose it for fear of revealing to his public that the Soviets lacked the technical skill to shoot them down. He later wrote in his memoirs: "No matter how hard we forced the engines of our fighter jets we could not get to those 'flyers' that flew, so to say, laughing at our efforts, morally offending us. This created even more tensions between our countries."

Legendary U.S. broadcaster Walter Cronkite, who covered the story, later recalled that "each man, for his own reasons, needed to protect the secrecy of the missions." With the downing of Powers' plane, that secrecy -- and a pivotal chapter of the Cold War -- was over.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.