U-2

On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane which was flying a reconnaissance mission was shot down from an altitude of 60,000 feet over central Russia just before a meeting between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Russia's Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

The incident caused the cancellation of the Paris Summit, a meeting with Krushchev amd Eisenhower and other world leaders on May 16 and inflamed existing Cold War tensions, a situation which took literally years to recover from.

The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was an Air Force captain when the CIA recruited him for their U-2 program because of his expertise in flying single engine jets. The U-2 was the ultimate spy plane of that time, and it was equipped with the most modern of cameras which were able to take high-resolution pictures from more than 70,000 feet. The purpose of the flights was the systematic photography of military installations and other crucial intelligence targets.

The KGB and other Russian intelligence agencies had known about the U-2 missions since 1956, but because of the altitudes which the planes maintained, it was next to impossible for them to do anything about it. They simply lacked the technology.

That is, until 1960.

On that first day of May in 1960, Powers took off from a U.S. air base in Peshawar, Pakistan, where it was tailed from a low altitude by eight Soviet-designed, high-altitude, command guided, surface-to-air missiles (SAM) system and was shot down.

Powers was unable to activate the self-destruct feature of his U-2 before he parachuted out, and both he and the plane ended up in the hands of the KGB. The plane crashed but remained almost entirely intact, allowing the Soviet intelligence agents to recover the plane, its photo equipment, and the actual photographs Powers had taken.

The United States government issued a statement that a weather plane had crashed after the pilot -- presumably Powers -- had “difficulties with his oxygen equipment.”

The KGB interrogated Powers for months, and he finally made a confession along with a public apology for espionage. In August, he was tried in the Soviet Union and convicted of espionage and sentenced to ten years imprisonment, which included three years in prison and seven years of hard labor.

In February of 1962, however, after he was just shy of two years of incarceration, Powers was returned to the United States as part of a prisoner exchange for Russian spy Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel, also known as Vilyam Fisher, a KGB officer.

When he returned to the United States, Powers was met by a hostile public, many of whom thought that he should not have allowed himself to be captured alive, and that he absolutely should have activated the self-destruct feature, preventing the Russians from getting the technology of the aircraft and cameras, as well as the film itself. It was revealed that he was in possession of a CIA-issued suicide pin which was hidden in a hollow silver dollar.

A Congressional hearing by the Senate Armed Services Select Committee ascertained that Powers did not divulge any important information to the KGB, that he followed orders, and that he conducted himself well during his capture.

He worked as a test pilot for Lockheed from 1963 until 1970, when he co-authored a book called “Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident.” Lockheed laid him off just after the publication, and he believe that the book was the reason.

He worked for a while for radio station KGIL in San Fernando, and then for KNBC, the Los Angeles NBC television affiliate where he piloted their new “telecopter,” a helicopter which had been outfitted with external cameras mounted, allowing for a 360-degree photographic view.

In 1977, he was taking aerial photographs while covering a brush fire in Santa Barbara when his helicopter crashed in Balboa Park when it ran out of fuel. He radioed the Van Nuys Airport requesting permission to land due to the fuel situation. He got permission but never arrived.

In an apparent attempt to avoid crashing in densely populated Los Angeles, he was going to crash land near Lake Balboa. His last transmission was “TV Four just lost -- “

Eye witnesses believed that he had realized at he last moment that there were teenagers playing baseball where he tried to put down.

He and cameraman George Spears were killed instantly in the crash. Francis Gary Powers was 47 years old.