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Francis Gary Powers with a model of the U-2.

Francis Gary Powers (August 17, 1929 – August 1, 1977) was an American pilot whose CIA[1] U-2 spy plane was shot down while violating Soviet Union airspace, causing the 1960 U-2 incident.


Early life

Powers was born in Jenkins, Kentucky, with Melungeon ancestry, and raised in Pound, Virginia, on the Virginia-Kentucky border. He was raised by his mother and father, Ida and Oliver Powers, and had five sisters Jean Goff (residing in Pound, VA), Joan Meade (residing in Norton, VA), Joyce (residing in Virginia) Janice Melvin (residing in Salt Lake City, Utah) and Jessica Hileman (residing in Mechanicsville, MD). After graduating from Milligan College in Johnson City, Tennessee, he was commissioned in the United States Air Force in 1950. Upon completing his training (B52-H) he was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia as an F-84 Thunderjet pilot. He was assigned to operations in the Korean War, but (according to his son) was recruited by the CIA because of his outstanding record in single engine jet aircraft, soon after recovering from an illness.[2] By 1960, the 31-year old Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions.

The U-2 Incident

He left the Air Force with the rank of captain in 1956, to join the CIA U-2 program. U-2 pilots carried out espionage missions using a spy plane that could reach altitudes above 70,000 feet, essentially making it invulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft weapons of the time. The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera designed to snap high-resolution photos from the edge of the atmosphere over hostile countries that included the Soviet Union. These cameras systematically photographed military installations and other important intelligence targets.

Soviet intelligence, including the KGB, had been well aware of U-2 missions since 1956, but lacked the technology to launch counter-measures until 1960. Powers’ U-2, which departed from a military airbase in Peshawar [2] and may have received support from the US Air Station at Badaber (Peshawar Airbase), near Peshawar in Pakistan, was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Surface to Air) missile[3] on May 1, 1960, over Sverdlovsk. Powers was unable to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism, as instructed, before he parachuted to the ground and into the hands of the KGB.

Powers' U-2 plane was hit by the very first S-75 missile. However, 7 more missiles were launched. One of them hit a MiG-19 jet fighter that was sent to intercept the U-2, but was unable to reach a high enough altitude. The MiG-19 pilot, Sergey Safronov, committed suicide by crashing his plane in a unpopulated forest area rather than parachuting and taking a risk of his plane crashing into the nearby town of Degtyarsk. Another aircraft, a newly manufactured Su-9 in transit flight, attempted to intercept Powers' U-2. The Su-9 was unarmed and was directed to ram the U-2. One ramming attempt was made and the Su-9 missed the U-2, primarily due to the large difference in the speed of the two planes. No further ramming attempt was made due to Su-9's lack of fuel.

When the U.S. government learned of Powers' disappearance over the Soviet Union, it issued a cover statement claiming that a "weather plane" had crashed down after its pilot had "difficulties with his oxygen equipment." What U.S. officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact, and the Soviets recovered its photography equipment, as well as Powers, whom they interrogated extensively for months before he made a "voluntary confession" and public apology for his part in U.S. espionage. Ultimately the whole incident would set back the peace talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower for years. On August 17, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to a total of 10 years in prison, three years of imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor. Powers was held in the famous "Vladimirsky Central" prison in the city of Vladimir, east of Moscow. This prison had been used to hold other high-profile prisoners, such as the son of Joseph Stalin. The prison, which is still active today, contains a small museum that includes an exhibit on Powers, who, it is said, had a good rapport with Russian prisoners during his time there. On February 10, 1962, twenty-one months after his capture, he was exchanged along with American student Frederic Pryor in a spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel) at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany.


Wooden U-2 model - one of two used by Powers when he testified to the Senate Committee. The wings and tail are detachable to demonstrate the aircraft's breakup upon impact.

Though Powers had not divulged details of the U-2 program, he received a cold reception upon his return to the United States. Initially, he was criticized for having failed to activate his aircraft’s self-destruct charge designed to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts of his aircraft before capture. In addition, others criticized him for deciding not to use an optional CIA-issued "suicide pin". After being debriefed extensively by the CIA, Lockheed, and the USAF, on March 6, 1962, he appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing chaired by Senator Richard Russell and including Senators Prescott Bush and Barry Goldwater Sr. During the proceeding it was determined that Powers followed orders, did not divulge any critical information to the Soviets, and conducted himself “as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”

After his return, Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1963 to 1970. In 1970, he co-wrote a book titled Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident, which led to his termination from Lockheed as a result of negative publicity over the book. He then became an airborne traffic reporter for radio station KGIL in the San Fernando Valley. He was then hired by Los Angeles television station KNBC to pilot their new "telecopter," a helicopter equipped with externally mounted 360 degree cameras.


Powers died on August 1, 1977. Returning from covering brush fires in Santa Barbara county, his helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area just a few miles from Burbank Airport.[4] Powers was survived by his wife Sue, two children, Dee and Francis Gary Powers Jr., and his five sisters. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.[4][5]

In 1998, newly declassified information revealed that Powers’ mission had been a joint USAF/CIA operation. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the U-2 Incident, his family was presented with his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star and National Defense Service Medal. In addition, CIA Director George Tenet authorized Powers to posthumously receive the CIA's coveted Intelligence Star for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty.[6]

In popular culture

In 1976, the book by Powers and Curt Gentry became a television movie, entitled Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident, with Lee Majors playing the part of Powers.


  1. ^ CIA FOIA - Francis Gary Powers: U-2 Spy Pilot Shot Down by the Soviets
  2. ^ a b Powers, Francis Gary; Curt Gentry (May 1971). Operation Overflight. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. ISBN 978-1574884227. 
  3. ^ S-75
  4. ^ a b According to Powers' son, an aviation mechanic had repaired a problematic fuel gauge without Powers' knowledge, leading him to misinterpret its reading. When he was returning to Burbank, Powers ran out of fuel.
  5. ^
  6. ^

Further reading

  • Nigel West, Seven Spies Who Changed the World. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991 (hard cover). London: Mandarin, 1992 (paperback).
  • Sergei N. Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower. State College, PA: Penn State Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0271019277.
  • Francis Gary Powers, Curt Gentry, Operation Overflight. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1971 (hard cover) ISBN 978-0340148235. Potomac Book, 2002 (paperback) ISBN 978-1574884227.

External links



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