May 5th, 2020

The U-2 Incident: The Soviets “Catch a Spy”

Sixty ago, May 1, 1960 Gary Francis Powers lifted off in his U-2 Spy Plane, built by the famous Skunk Works of the Lockheed Corporation. The point of departure was an airbase in Pakistan. His mission was to cross Russia (then the Soviet Union) and take pictures of locations of interest to the United States. This was in the midst of what was known as the Cold War, with two bitter enemies the United States and Soviet Union, not firing shots, but still very much at odds with one another.

Eisenhower (R) and Khrushchev

Though the Cold War was near its height, relations had recently begun to thaw between U.S. President Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Khrushchev. That would all change on that fateful day. The Soviets were aware of the flights, they had been occurring since 1956, but they had heretofore been helpless in stopping them, the U-2 flew too high and too fast for Soviet defenses (missile or aircraft) to reach them. Khrushchev, according to Michael Beschloss in his book, May-Day was convinced that the flights were occurring without President Eisenhower’s authorization.

Khrushchev with wreckage of the U-2

The Soviets got lucky that day; they sent a barrage of fourteen SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) at the aircraft on May 1 and one of them exploded behind the aircraft causing shock damage and crippling the aircraft. The pilot, Gary Francis Powers, bailed out over Russia. He was to arm the aircraft’s self destruct mechanism before ejecting and take a “suicide pill” after landing in his parachute. He did neither.

Powers in Captivity

He subsequently spent the next 21 months in Soviet custody and was finally part of an exchange of prisoners in February of 1962. The fact that the U-2 crashed largely intact allowed the Soviets to learn many of America’s aviation and photographic secrets and the interrogations of Powers made the Soviets realize that Eisenhower knew of the flights and immediately undid any progress that had been made in relations between the two countries.

Aviation sometimes requires split second decision making with huge consequences of those decisions. The May Day 1960 flight of Gray Francis Powers is a powerful example of this reality.

For awards given Gary Francis Powers see this AF site

This blog was originally published on April 30, 2015 and modified slightly here.

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