Francis Gary Powers on Release From Soviets

Francis Gary Powers on Release From Soviets

After his return to the United States, American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers is questioned by the media about his capture and subsequent hearing before the Senate Armed Services Select Committee on March 6, 1962. Powers had been shot down over central Russia on May 1, 1960, and arrested by Soviet authorities. Two years later, he was released by the Soviets in a spy exchange with the United States.


Soviets charge U-2 pilot with espionage, July 8, 1960

On this day in 1960, an emerging Cold War détente between the United States and the Soviet Union suffered a setback when the Soviets charged Francis Gary Powers, a U.S. Air Force and CIA U-2 pilot, with espionage. The affair set into motion years of mistrust between the White House and the Kremlin.

Powers had been shot down over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960. He would be found guilty on Aug. 17 and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor. He served one year, nine months and nine days before being traded for a Soviet spy, Rudolph Abel.

Washington initially responded to his capture with a cover story, claiming that a “weather plane” had crashed after its pilot had “difficulties with his oxygen equipment.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not know that the plane had landed nearly intact. The Soviets recovered its photographic equipment, as well as Powers, whom they interrogated before he made a “voluntary confession” and issued an apology.

A summit meeting involving the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France was to have begun later that month in Paris. But Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stormed out of the meeting, accusing the Americans of being “unable to call a halt to their [cold] war effort.”

After being debriefed by the CIA and the Air Force, Powers appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee in 1962, chaired by Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), as well as GOP Sens. Prescott Bush of Connecticut and Barry Goldwater of Arizona. The panel found that Powers had followed orders, that he had not divulged any critical information to the Soviets and had conducted himself “as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”

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Powers died in 1977 at age 47 when his Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed at the Sepulveda Dam recreational area in Encino, California, several miles short of its intended landing site at Burbank Airport. He was working as a traffic reporter for a Los Angeles TV station at the time. Powers is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1998, newly declassified information revealed that Powers’ mission had been a joint Air Force-CIA operation. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the U-2 Incident, his family received with his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and National Defense Service Medal. In addition, CIA Director George Tenet authorized that Powers be awarded posthumously the CIA’s Director’s Medal for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty.

On June 15, 2012, Powers was posthumously awarded the Silver Star medal for “demonstrating ‘exceptional loyalty’ while enduring harsh interrogation in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison for nearly two years.” Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff presented the decoration to Powers’ grandchildren, Trey Powers, 9, and Lindsey Berry, 29, in a Pentagon ceremony.


One of the most talked about events of the Cold War was the downing of the American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. The event was recently depicted in the Steven Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies. Powers was captured by the KGB, subjected to a televised show trial, and imprisoned, all of which created an international incident. Soviet authorities eventually released him in exchange for captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. On his return to the US, Powers was exonerated of any wrongdoing while imprisoned in Russia, yet, due to bad press and the government’s unwillingness to heartily defend Powers, a cloud of controversy lingered until his untimely death in 1977.

Now his son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., founder of the Cold War Museum, and acclaimed historian Keith Dunnavant have written the book Spy Pilot, a new account of Powers’ life based on personal files that had never been previously available. Delving into old audio tapes, letters his father wrote and received while imprisoned in the Soviet Union, the transcript of his father’s debriefing by the CIA, other recently declassified documents about the U-2 program, and interviews with the spy pilot’s contemporaries, Powers and Dunnavant set the record straight.

“My father understood that the question of what happened to cause his crash reflected a fundamental issue that cut to the heart of the most closely guarded secrets on both sides,” Francis Gary Powers Jr. says in his book.

“’I got the impression,’ he said in his tapes, ‘that someone was going out of their way to stress the fact that there was a malfunction in the airplane or something to hush-hush the fact that [the Soviets] did have a defensive weapon (the SA-2 SAM) that was capable of [shooting the U-2 out of the sky]. . . .All I could see was a friend of mine coming over and getting shot down himself. I wanted it known that they had this capability. Someone apparently was trying to cover up the fact that they had this capability.’

“Especially in light of the U-2 that was shot down over Cuba in 1962, I understood my father’s frustration. All of the sudden, Washington officials were faced with the political dilemma of having to admit that the Soviets were more advanced than they realized. Instead of clearing this up, the government allowed the misinformation to continue to circulate.

“When I first started to transcribe my father’s journal, while in graduate school at George Mason, I took great care to methodically type the words. It became something I usually did after arriving home at night, hunched over my computer for an hour or two at a time. I always felt like I learned something. It was part of the puzzle slowly being revealed to me, including the early portions when Dad described the moments after he lost control of the plane.

“’My first reaction was to reach toward the destruction switches,’ he wrote. ‘I knew that after activating them I would have seventy seconds in which to leave the plane before the explosion. I then thought I had better see if I could get into the position to use the ejection seat before activating the switches. It was a good thing I did this because I spent several minutes I suppose (I don’t know how long I was in the spinning plane), trying to get my feet in the proper place and trying to get far enough back into the seat so that I could eject without tearing my legs off on the canopy rail as I shot out of the cabin. I could not get into the proper position. I was not sitting at all but hanging by the seat belt and it was impossible to shorten the belt with all the forces against it….’

“This sequence became an important part of the CIA debriefing.

US Interrogator: As you moved down in your seat in that odd inverted position, the plane was not flaming or smoking or anything, was it, as far as you could recall it?

Powers: I would say there was no fire connected with …

US Interrogator: No fire connected with it. In other words, … it wasn’t billowing smoke or …

Powers: If it was, I knew nothing about it.

US Interrogator: And, and then, then …

Powers: I feel sure that the engine stopped at this, ah, was stopping as this, ah, maneuver started to take place. Because I can remember somewhere along this that the, ah, RPM gauge was going down. But I can’t remember exactly when I noticed that. There was some—when the nose dropped there was some very violent maneuvers. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. I don’t know exactly what happened there. And it didn’t take long. But it ended up in that inverted position going around, and I think it was going around clockwise ….

“After deciding to bail out and eventually parachuting to the ground, Dad wrote about his feelings concerning his impending fate: ‘I knew I was as good as dead and I also knew in my own mind that my death would not be a fast one but one of slow torture. . . .’

US Interrogator: When you got to the ground … you didn’t try to escape?

Powers: No, there was . .. while I was still lying there on the ground with the parachute dragging me, one man was helping me out of the parachute and the other was trying to help me up, and by the time I got on my feet and took the helmet off, there was a large group around.

US Interrogator: There was just no opportunity to even think of escaping?

Powers: I think I couldn’t have gotten through this group if none of them were armed…. I don’t think any of them were, but it was just a large press of people and I could not have gotten through anyway.

US Interrogator: Yeah, now then . . .

Powers: And they had also taken this .22 pistol away from me before I had an opportunity to even think about it.

US Interrogator: You didn’t resist in any way?

Powers: No, I gave no active resistance.

US Interrogator: Why didn’t you resist?

Powers: Just too many people.

US Interrogator: Uh-huh. It just would have been foolhardy, in other words?

Powers: That’s what it seemed to me. It just seemed that … well, I’m alive right now I could try to escape, which I wanted to do. I was pretty much in shock at the time also, I don’t suppose I was thinking too clearly, but I was looking around, trying to see some way to escape or something to do, and all these people milling around. … It was just impossible to do anything, in my opinion.

“After concluding the interrogation, Harry Cordes and his colleague John Hughes, who represented the Defense Intelligence Agency, flew to Washington to brief a series of high-ranking officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who criticized the pilot’s decision to proceed after his autopilot malfunctioned. Cordes emerged as an important advocate for my father against the forces who doubted his story, especially John McCone (who was influenced by the National Security Agency report, which argued that the pilot ‘descended to a lower altitude and turned back in a broad curve toward Sverdlovsk before being downed’).

“Confronting the NSA report suggesting the pilot had descended below 30,000 feet before being shot down, Cordes shot holes in the theory by citing inaccurate data produced during similar incidents, including the loss of the RB-47 (the reconnaissance plane was lost on Jul. 1, 1960 while on a secret mission over the Arctic Ocean when it was shot down by the Soviets. Colonels John McKone and Bruce Olmstead, the only survivors of the RB-47 shoot-down, were imprisoned at Lubyanka at the same time as my father) ‘I had knowledge of the same intelligence information,’ he said, ‘but I believed Powers.’”


Interview with Francis Gary Powers, Jr.

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, a pilot in the CIA’s U-2 spy plane program, crash-landed into history. Tasked with photographing Soviet military installations, Powers flew into Russian territory. When his aircraft neared the skies above Sverdlovsk, his plane was hit by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile. He was taken captive by the Soviets.

The United States at first claimed that the downed aircraft was a weather plane. Once it was learned that the U-2 had been recovered intact, the Eisenhower administration admitted that Powers was on a spy mission. An enraged Nikita Khrushchev, premiere of the Soviet Union, cancelled a summit with President Eisenhower.

Meanwhile, Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB. Although he made a public apology, he was nevertheless tried by the Russian government for espionage, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His captivity ended on February 10, 1962 when he was exchanged in a spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who had been caught by the FBI. Powers had been held by the Soviets for 22 months.

Stateside, Powers was initially under a cloud. Some in the government felt he should have destroyed the spy plane and himself—courtesy of a suicide pill sewn into his flight suit. However, after being debriefed by the CIA, he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which concluded that he had not divulged any top secret information to his captors and had conducted himself as “a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”

Powers’ capture and eventual release are taken up in the new Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies. Ron Capshaw interviewed Powers’ son, Gary Francis Powers, Jr., about it via email.

RC: Were you an adviser on Bridge of Spies, and was the film accurate?

FGP: Yes, I am a technical consultant on the film and an extra. [While the movie was being made] I did relay the Powers family’s concerns to the producers that if they based the info on my father from the press in the 1960s, it would paint him in a negative light. If they used the info that has been revealed as a result of FOIA requests and declassification conferences over the past 50 years, then they would portray my father in the correct light that he is a hero to our country. I was told by one of the producers that Spielberg considers my father a hero and not to worry.

I thought that the movie was well done, and captures the feelings that some Americans felt towards my father, Abel, and Donovan during that time period. Fortunately, because of FOIA requests and declassification conferences hosted by the CIA and USAF over the past 55 years, the misinformation surrounding the U-2 Incident and my father’s involvement have been put to rest.

He was at his assigned altitude of 70,500 feet when he was shot down. Upon capture he followed orders, did not divulge any classified info to the Soviets, and refused to denounce the United States of America.

This is reflected in the movie during the postscript that acknowledged my father was posthumously awarded the POW Medal, CIA Director’s Medal, and the USAF Silver Star. The movie reinforces my belief that it is never too late to set the record straight.

RC: How was your father treated by the Russians for the 22 months they had him? Was torture involved and did he divulge any secrets?

FGP: There was no physical torture but a lot of mental anguish / mental torture. Threats of death, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, some roughing up, yelling and screaming at him, trying to provide him with incentives to cooperate, etc. Despite all of the Soviet attempts to extract information, it has been shown in recent declassified documents that my father gave out no secrets and refused to denounce the United States of America.

RC: Did he ever talk to you about what happened?

FGP: Yes, my father and I would talk about the U-2 Incident and his experiences when I was a child. I remember reading his book and asking him questions when I was about 10-12 years old.

RC: JFK assassination obsessives have said that Lee Harvey Oswald, then a Russian citizen, gave the Soviets enough radar data to shoot down your father’s aircraft. Is there any truth to this?

FGP: I do believe that after Oswald defected, he relayed information to the Soviets about the altitude that the U-2’s would fly, which helped the Soviet military to improve their missile systems . . . However, I have not yet found any concrete evidence to confirm that Oswald provided the Soviets with info on the U-2’s altitude limitations. Regardless, my father’s plane did not have a flame out or descend prior to being shot down by a Soviet SA-2 missile over Sverdlovsk.

RC: Many of the younger generation know little about the Cold War, and even less about your father in particular. What would you like them to take away from the Spielberg film?

FGP: I believe that it is important for this generation to understand Cold War history. By learning about the Cold War, students can gain insights into how WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII set the stage for the Cold War and how the end of the Cold War set the stage for the current War on Terror.

RC: For those alive in that period, what has it been like being the son of Francis Gary Powers?

FGP: I do not know what it is like to not be the son of Francis Gary Powers. I thought he was a normal dad. We would go hiking, biking, and swimming together. I would fly with him and realized that he was shot down, interrogated, and exchanged for a Soviet Spy. For me as a kid, I thought everybody’s dad went though something like this. That perception changed on August 1, 1977 when my dad died in a helicopter accident while working for KNBC. After his death, is when I realized that not everybody’s dad gets shot down or exchanged for a Soviet Spy. But then, it was too late to ask him any more questions.


Powers was born August 17, 1929, in Jenkins, Kentucky, the son of Oliver Winfield Powers (1904–1970), a coal miner, and his wife Ida Melinda Powers ( née Ford 1905–1991). His family eventually moved to Pound, Virginia, just across the state border. He was the second born and only male of six children. [ citation needed ]

His family lived in a mining town, and because of the hardships associated with living in such a town, his father wanted Powers to become a physician. He hoped his son would achieve the higher earnings of such a profession and felt that this would involve less hardships than any job in his hometown. [2] [ non-primary source needed ]

Graduating with a bachelor's degree from Milligan College in Tennessee in June 1950, he enlisted in the United States Air Force in October. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in December 1952 after completing his advanced training with USAF Pilot Training Class 52-H [3] at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona. Powers was then assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, as an Republic F-84 Thunderjet pilot.

He married Barbara Gay Moore in Newnan, Georgia, on April 2, 1955. [4]

In January 1956 he was recruited by the CIA. In May 1956 he began U-2 training at Watertown Strip, Nevada. His training was complete by August 1956 and his unit, the Second Weather Observational Squadron (Provisional) or Detachment 10-10, was deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. By 1960, Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions. [5] Family members believed that he was a NASA weather reconnaissance pilot. [6]

Powers was discharged from the Air Force in 1956 with the rank of captain. He then joined the CIA's U-2 program at the civilian grade of GS-12. U-2 pilots flew espionage missions at altitudes of 70,000 feet (21 km), [7] [8] [9] supposedly above the reach of Soviet air defenses. [10] The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera [10] designed to take high-resolution photos from the stratosphere over hostile countries, including the Soviet Union. U-2 missions systematically photographed military installations and other important sites. [11]

Reconnaissance mission Edit

The primary mission of the U-2s was overflying the Soviet Union. Soviet intelligence had been aware of encroaching U-2 flights at least since 1958 if not earlier [12] but lacked effective countermeasures until 1960. [13] On May 1, 1960, Powers's U-2A, 56-6693, departed from a military airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan, [14] with support from the U.S. Air Station at Badaber (Peshawar Air Station). This was to be the first attempt "to fly all the way across the Soviet Union . but it was considered worth the gamble. The planned route would take us deeper into Russia than we had ever gone, while traversing important targets never before photographed." [15]

Shot down Edit

Powers was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 "Guideline") surface-to-air missile [16] over Sverdlovsk. A total of 14 Dvinas were launched, [17] one of which hit a MiG-19 jet fighter which was sent to intercept the U-2 but could not reach a high enough altitude. Its pilot, Sergei Safronov, ejected but died of his injuries. Another Soviet aircraft, a newly manufactured Su-9 on a transit flight, also attempted to intercept Powers's U-2. The unarmed Su-9 was directed to ram the U-2, but missed because of the large differences in speed. [a]

As Powers flew near Kosulino in the Ural Region, three S-75 Dvinas were launched at his U-2, with the first one hitting the aircraft. "What was left of the plane began spinning, only upside down, the nose pointing upward toward the sky, the tail down toward the ground." Powers was unable to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism before he was thrown out of the plane after releasing the canopy and his seat belt. While descending under his parachute, Powers had time to scatter his escape map, and rid himself of part of his suicide device, a silver dollar coin suspended around his neck containing a poison-laced injection pin, though he kept the poison pin. [18] "Yet I was still hopeful of escape." He hit the ground hard, was immediately captured, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. [19] Powers did note a second chute after landing on the ground, "some distance away and very high, a lone red and white parachute". [20] [ non-primary source needed ] [21]

Attempted deception by the U.S. government Edit

When the U.S. government learned of Powers's disappearance over the Soviet Union, they lied that a "weather plane" had strayed off course after its pilot had "difficulties with his oxygen equipment". What CIA officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact and that the Soviets had recovered its pilot and the plane's equipment, including its top-secret high-altitude camera. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for months before he made a confession and a public apology for his part in espionage. [22]

Portrayal in U.S. media Edit

Following admission by the White House that Powers had been captured alive, American media depicted Powers as an all-American pilot hero, who never smoked or touched alcohol. In fact, Powers smoked and drank socially. [23] : 201 The CIA urged that his wife Barbara be given sedatives before speaking to the press and gave her talking points that she repeated to the press to portray her as a devoted wife. Her broken leg, according to the CIA disinformation that she was to mouth, was the result of a water-skiing accident, when in fact her leg was broken after she had had too much to drink and was dancing with another man. [23] : 198–99

In the course of his trial for espionage in the Soviet Union, Powers confessed to the charges against him and apologized for violating Soviet airspace to spy on the Soviets. In the wake of his apology, American media often depicted Powers as a coward and even as a symptom of the decay of America's "moral character." [23] : 235–36

Pilot testimony compromised by newspaper reports Edit

Powers tried to limit the information he shared with the KGB to that which could be determined from the remains of his plane's wreckage. He was hampered by information appearing in the western press. A KGB major stated "there's no reason for you to withhold information. We'll find it out anyway. Your Press will give it to us." However, he limited his divulging of CIA contacts to one individual, with a pseudonym of "Collins". At the same time, he repeatedly stated the maximum altitude for the U-2 was 68,000 feet (21 km), significantly lower than its actual flight ceiling. [24]

Political consequence Edit

The incident set back talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower. Powers's interrogations ended on June 30, and his solitary confinement ended on July 9. On August 17, 1960, his trial began for espionage before the military division of the Supreme Court of the USSR. Lieutenant General Borisoglebsky, Major General Vorobyev, and Major General Zakharov presided. Roman Rudenko acted as prosecutor in his capacity of Procurator General of the Soviet Union. Mikhail I. Grinev served as Powers's defense counsel. In attendance were his parents and sister, and his wife Barbara and her mother. His father brought along his attorney Carl McAfee, while the CIA provided two additional attorneys. [25]

Conviction Edit

On August 19, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage, "a grave crime covered by Article 2 of the Soviet Union's law 'On Criminality Responsibility for State Crimes'". His sentence consisted of 10 years' confinement, three of which were to be in a prison, with the remainder in a labor camp. The US Embassy "News Bulletin" stated, according to Powers, "as far as the government was concerned, I had acted in accordance with the instructions given me and would receive my full salary while imprisoned". [26]

He was held in Vladimir Central Prison, about 150 miles (240 km) east of Moscow, in building number 2 from September 9, 1960 until February 8, 1962. His cellmate was Zigurds Krūmiņš, a Latvian political prisoner. Powers kept a diary and a journal while confined. Additionally, he learned carpet weaving from his cellmate to pass the time. He could send and receive a limited number of letters to and from his family. The prison now contains a small museum with an exhibit on Powers, who allegedly developed a good rapport with Soviet prisoners there. Some pieces of the plane and Powers's uniform are on display at the Monino Airbase museum near Moscow. [27]

Prisoner exchange Edit

CIA opposition to exchange Edit

The CIA, in particular, chief of CIA Counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton, opposed exchanging Powers for Soviet KGB Colonel William Fisher, known as "Rudolf Abel", who had been caught by the FBI and tried and jailed for espionage. [28] [23] : 236–37 First, Angleton believed that Powers may have deliberately defected to the Soviet side. CIA documents released in 2010 indicate that U.S. officials did not believe Powers's account of the incident at the time, because it was contradicted by a classified National Security Agency (NSA) report which alleged that the U-2 had descended from 65,000 to 34,000 feet (20 to 10 km) before changing course and disappearing from radar. The NSA report remains classified as of 2020. [29]

In any event, Angleton suspected that Powers had already revealed all he knew to the Soviets and he reasoned, therefore, that Powers was worthless to the U.S. On the other hand, according to Angleton, William Fisher had yet revealed little to the CIA, refusing to disclose even his real name, and for this reason, William Fisher was still of potential value. [ citation needed ]

However, Barbara Powers, the wife of Francis Powers, was often drinking and allegedly having affairs. On June 22, 1961, she was pulled over by the police after driving erratically and was caught driving under the influence. [23] : 251 To avoid bad publicity for the wife of the well-known CIA operative, doctors tasked by the CIA to keep Barbara out of the limelight arranged to have her committed to a psychiatric ward in Augusta, Georgia under strict supervision. [23] : 251–51 She was eventually released to the care of her mother. But the CIA feared that Francis Powers languishing in Soviet prison might learn of Barbara's plight and as a result reach a state of desperation causing him to reveal to the Soviets whatever secrets he had not already revealed. Thus, Barbara unwittingly may have aided the cause of the approval of the prisoner exchange involving her husband and William Fisher. [23] : 253 Angleton and others at the CIA still opposed the exchange but President John F. Kennedy approved it. [23] : 257

The exchange Edit

On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged, along with U.S. student Frederic Pryor, for William Fisher, in a well-publicized spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. The exchange was for Soviet KGB Colonel William Fisher, known as "Rudolf Abel", who had been caught by the FBI and tried and jailed for espionage. [28] Powers credited his father with the swap idea. When released, Powers's total time in captivity was 1 year, 9 months, and 10 days. [30]

Powers initially received a cold reception on his return home. He was criticized for not activating his aircraft's self-destruct charge to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts. He was also criticized for not using a CIA-issued "suicide pill" to kill himself (a coin with shellfish toxin embedded in its grooves, revealed during CIA testimony to the Church Committee in 1975). [31] [ better source needed ]

He was debriefed extensively by the CIA, [32] Lockheed Corporation, and the Air Force, after which a statement was issued by CIA director John McCone that "Mr. Powers lived up to the terms of his employment and instructions in connection with his mission and in his obligations as an American." [33] On March 6, 1962, he appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing chaired by Senator Richard Russell Jr. which included Senators Prescott Bush, Leverett Saltonstall, Robert Byrd, Margaret Chase Smith, John Stennis, Strom Thurmond, and Barry Goldwater. During the hearing, Senator Saltonstall stated, "I commend you as a courageous, fine young American citizen who lived up to your instructions and who did the best you could under very difficult circumstances." Senator Bush declared, "I am satisfied he has conducted himself in exemplary fashion and in accordance with the highest traditions of service to one's country, and I congratulate him upon his conduct in captivity." Senator Goldwater sent him a handwritten note: "You did a good job for your country." [34]

Divorce and remarriage Edit

Powers and his wife Barbara separated in 1962 and divorced in January 1963. Powers stated that the reasons for the divorce included her infidelity and alcoholism, adding that she constantly threw tantrums and overdosed on pills shortly after his return. [35] He started a relationship with Claudia Edwards "Sue" Downey, whom he had met while working briefly at CIA Headquarters. Downey had a child, Dee, from her previous marriage. They were married on October 26, 1963. [36] Their son Francis Gary Powers Jr. was born on June 5, 1965. [37] The marriage proved to be a very happy one, and Sue worked hard to preserve her husband's legacy after his death. [38]

Praise Edit

During a speech in March 1964, former CIA Director Allen Dulles said of Powers, "He performed his duty in a very dangerous mission and he performed it well, and I think I know more about that than some of his detractors and critics know, and I am glad to say that to him tonight." [39]

Later career Edit

Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1962 to 1970, though the CIA paid his salary. [ citation needed ] In 1970, he wrote the book Operation Overflight with co-author Curt Gentry. [40] Lockheed fired him, because "the book's publication had ruffled some feathers at Langley." Powers then became a helicopter traffic reporting pilot for Los Angeles radio station KGIL. After that he became a helicopter news reporter for KNBC television. [ citation needed ]

Powers was piloting a helicopter for KNBC Channel 4 over the San Fernando Valley on August 1, 1977, when the aircraft crashed, killing him and his cameraman George Spears. [41] [ failed verification ] [ non-primary source needed ] They had been recording video following brush fires in Santa Barbara County in the KNBC helicopter and were heading back from them. [ citation needed ]

His Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed at the Sepulveda Dam recreational area in Encino, California, several miles short of its intended landing site at Burbank Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board report attributed the probable cause of the crash to pilot error. [42] [ unreliable source? ] According to Powers's son, an aviation mechanic had repaired a faulty fuel gauge without informing Powers, who subsequently misread it. [43] [ unreliable source? ]

At the last moment, he noticed children playing in the area and directed the helicopter elsewhere to avoid landing on them. [42] He might have landed safely if not for the last-second deviation, which compromised his autorotative descent. [43]

Powers was survived by his wife, children Claudia Dee and Francis Gary Powers Jr., and five sisters. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery as an Air Force veteran. [42] [ unreliable source? ] [44]


History Film Forum: Secrets of American History

The pilot also expressed his doubts about U.S. foreign policy, and his desperate hopes for early release. In his cramped hand, Powers talks about becoming “a nervous wreck,” kept sane in part by Kruminsh, “one of the finest people I have ever known.”

Based on extensive research, the pilot’s son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., now believes that Kruminsh was probably “a plant,” assigned by the KGB to keep an eye on his fellow prisoner. He also thinks that his father was subjected to intense “psychological pressure.” “He was not tortured,” says Powers Jr., founder and chairman emeritus of the Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Virginia. “But there were bright spotlights, grueling questions, sleep deprivation, threats of death.”

On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged in Berlin for a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, on Glienicke Bridge, the site central to the Spielberg film.

Powers returned home to criticism that he should have activated his suicide pin rather than be captured a Congressional hearing in March 1962 exonerated him. He divorced in January 1963. As a civilian, he began test-flying U-2s for Lockheed. Later, he piloted traffic-reporting helicopters for a Los Angeles TV station. Powers died on the job in August 1977, when his aircraft, which had a faulty gauge history, ran out of fuel and crashed.

It took Powers’ family many years to refute the allegation that the pilot had a duty to kill himself. In 2012, the Air Force posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for Powers’ demonstration of “exceptional loyalty” to his country during his captivity.  

About Michael Dobbs

Michael Dobbs is a former Washington Post reporter and foreign correspondent in Italy and the former Yugoslavia, best known for his Cold War coverage. Dobbs is the author of the Cold War Trilogy, which includes Six Months in 1945, One Minute to Midnight and Down with Big Brother.


February 10 1962 Francis Gary Powers Spy Swap

On February 10th 1962, American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers was released by the Soviets in exchange for Soviet Colonel Rudolf Abel, a senior KGB spy who was caught in the United States five years earlier. The two men were brought to separate sides of the Glienicker Bridge, which connects East and West Berlin across Lake Wannsee.

As the spies waited, negotiators talked in the center of the bridge where a white line divided East from West. Finally, Powers and Abel were waved forward and crossed the border into freedom at the same moment𔃆:52 a.m., Berlin time. Just before their transfer, Frederic Pryor, an American student held by East German authorities since August 1961, was released to American authorities at another border checkpoint.

In 1957, Reino Hayhanen, a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, walked into the American embassy in Paris and announced his intention to defect to the West. Hayhanen had proved a poor spy during his five years in the United States and was being recalled to the USSR, where he feared he would be disciplined. In exchange for asylum, he promised CIA agents he could help expose a major Soviet spy network in the United States and identify its director. The CIA turned Hayhanen over to the FBI to investigate the claims.

During the Cold War, Soviet spies worked together in the United States without revealing their names or addresses to each other, a precaution in the event that one was caught or, like Hayhanen, defected. Thus, Hayhanen initially provided the FBI with little useful information. He did, however, remember being taken to a storage room in Brooklyn by his superior, whom he knew as “Mark.” The FBI tracked down the storage room and found it was rented by one Emil R. Goldfus, an artist and photographer who had a studio in Brooklyn Heights.

Emil Goldfus was Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, a brilliant Soviet spy who was fluent in at least five languages and an expert at the technical requirements of espionage. After decorated service as an intelligence operative during World War II, Abel assumed a false identity and entered an East German refugee camp where he successfully applied for the right to immigrate to Canada. In 1948, he slipped across the Canadian border into the United States, where he set about reorganizing the Soviet spy network.

After learning of Hayhanen’s defection, Abel fled to Florida, where he remained underground until June, when he felt it was safe to return to New York. On June 21, 1957, he was arrested in Manhattan’s Latham Hotel. In his studio, FBI investigators found a hollow pencil used for concealing messages, a shaving brush containing microfilm, a code book, and radio transmitting equipment. He was tried in a federal court in Brooklyn and in October was found guilty on three counts of espionage and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. He was sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.

Less than three years later, on May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers took off from Peshawar, Pakistan, at the controls of an ultra-sophisticated Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Powers, a CIA-employed pilot, was to fly over some 2,000 miles of Soviet territory to Bodo military airfield in Norway, collecting intelligence information en route. Roughly halfway through his journey, he was shot down over Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains. Forced to bail out at 15,000 feet, he survived the parachute jump but was promptly arrested by Soviet authorities.

On May 5, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced that the American spy aircraft had been shot down and two days later revealed that Powers was alive and well and had confessed to being on an intelligence mission for the CIA. On May 7, the United States acknowledged that the U-2 had probably flown over Soviet territory but denied that it had authorized the mission.

On May 16, leaders of the United States, the USSR, Britain, and France met in Paris for a long-awaited summit meeting. The four powers were to discuss tensions in the two Germanys and negotiate new disarmament treaties. However, at the first session, the summit collapsed after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to apologise to Khrushchev for the U-2 incident. Khrushchev also canceled an invitation for Eisenhower to visit the USSR.

In August, Powers pleaded guilty to espionage charges in Moscow and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment–three in prison and seven in a prison colony.

At the end of his 1957 trial, Rudolf Abel escaped the death penalty when his lawyer, James Donovan, convinced the federal judge that Abel might one day be used either as a source of intelligence information or as a hostage to be traded with the Soviets for a captured U.S. agent. In his five years in prison, Abel kept his silence, but the latter prophecy came true in 1962 when he was exchanged for Powers in Berlin. Donovan had played an important role in the negotiations that led to the swap.

Upon returning to the United States, Powers was cleared by the CIA and the Senate of any personal blame for the U-2 incident. In 1970, he published a book, Operation Overflight, about the incident and in 1977 was killed in the crash of a helicopter that he flew as a reporter for a Los Angeles television station.


POWERS, Francis Gary ("Frank")

(b. 17 August 1929 in Burdine, Kentucky d. 1 August 1977 in Encino, California), pilot of the ill-fated U-2 reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union on 1 May 1960 who was captured and later released in the first Soviet-American spy swap.

Powers was the sixth child and only son of Oliver Powers, a coal miner who managed a shoe-repair shop and worked in a defense plant, and Ida Ford, a housewife. He took his first airplane ride at the age of fourteen. Powers attended Grundy High School in Pound, Virginia. His father wanted him to become a physician and had him enroll in a premedical program at Milligan College, a church school near Johnson City, Tennessee. Powers dropped out of the program in his junior year but continued to study biology and chemistry. He graduated in June 1950, then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, achieving the rank of first lieutenant in 1952.

Powers married Barbara Gay Moore in April 1955. He hoped to pilot commercial airliners after his enlistment expired in December 1955, but he was recruited to work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In January 1956 the CIA asked Powers to fly the Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which was designed for high-altitude flights to observe foreign military installations. The agency offered him the then-considerable sum of $2,500 a month. Powers flew a U-2 over the eastern Mediterranean in autumn 1956, monitoring the Anglo-French buildup prior to the invasion of the Suez Canal. The body of the shiny aircraft was so thin that a workman who bumped his tool kit against the plane left a four-inch dent. Technicians joked that the aircraft was made from Reynolds Wrap.

The U-2 had a ceiling of 20–21 kilometers, while Soviet fighters could not exceed 15–17 kilometers. Longer-range Zenith rockets had entered the Soviet arsenal in 1960. There were about twenty U-2 flights between 1956 and 1960, with the U-2s flown in circular paths, exiting the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) at different points. Powers was the first to fly in a line that could be plotted by Soviet radar. On 1 May 1960 he began his most famous mission: a nine-hour, 3,788-mile flight from Peshawar, Pakistan, over the missile launch site at Tiuratom in the Soviet Union. Powers was to pass Sverdlovsk and photograph the missile base under construction at Plesetsk before landing at Bodø, Norway. His aircraft, number 360, had experienced fuel-tank problems and made an emergency landing in Japan in September 1959. During his 1960 flight Powers had problems controlling the pitch of the plane.

Three missiles were fired at Powers's U-2 over Sverdlovsk. The first exploded near the aircraft, causing it to lose altitude, and the second hit the plane. The tail and both wings flew off. Without pressurization, pinned by G forces, and being strangled by his oxygen hoses, Powers somehow managed to bail out. A third missile, shot from a MiG-19, destroyed another Soviet fighter trying to intercept the U-2.

Powers's flight was the last U-2 mission scheduled before a summit between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Paris in May 1960. The leaders had planned to discuss a limited test-ban treaty, the first major agreement of the cold war. On 5 May, Khrushchev told the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet that an American plane had been shot down. Although the summit was cancelled, Khrushchev apparently wanted it to go ahead and blamed the spy flight on Pentagon militarists who had acted without Eisenhower's knowledge.

When Powers's U-2 disappeared, U.S. officials wrongly assumed that he was dead and the plane had been destroyed. They did not know Powers had been captured on a collective farm near Sverdlovsk. After sixty-one days of interrogation in Moscow's Lubianka Prison, he went on trial for espionage on 17 August 1960. The audience at the Hall of Trade Unions exceeded 1,000 people. Powers was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison, and transferred to a jail in Vladimir, Russia, in September 1960. The wreckage of his U-2 aircraft was exhibited in the chess pavilion at Gorkii Park, and later was piled in a corner of the Central Museum of the Armed Forces of the U.S.S.R. in Moscow.

On 10 February 1962 Powers was exchanged for the Soviet spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel in the first Soviet-American "spy swap." Khrushchev claimed that, because he delayed Powers's release until after the 1960 U.S. presidential election, the Republican candidate Richard Nixon failed to benefit from improved Soviet-American relations, and John F. Kennedy was able to clinch his narrow election victory.

Once back in the United States, Powers found work with the CIA in Virginia, but he soon resigned and later joined Lockheed in Burbank, California. He obtained a divorce from his first wife in January 1963 and married Claudia ("Sue") Edwards Downey, a CIA employee, on 24 October of the same year. Powers adopted his seven-yearold stepdaughter, and the couple had a son in 1965. Powers chronicled his U-2 experience in the book Operation Overflight (1970). He lost his job at Lockheed, and in the 1970s worked as a traffic-watch pilot for KGIL radio in Los Angeles, at an aircraft communications company, and as a reporter for KNBC.

Powers died at the age of forty-seven when his aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed on a baseball field in Encino. Boys playing on the field felt he had maneuvered his helicopter to spare their lives. Although Powers had received broad public criticism in 1960 for not committing suicide after he was captured by the Soviets, President Jimmy Carter granted permission for him to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Powers has been depicted as unexceptional and unlucky. An obituary characterized him as "a human element necessary only until robot satellites would come along." Indeed, the day Powers was sentenced, the United States recovered the first film from a spy satellite whose cameras had photographed more territory than all the U-2 missions combined. However, reconnaissance from U-2s proved crucial during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and these aircraft were still in use during the 1991 Gulf War.


It was around 6:20 on Sunday May 1, 1960 when a member of the crew pulled the ladder away and slammed the canopy shut. The pilot then locked it from the inside. As Francis Gary Powers taxied on to the runway out of Peshawar air base, Pakistan and carefully guided the U-2C, model 360, into the air, the J75/P13 engine roared with a distinctive whine. He never lost the thrill of hearing the familiar sound.

Quickly climbing toward his assigned altitude and switching into autopilot for his twenty-eighth reconnaissance mission, he headed toward Afghanistan and initiated a single click on the radio. Seconds later, he heard a single click as confirmation. As explained by Francis Gary Powers Jr. and Keith Dunnavant in their book Spy Pilot, this was his signal to proceed as scheduled, in radio silence.

Determined to pack as much surveillance as possible into one flight, Powers was scheduled to cross over the Hindu Kush range of the Himalayas and into the southern USSR, passing over a 2,900-mile swath of Soviet territory, from Dushambe and the Aral Sea, to the rocket center of Tyuratam, and on to Sverdlovsk, where he would head northwest, reaching the key target of Plesetsk facility to judge the Soviet ICBM progress before turning even farther northwest, toward the Barents Sea port of Murmansk. Exiting to the north, he was to land in Bodo, Norway, where a recovery team was waiting to transport the U-2 and secure the pilot. In the case of an emergency, such as running low on fuel, he was authorized to take a shortcut into the neutral nations of Sweden or Finland, which would be sure to cause complications for Washington. But as it was remarked at the time, “Anyplace is preferable to going down in the Soviet Union.”

The Soviets were especially dangerous if they knew the U-2 was coming. According to an official protest subsequently lodged with the US government by the foreign minister of Afghanistan, for violating their sovereign airspace on the way north, the Soviets provided an early warning of the spy plane’s incursion.

After flying into the thin, cold air of the stratosphere, Frank was no longer sweating in his pressure suit but he felt his pulse quicken. He always felt a bit uneasy crossing into the USSR. Nine hours was a long time to be in the air, nearly all of it over enemy territory, and the pilot realized he had never been more vulnerable.

Because his sextant—a device used to measure distance based on the angular width between two objects—had been set for a 6 a.m. departure, rendering all of the values off by nearly a half hour, Frank would have to rely heavily on his compass and clock to navigate. For about the first 90 minutes, he encountered heavy cloud cover, which made it more difficult to stay on course.

About the time the sky below turned into a blanket of blue, he saw something in the distance: the contrail of a single-engine jet aircraft, headed in the opposite direction, at supersonic speed. Soon he saw another contrail, heading toward him, at supersonic speed. He assumed it was the same plane, having turned around to follow him.

“I was sure now they were tracking me on radar he said, relieved by the enormous distance, which reflected the jet’s inability to approach the U-2’s altitude. “If this was the best they could do, I had nothing to worry about.”

The scramble to deal with the invader eventually reached the Kremlin. It was still early morning Moscow time when Premier Khrushchev’s telephone rang.

Khrushchev told Soviet defense minister Rodion Malinovsky: “You must do your very best! Give it everything you’ve got and bring that plane down!”

After telling his leader that a new SA-2 battery was stationed along the plane’s apparent route, Malinovsky said, “We have every possibility of shooting the plane down if our anti-aircraft people aren’t gawking at the crows!”

After switching on the camera while flying over the Tyuratam Cosmodrome, the launch site for Soviet space shots which had been confirmed and extensively photographed in previous U-2 missions, Powers worked through a slight course correction and proceeded north, eventually getting a nice view of the snow-capped Ural Mountains, the geo-graphic dividing line between Europe and Asia, to his left.

Passing various landmarks, he made notations for his debriefing. When his autopilot malfunctioned—a problem considered significant enough to consider aborting a mission—he switched it off and began flying the plane manually. The choice to head back or proceed was his, but since he was more than 1,300 miles into Soviet territory, he made the fateful decision to keep going. He had gone too far to turn back now.

Almost four hours into the flight, just southeast of Sverdlovsk, while recording figures in his flight log, he felt a thump. A violent shockwave reverberated through the aircraft as a bright-orange flash lit up his world.

“My God,” he said to himself. “I’ve had it now.”

Pulling tight on the throttle with his left hand while holding the wheel steady with his right, Powers checked his instruments. Everything looked normal. Then the wing tipped and the nose dropped. Suddenly realizing he had lost control of the aircraft, he felt a violent shudder, which jostled him from side to side in his seat. He believed the wings had broken off.

With what remained of his craft spinning out of control, Kelly Johnson‘s once-powerful machine was now overpowered by immutable gravity, and Powers reached for the self-destruct button, which worked on a 70-second delay timer, and prepared to eject. Then he changed his mind, pulling his finger back. Slammed forward by the enormous g-forces, in a suit that had inflated when the cabin lost pressurization, he immediately reached a rather-disheartening conclusion: If he ejected from this awkward position, the impact of his legs on the canopy rail would sever both of his legs, because they were trapped underneath the front of the cockpit.

Quickly thinking through his options, as the plane descended below 35,000 feet, Frank jettisoned the canopy, which flew off toward the heavens, and decided to climb out of the cockpit. When he released his seat belt, the resulting force threw him out.

But this solution created another problem: Because he was still tethered to his oxygen supply, and because the g-forces were so severe, he could no longer reach the self-destruct buttons. Even as his faceplate frosted over in the extreme cold, he fumbled in the dark on a bright sunny day, extending his fingers as far as they would go. No luck. Now he had no way to destroy the plane, to keep it from falling into enemy hands.

Somehow he broke free from the oxygen hose and eventually felt a jerk, which yanked him forward. His parachute opened automatically at 15,000 feet and he descended slowly toward the countryside, near a small village.

“I was immediately struck by the silence,” he later recalled. “Everything was cold, quiet, serene. . . . There was no sensation of falling. It was as if I were hanging in the sky.”


How did the United States and USSR react to the Francis Gary Powers U2 incident?

On May 1, 1960, the pilot of an American U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying through Soviet airspace. The fallout over the incident resulted in the cancellation of the Paris Summit scheduled to discuss the ongoing situation in divided Germany, the possibility of an arms control or test ban treaty, and the relaxation of tensions between the USSR and the United States.

USSR rejects Eisenhower's "Open Skies" plan

As early as 1955, officials in both Moscow and Washington had grown concerned about the relative nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union and the United States. Given the threat that the nuclear arms race posed to national security, leadership in both countries placed a priority on information about the other side’s progress. At a conference in Geneva in 1955, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower proposed an “open skies” plan, in which each country would be permitted to make overflights of the other to conduct mutual aerial inspections of nuclear facilities and launchpads.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev refused the proposal, continuing the established Soviet policy of rejecting international inspections in any form. Meanwhile, Khrushchev also claimed that the Soviet Union had developed numerous intercontinental ballistic missiles, which only motivated the United States Government to look for new ways to verify developments in the Soviet nuclear program.

U-2 spy planes fly over USSR to monitor Nuclear Activity

The U-2 spy plane program grew out of these concerns. The U-2 was a special high-altitude plane that flew at a ceiling of 70,000 feet. Because it flew at such heights, it was thought it would be possible for the planes to pass over the Soviet Union undetected by radar on the ground. It was important that the overflights be undetected, because normally an unauthorized invasion of another country’s airspace was considered an act of war. Operated through the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the first flight over Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) took place on July 4, 1956.

The flights continued intermittently over the next four years. It was later revealed that the Soviets did pick up the flights on radar, and the United States lost a plane over the Soviet Union in 1959, but as long as there was no definitive proof connecting the flights to the United States there was no advantage for the Soviets to raise the issue publicly lest it draw attention to the Soviet inability to shoot down the offending flights.

Francis Gary Powers' U2 shot down near the Ural Mountains in May 1960

On May 1, 1960, the situation changed. On the eve of the Paris Summit and during the May Day holiday, CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers took off from a base in Pakistan bound for another base in Norway, with his planned flight path transgressing 2,900 miles of Soviet airspace. Near the city of Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains, Powers' plane was shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. Powers ejected and parachuted safely to the ground, where he was captured by the KGB, and held for interrogation. The plane crashed, but parts of it were recovered and placed on public display in Moscow as evidence of American deceit.

Powers Incident disrupts the Paris Summit

Although the capture of Powers provided the Soviets the concrete proof that the United States had been conducting the flights, it was not immediately clear what the impact would be for the Paris Summit. At first, and before they had confirmation that Powers had survived, U.S. officials claimed that the U-2 had been conducting a routine weather flight but experienced a malfunction of its oxygen delivery system that had caused the pilot to black out and drift over Soviet air space. On May 7, however, Khrushchev revealed that Powers was alive and uninjured, and clearly had not blacked out from oxygen deprivation.

Moreover, the Soviets recovered the plane mostly intact, including the aerial camera system. It became instantly apparent that the weather survey story was a cover-up for a spy program. Khrushchev had publicly committed himself to the idea of “peaceful coexistence” with the United States and the pursuit of détente, so from his perspective, if U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower denied any knowledge of the spy program and the United States apologized, he would have continued the summit.

Eisenhower admits to Spying on USSR

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Spying was common, and of course, the Soviet Union had its own agents reporting on developments in the United States. Eisenhower, however, refused to issue a formal apology to the Soviet Union he had taken a great personal interest in the spyplane program, and considered the violation of Soviet airspace and the reconnaissance of Soviet nuclear facilities serious enough to personally approve each flight. On May 11, Eisenhower finally acknowledged his full awareness of the entire program and of the Powers flight in particular. Moreover, he explained that in the absence of an “open skies” agreement, such spy flights were a necessary element in maintaining national defense, and that he planned to continue them.

Eisenhower’s statement left Khrushchev in a difficult position. If he did nothing, that would be tantamount to acknowledging implicitly the right of the United States to spy. But any action Khrushchev did take had the potential to scuttle the upcoming conference and his larger plans for a Soviet-American détente. Ultimately, he demanded that Eisenhower apologize for the past flights and promise to discontinue them as a precondition for entering into the planned negotiations on Germany. Eisenhower’s refusal led the Soviet delegation to leave Paris just as the summit was about to begin.


Watch the video: Gary Powers U-2 is Shot Down Over the Soviet Union - Animated