On May 1, 1960, American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers took off on a spy flight deep into Soviet airspace. Powers was tasked with secretly photographing Russian military sites, but his mission went horribly awry after he was shot down and taken prisoner. The incident proved to be a major propaganda coup for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who used Powers and his captured aircraft to shed light on American Cold War espionage and publicly embarrass President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The ensuing controversy torpedoed a peace conference a few weeks later, placing additional strain on the already fraught relationship between the world’s two biggest superpowers.

Since its first flight in 1956, the U-2 had become the United States’ most effective tool for peering behind the Iron Curtain. The top-secret spy plane was capable of skating along the edge of the atmosphere at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet—higher than any aircraft then in existence. From this lofty vantage point, it could slip into Soviet airspace and use sophisticated cameras to take photos of military installations on the ground. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the CIA had already used the U-2 to conduct “overflights” of the Soviet Union on 23 different occasions. Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev issued diplomatic complaints about these missions, but he could do little to stop them. The American pilots simply flew too high to be shot down by ground missiles or fighter planes. As far as the Soviets were concerned, the U-2 was a phantom.

This was no doubt a soothing thought for Francis Gary Powers as he strapped into a U-2 and took off from a secret base in Pakistan on the morning of May 1, 1960. The son of a Virginia coal miner, Powers had been plucked from the U.S. Air Force in 1956 and enlisted by the CIA as a spy plane pilot. With some 600 hours of flight time under his belt, he was now the most experienced flier in the program. Powers was used to the extreme conditions of the marathon U-2 flights—the thin air; the isolation; the painfully snug flight-suits—and he also knew the risks. In his pocket, he carried a silver dollar that concealed a needle dipped in poison. If captured and subjected to torture, he had the option of taking his own life.

Francis Gary Powers following his capture. (Credit: RIA Novosti/Wikimedia Commmons
Francis Gary Powers following his capture. (Credit: RIA Novosti/Wikimedia Commmons

Powers was tasked with making a nine-hour jaunt into Soviet airspace to take photos of missile and nuclear sites. It was a routine mission—his 28th in the U-2—but it would also be his last. Though neither he nor the CIA knew it, the spy plane menace had encouraged the Russians to develop more effective surface-to-air missiles. Powers was 1,300 miles inside Soviet territory when one of them locked on and exploded close enough to deal his plane a fatal blow. “Suddenly, there was a dull ‘thump,’” he later wrote in a memoir, “the aircraft jerked forward, and a tremendous orange flash lit the cockpit and the sky.” Powers’ U-2 broke apart and began hurtling toward the ground. The plane had a self-destruct switch, but he was unable to reach it before breaking open his canopy and bailing out. His parachute dropped him into a field outside the Ural Mountains city of Sverdlovsk, where he was apprehended by Russian citizens. Within a few hours, the United States’ top spy pilot found himself in the custody of the Soviet government.

Powers had been well out of radio range when his plane went down, so it was only after he failed to arrive at his planned landing site at Bodo, Norway that the Eisenhower administration realized something was amiss. A few days later on May 5, Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech and officially confirmed their worst fears: an American U-2 plane had been blasted out of the sky over Russia.

Khrushchev’s speech made no mention of the fate of the pilot, but the Americans had every reason to believe Powers had been killed. U-2s were flimsy planes and tended to disintegrate upon impact. The chances of a pilot surviving a hit by a surface-to-air missile were slim to none. With this in mind, the Eisenhower administration crafted a cover story that a NASA weather plane had experienced oxygen difficulties over Turkey and drifted off course. They even had another U-2 hurriedly painted with the NASA insignia and displayed to reporters. A State Department press officer was unequivocal in denying espionage. There was no “deliberate attempt to violate Soviet air space,” he said, “and there never has been.”

Nikita Khrushchev examining the wreckage of the U-2 plane.
Nikita Khrushchev examining the wreckage of the U-2 plane.

While the U.S. government was scrambling to cover its tracks, Powers sat in Moscow enduring one of the first of what would eventually be 61 days of interrogation by the Soviet KGB. “I was completely unprepared,” he later wrote. “I presumed that once it was known I was missing a cover story would be issued. Unfortunately, no one had ever bothered to inform us pilots what it would be.” Remembering that a CIA officer had once said, “you may as well tell them everything, because they’re going to get it out of you anyway,” Powers opted for a strategy of calculated honesty. He admitted to intentionally violating Soviet airspace, but refused to name any of his fellow pilots and pleaded ignorance regarding the nature of his mission.

Combined with the recovered wreckage of his U-2—including its spy photos—Powers’ confession provided the Soviets with more than enough ammunition to expose Eisenhower’s cover story. On May 7, Khrushchev addressed Soviet officials and dropped a bombshell. “Comrades,” he said, “I must let you in on a secret. When I made my report two days ago, I deliberately refrained from mentioning that we have the remnants of the plane—and we also have the pilot, who is quite alive and kicking!” Khrushchev spent the rest of his speech dismantling the American cover story. As an additional humiliation, he also had the wreckage of the downed U-2 displayed at a public exhibition in Moscow.

Eisenhower was stunned. He’d walked right into a trap, and he’d done it at exactly the wrong time. The president was scheduled to meet with Khrushchev at a crucial diplomatic summit in Paris just days later. Both sides had hoped the conference would result in a renewed dialogue and perhaps even an agreement to begin disarmament and a nuclear test ban treaty. The U-2 debacle put everything at risk. CIA Director Allen Dulles offered to take blame for the scandal and resign, but Eisenhower was loath to give the impression that he wasn’t in control of his administration. Instead, he did the unthinkable: he came clean. On May 11, Eisenhower publicly admitted to authorizing the U-2 flights, saying the espionage was a “distasteful but vital necessity” inspired by a “fetish of secrecy” in the Soviet Union. “No one wants another Pearl Harbor,” he argued.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower

The president’s brazen confession put Khrushchev in a difficult spot. Pressing the issue jeopardized the outcome of the peace summit, yet ignoring it would make him appear weak to his own government. “It was no longer possible for us to spare the president,” Khrushchev later admitted. “He had, so to speak, offered us his back end, and we obliged him by kicking it as hard as we could.” When the Paris conference convened in mid-May, Khrushchev opened the proceedings by launching into an expletive-laden tirade and demanding that Eisenhower condemn the U-2 flights and issue a personal apology. Eisenhower flatly refused, and even produced a file listing evidence of the Soviets’ own espionage activities in the United States. Fuming, Khrushchev stormed out of the room and abandoned the meeting.
With the collapse of the Paris summit, any chance of a thaw in the Cold War slipped away. Eisenhower suspended surveillance flights over Russia, but he stood by his philosophy of espionage for defense purposes. U-2s still made flybys over Cuba and other Soviet allies, and they were soon supplanted by an even more sophisticated information-gathering tool in form of spy satellites. When asked if there were any lessons learn from the U-2 incident, Eisenhower press secretary James Hagerty’s response was as simple as it was telling: “Don’t get caught.”

Francis Gary Powers later stood trial in Moscow on charges of espionage. He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in jail, but served fewer than two before being released in February 1962 as part of a prisoner swap with Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Powers’ homecoming was accompanied by considerable controversy. Many Americans believed he had been too forthcoming with the KGB, and some even argued that he should have committed suicide rather than allow himself to be captured. Nevertheless, a CIA report would later conclude that the government was “quite satisfied” with his conduct. In 1965, he was awarded the Intelligence Star—the CIA’s highest honor—for his bravery during the U-2 affair.

Listen to Francis Gary Powers speak with reporters following his release. (Audio)