On 1 May 1960, a United States U-2 spy plane was shot down by the Soviet Air Defence Forces while performing photographic aerial reconnaissance deep into Soviet territory. The single-seat aircraft, flown by pilot Francis Gary Powers, was hit by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) surface-to-air missile and crashed near Sverdlovsk (today’s Yekaterinburg). Powers parachuted safely and was captured.
A U2 spy plane was on a mission to film Soviet military bases when the aircraft was hit by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. Half a century on, the incident is still full of mystery.
The CIA called it their “invulnerable spyplane.” The U2 was a phantom. Top secret and a masterpiece of aviation technology, it was designed to fly over Soviet territory undetected, taking unauthorized surveillance pictures at altitudes that were unreachable for Soviet missiles and fighter planes.
Once the plane was hit the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, managed a dramatic bailout and was captured shortly after parachuting down on Russian soil. But Khrushchev purposely omitted any information about the pilot.
The US, assuming that the pilot was dead and the plane destroyed, issued a detailed statement claiming it was a weather plane that had crashed after the pilot had experienced “oxygen difficulties.” But it was risky deceit.
The drama that followed included a feeble cover-up attempt by Washington. That compelled the Soviet Union to reveal that they had captured Francis Gary Powers and recovered the wreckage of his U-2.
Then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower finally accepted responsibility for the spy flights over Soviet territory. Powers was subjected to a trial and confessed to espionage, sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Soviets. He was later traded for captured-KGB agent Rudolf Abel on February 10, 1962, exactly 650 days after he had been shot down.
Sergei Khrushchev, the son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, wrote in the foreword of the 2019 book “Spy Pilot”, written by Francis Gary Powers’ son, that, “In 1957, Colonel Rudolf Abel was captured by American authorities in New York City and rightly convicted of espionage and sentenced to a long prison term. In 1960, after being shot down while flying a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, Francis Gary Powers was rightly convicted of espionage and sentenced to a long prison term. Both men were patriots who loved their country, believed fervently in their nation’s ideals, and worked for the cause of world peace, before running out of luck.”
On his return home, Powers, due in large part to the significant amount of misinformation given out by both sides during his time in captivity, was given far from a hero’s welcome.
Bridge of Spies is a movie based on this incident