Photo Credit – Gary Powers, Jr. / Cold War Museum via AP.
The 1960 U-2 Incident occurred at the height of the Cold War when the Soviet Union shot down an American spy plane over Soviet air space. The incident afforded Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev the opportunity to launch a show trial as well as a media propaganda effort against the United States.
In 1957, United States President Dwight Eisenhower received permission from Pakistan to create a secret military installation from which to fly spy planes out of. At first British pilots were used in order to afford Eisenhower the ability to honestly deny that Americans were spying over the Soviet Union. When the initial fights were successful, the United States decided to launch two more missions, this time with American pilots.
The U-2 spy planes being flown were able to reach altitudes beyond the capabilities of Soviet fighter planes and believed to be beyond the range of Soviet missiles. Eisenhower wanted the missions to be completed before the Four Power Paris Summit that was scheduled for May 16, 1960.
On April 9, 1960 U.S. pilot Bob Ericson flew a mission over Soviet air space and was able to photograph four Soviet military defense locations. Unfortunately, his plane was detected by Soviet Air Defense Forces but avoided being intercepted before landing safely.
On May 1, 1920, U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers set out on a mission with the operation code word GRAND SLAM. The goal of the mission was to determine the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles that the Soviet Union possessed. Because of the knowledge of Ericson’s flight, Soviet defenses were on red alert awaiting another U-2 flight. When Powers plane was detected, Soviet fighters were sent to intercept it, ramming it if necessary. Although Powers was able to avoid the Soviet fighter planes, he was shot down by a SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile. Powers bailed out and safely landed in Russian territory. Although he carried with him a poison needle, he did not use it on himself.
The United States attempted to cover up the incident, even going so far as to have NASA issue a press release which stated that a NASA pilot had reportedly lost consciousness resulting in a plane being unaccounted for. They went so far as to paint a U-2 plane with NASA colors. Soviet Premier Khrushchev announced that an United States plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union. Believing that Powers had crashed and was dead, the U.S. continued to claim that the plane was a NASA weather plane and that the pilot had reported that he was losing oxygen. Thus, the story explained, when the pilot lost consciousness, the plane’s autopilot carried it into Soviet air space.
Khrushchev sprung his trap, revealing that Eisenhower was lying in his denials over spying, revealing that not only had the plane been found intact, but the pilot, Francis Gary Powers was captured alive. On May 7, 1960, Khrushchev announced “I must tell you a secret. When I made my first report I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and well… and now just look how many silly things the Americans have said.”
Khrushchev used the Four Power Paris Summit to condemn the United States for spying on the Soviet Union and for lying in trying to cover up the matter. President Eisenhower refused to apologize, saying his actions in dispatching the U-2 planes were defensive in nature. An angry Khrushchev rescinded an invitation that had been given to President Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union.The summit was deemed a failure and the incident caused an escalation in the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.
How Powers was shot down was in dispute. A report from the National Security Agency expressed the belief that Powers had actually descended down from 65,000 feet to 34,000 feet, well within range of both Soviet MIG fighter planes and missiles. Soviet pilot Captain Igor Mentyukov claimed that his Sukhoi Su-9 fighter had been modified by having its weapons removed. It was thus able to break through its 55,000 foot altitude ceiling and reach 65,000 feet where Powers’ U-2 got caught in its slipstream, causing the U-2 to flip over, breaking its wings and causing it to plummet.
Powers version of the story seemed to correspond to the official version given by the Soviets. He said that a missile missed his plane but exploded in the airspace behind his plane. The concussion of the explosion shook the plane with such violence that it ripped on a its long wing off.
Powers was able to eject from the plane and land safely on the ground but was captured. He was put on trial in a clear propaganda campaign in the Soviet Union. He plead guilty to espionage and was sentenced on August 17, 1960 to three years of imprisonment and seven years of hard labor.
On February 10, 1962, he was exchanged, along with American student Frederic Pryor, in a spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany. In return the Soviet got KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel.
For more information on the U2 Incident, please visit the Cold War Museum, founded by Francis Gary Powers, Jr.