THIS DAY IN AVIATION HISTORY: FRANCIS GARY POWERS U-2 SHOT DOWN

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When Francis Gary Powers failed to complete his mission, the U.S. assumed he had been killed and his plane destroyed and a news of an innocent weather plane lost over Turkey was created as cover story for the incident

The Lockheed U-2 is a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft introduced in 1957.

Built in complete secrecy by Kelly Johnson and the Lockheed Skunk Works, the original U-2A first flew in August 1955.

The U-2 is still in service today with the U.S. Air Force (USAF), but during the Cold War it was an important spying tool under the control of the CIA. It was used to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam and China.

As explained by Senior Airman Sean D. Smith, Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs in his article Let’s Learn about the Cold War: Part 12 – The 1960 U-2 Incident, the U-2 could provide surveillance in any weather, and its high operational altitude made it difficult to intercept with fighters.

Photographs taken from U-2 aircraft provided the West with key intelligence during the Cold War.

Early flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the president and other U.S. decision makers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability.

Original U-2A Dragon Lady at USAF Museum

On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane flown by CIA civilian pilot Francis Gary Powers on a mission to photograph top-secret Soviet sites was shot down over the Soviet Union by an S-75 Dvina (NATO reporting name SA-2 ‘Guideline’) surface to air missile (SAM). Actually the Soviets reportedly fired fourteen SA-2s at his U-2. Though none hit Powers’ aircraft, one of the missiles – at the extreme limit of its range and radar tracking ability – exploded behind the U-2, and the shock damaged the fragile aircraft. Moreover in the engagement, the Soviets also accidentally shot down one of their own MiG-19 fighters, killing its pilot.

This was a potential disaster: in fact the reason for the emphasis on espionage during the Cold War was to avoid open acts that could be perceived as aggressive between the U.S. and the USSR.

However, when Powers failed to complete his mission, the U.S. assumed he had been killed and his plane destroyed and a news of an innocent weather plane lost over Turkey was created as cover story for the incident by the Eisenhower administration.

Instead, unknown to America, the U-2’s CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers, survived the crash and had been captured by the Soviet Union. What’s worse much of his plane, including secret equipment, was intact.

Kelly Johnson and Gary Powers in front of a U-2

As told by Smith, the Soviets knew they had captured a spy, and they knew America was lying about it.

Moreover, the U-2 incident occurred just before the Four Powers Summit, a meeting to be attended by American President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, French President Charles de Gaulle, and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Before the U-2 incident, Eisenhower and Khrushchev had been getting along well and this meeting, which actually would have been the first one between U.S. and Soviet leaders in five years, might have been instrumental to an early end of the Cold War.

Khrushchev waited to reveal that Powers was alive to maximize America’s humiliation, though he pulled his punches by placing most of the blame for the incident on the CIA rather than the Eisenhower administration.

Tension remained high between the U.S. and the USSR, the Cold War went on and because of the friction caused by the U-2 incident, the Four Powers Summit fell apart.

Powers was convicted of espionage in the USSR and sentenced to three years of prison and seven years of hard labor, but he served less than two years of his sentence before he was returned to the U.S. in exchange for a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel.

However after the accident the U-2 continued to provide high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance, day or night, in direct support of U.S. and allied forces. In fact in Oct. 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis. In more recent times, the U-2 has provided intelligence during operations in Korea, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Furthermore, when requested, the U-2 also provides peacetime reconnaissance in support of disaster relief from floods, earthquakes, and forest fires as well as search and rescue operations.

The following video highlights the main facts behind the Powers Incident.

Additional source: U.S. Air Force and National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Photo credit: Senior Airman Bobby Cummings and Staff Sgt. Robert M. Trujillo / U.S. Air Force