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.
What the Americans didn’t realize was that not only was Powers still alive and being interrogated, many parts of the U2 spyplane were still essentially intact, complete with espionage equipment including a surveillance camera from which photos were later developed.
The incident set US-Soviet relations back greatly and resulted in humiliation for Eisenhower’s government, who’d been caught lying.
Powers was eventually given a 10-year sentence for espionage but was exchanged for a member of the KGB a few years later in a high-profile spy swap.
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