Gary Powers
Francis Gary Powers was an American pilot
An aviator is a person who flies an aircraft. The first recorded use of the term was in 1887, as a variation of 'aviation', from the Latin avis , coined in 1863 by G. de la Landelle in Aviation Ou Navigation Aérienne...

 whose Central Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency
The Central Intelligence Agency is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government. It is an executive agency and reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence, responsible for providing national security intelligence assessment to senior United States policymakers...

 U-2 spy plane
Lockheed U-2
The Lockheed U-2, nicknamed "Dragon Lady", is a single-engine, very high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force and previously flown by the Central Intelligence Agency . It provides day and night, very high-altitude , all-weather intelligence gathering...

 was shot down while flying a reconnaissance
Reconnaissance is the military term for exploring beyond the area occupied by friendly forces to gain information about enemy forces or features of the environment....

 mission over Soviet Union airspace
Airspace means the portion of the atmosphere controlled by a country above its territory, including its territorial waters or, more generally, any specific three-dimensional portion of the atmosphere....

, causing the 1960 U-2 incident.

Early life

Powers was born in Jenkins, Kentucky
Jenkins, Kentucky
As of the census of 2010, there were 2,203 people, 877 households, and 671 families residing in the city. The population density was 281.2 people per square mile . There were 1,122 housing units at an average density of 131.4 per square mile...

, to Oliver and Ida Powers. He grew up in Pound, Virginia
Pound, Virginia
Pound is a town in Wise County, Virginia, United States. The population was 1,089 as recorded in the 2000 census.-Geography:Pound is located at ....

, just across the state border. Graduating from Milligan College
Milligan College
Milligan College is a Christian liberal arts college founded in 1866 and located immediately outside of Elizabethton in Carter County, Tennessee, United States. The school has a student population of just over 1,100 students as well as a campus that is located just minutes from downtown Johnson City...

 in Tennessee
Tennessee is a U.S. state located in the Southeastern United States. It has a population of 6,346,105, making it the nation's 17th-largest state by population, and covers , making it the 36th-largest by total land area...

, in 1950, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force
United States Air Force
The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the American uniformed services. Initially part of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947 under the National Security Act of...

. After completing his training, Powers was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron
468th Strategic Fighter Squadron
The 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron is an inactive United States Air Force unit. Its last assignment was with the 508th Strategic Fighter Wing, based at Turner AFB, Georgia...

 at Turner Air Force Base
Turner Air Force Base
Turner Air Force Base is a former United States Air Force base whose site is located within the current city limits of Albany, Georgia. Following its closure as a USAF installation in the late 1960s, it was transferred to the U.S. Navy and renamed Naval Air Station Albany...

, Georgia
Georgia (U.S. state)
Georgia is a state located in the southeastern United States. It was established in 1732, the last of the original Thirteen Colonies. The state is named after King George II of Great Britain. Georgia was the fourth state to ratify the United States Constitution, on January 2, 1788...

, as an F-84 Thunderjet
F-84 Thunderjet
The Republic F-84 Thunderjet was an American turbojet fighter-bomber aircraft. Originating as a 1944 United States Army Air Forces proposal for a "day fighter", the F-84 flew in 1946...

 pilot. According to his son, he did not fly combat missions during the Korean War
Korean War
The Korean War was a conventional war between South Korea, supported by the United Nations, and North Korea, supported by the People's Republic of China , with military material aid from the Soviet Union...

, because he was recruited by the CIA for his outstanding record in single engine jet aircraft
Jet aircraft
A jet aircraft is an aircraft propelled by jet engines. Jet aircraft generally fly much faster than propeller-powered aircraft and at higher altitudes – as high as . At these altitudes, jet engines achieve maximum efficiency over long distances. The engines in propeller-powered aircraft...

. By 1960, Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions.

The U-2 Incident

Powers was discharged from the Air Force in 1956 with the rank of captain. He then joined the CIA's U-2
Lockheed U-2
The Lockheed U-2, nicknamed "Dragon Lady", is a single-engine, very high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force and previously flown by the Central Intelligence Agency . It provides day and night, very high-altitude , all-weather intelligence gathering...

 program. U-2 pilots flew espionage
Espionage or spying involves an individual obtaining information that is considered secret or confidential without the permission of the holder of the information. Espionage is inherently clandestine, lest the legitimate holder of the information change plans or take other countermeasures once it...

 missions using an aircraft that could reach altitudes above 70,000 feet, 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 take high-resolution photos from the edge of the stratosphere over hostile countries, including the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

. U-2 missions systematically photographed military installations and other important sites.

Soviet intelligence, especially the KGB
The KGB was the commonly used acronym for the . It was the national security agency of the Soviet Union from 1954 until 1991, and was the premier internal security, intelligence, and secret police organization during that time.The State Security Agency of the Republic of Belarus currently uses the...

, had been aware of U-2 missions since 1956, but lacked the ability to launch counter-measures until 1960. Powers’ U-2, which departed from a military airbase in Peshawar
Peshawar is the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the administrative center and central economic hub for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan....

, Pakistan
Pakistan , officially the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a sovereign state in South Asia. It has a coastline along the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman in the south and is bordered by Afghanistan and Iran in the west, India in the east and China in the far northeast. In the north, Tajikistan...

  and may have received support from the US Air Station at Badaber (Peshawar Airbase
Peshawar Airbase
PAF Base Peshawar is an airbase of the Pakistan Air Force located in Peshawar, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. It is the site of PAF's Northern Air Command, located immediately to the east of Peshawar International Airport, which is shared by civil aviation flights and military flights.On December 9,...

), was shot down by an S-75 Dvina
S-75 Dvina
The S-75 Dvina is a Soviet-designed, high-altitude, command guided, surface-to-air missile system...

 (SA-2 Surface to Air) missile on May 1, 1960, over Sverdlovsk
Yekaterinburg is a major city in the central part of Russia, the administrative center of Sverdlovsk Oblast. Situated on the eastern side of the Ural mountain range, it is the main industrial and cultural center of the Urals Federal District with a population of 1,350,136 , making it Russia's...

. Mayak
Mayak Production Association refers to an industrial complex that is one of the biggest nuclear facilities in the Russian Federation. It housed plutonium production reactors and a reprocessing plant...

, the site of the 1957 Kyshtym disaster
Kyshtym disaster
The Kyshtym disaster was a radiation contamination incident that occurred on 29 September 1957 at Mayak, a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Russia...

, was a goal of this mission. Powers was unable to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism before he parachuted to the ground and was captured.

Powers' U-2 plane had been hit by the first S-75 missile fired. A total of 3 had been launched; one missile hit a MiG-19 jet fighter sent to intercept the U-2, but which was unable to reach a high enough altitude. The Soviet pilot, Sergey Safronov, crashed his plane in an unpopulated forest area rather than bail out and risk his plane crashing into nearby Degtyarsk
Degtyarsk is a town under the administrative jurisdiction of the Town of Revda in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia, located on the Vyazovka River , west of Yekaterinburg...

. Another Soviet aircraft, a newly manufactured Su-9 in transit flight, also attempted to intercept Powers' U-2. The unarmed Su-9 was directed to ram the U-2. The pilot attempted but missed because of the large differences in speed. Powers claimed, it is recounted in "The Skunk Works", that upon ejecting he saw the parachute of another pilot deploy behind him.

When the U.S. government learned of Powers' disappearance over the Soviet Union, it issued a cover statement claiming a "weather plane" had crashed after its pilot had "difficulties with his oxygen equipment." What CIA officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact, and the Soviets recovered its equipment. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for months before he made a confession and a public apology for his part in espionage. The incident set back talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower. On August 17, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and was sentenced to a total of 10 years, three years in imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor
Hard Labor
Hard Labor is the eleventh album by American rock band Three Dog Night, released in 1974 .- Cover Artwork :The original album cover, depicting of the birth of a record album , was deemed too controversial and was soon reworked with a huge bandage covering the "birth". The cover also includes an...

. He was held in "Vladimir Central Prison", some 100 miles east of Moscow. The prison contains a small museum with an exhibit on Powers, who allegedly developed a good rapport with Russian prisoners there. Some pieces of the plane and Gary Powers' uniform are on display at the Monino Airbase museum, close to Moscow.

On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged along with American student Frederic Pryor
Frederic Pryor
Frederic L. Pryor is a Senior Research Scholar of Economics at Swarthmore College. He is best known for his subsidiary role in a Cold War spy swap.-Cold War incident:In August, 1961, Pryor was arrested and held without charge by the East German police...

 in a well publicized spy swap for Soviet KGB
The KGB was the commonly used acronym for the . It was the national security agency of the Soviet Union from 1954 until 1991, and was the premier internal security, intelligence, and secret police organization during that time.The State Security Agency of the Republic of Belarus currently uses the...

Colonel , abbreviated Col or COL, is a military rank of a senior commissioned officer. It or a corresponding rank exists in most armies and in many air forces; the naval equivalent rank is generally "Captain". It is also used in some police forces and other paramilitary rank structures...

 Vilyam Fisher
Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher
Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher was a noted Soviet intelligence officer...

 (aka Rudolf Abel), a Soviet colonel who was caught by the FBI and put in jail for espionage, at the Glienicke Bridge
Glienicke bridge
The Glienicke bridge is a bridge on the edge of Berlin that spans the Havel River to connect the cities of Potsdam and Berlin near Klein Glienicke...

 in Berlin, Germany.

In 2010, CIA documents were released indicating that "top US officials never believed Powers’ account of his fateful flight because it appeared to be directly contradicted by a report from the National Security Agency, the clandestine US network of codebreakers and listening posts. The NSA report remains classified, possibly to spare the blushes of its authors. For it is now possible to piece together what really happened high over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960, and to understand why America’s most secretive intelligence agency got it so wrong". According to the article cited, the still classified NSA report is incorrect based on the CIA documents that were declassified which show that Powers' account of being shot down at altitude was accurate.


Powers received a cold reception on his return home. Initially, he was criticized for having failed to activate his aircraft’s self-destruct
A self-destruct is a mechanism which causes a device to destroy itself under a predefined set of circumstances.Self-destruct mechanisms are also found on devices and systems where malfunction could endanger large numbers of people...

 charge to destroy the camera
A camera is a device that records and stores images. These images may be still photographs or moving images such as videos or movies. The term camera comes from the camera obscura , an early mechanism for projecting images...

, photographic film
Photographic film
Photographic film is a sheet of plastic coated with an emulsion containing light-sensitive silver halide salts with variable crystal sizes that determine the sensitivity, contrast and resolution of the film...

, and related classified
Classified information
Classified information is sensitive information to which access is restricted by law or regulation to particular groups of persons. A formal security clearance is required to handle classified documents or access classified data. The clearance process requires a satisfactory background investigation...

 parts of his aircraft before his capture. He was also criticized for not using an optional CIA-issued "suicide pin
Suicide pill
A Cyanide pill is a pill, capsule, ampoule or tablet containing a fatally poisonous substance that a person ingests deliberately in order to quickly cause his/her own life to end...

" to kill himself. After being debriefed extensively by the CIA, Lockheed, and the Air Force, on March 6, 1962, Powers appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing chaired by Senator Richard Russell
Richard Russell, Jr.
Richard Brevard Russell, Jr. was a Democratic Party politician from the southeastern state of Georgia. He served as state governor from 1931 to 1933 and United States senator from 1933 to 1971....

 and including Senators Prescott Bush
Prescott Bush
Prescott Sheldon Bush was a Wall Street executive banker and a United States Senator, representing Connecticut from 1952 until January 1963. He was the father of George H. W. Bush and the grandfather of George W...

 and Barry Goldwater
Barry Goldwater
Barry Morris Goldwater was a five-term United States Senator from Arizona and the Republican Party's nominee for President in the 1964 election. An articulate and charismatic figure during the first half of the 1960s, he was known as "Mr...

 Sr. It was determined that Powers had followed orders, had not divulged any critical information to the Soviets, and had conducted himself “as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”
Powers worked for Lockheed
Lockheed Corporation
The Lockheed Corporation was an American aerospace company. Lockheed was founded in 1912 and later merged with Martin Marietta to form Lockheed Martin in 1995.-Origins:...

 as a test pilot from 1963 to 1970. In 1970, he co-wrote a book called Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident. It is rumored that this led to his termination from Lockheed due to negative publicity for the CIA from the book. Powers became an airborne traffic reporter for radio station KGIL Los Angeles. He was then hired by television station KNBC
KNBC, channel 4, is an owned-and-operated television station of the NBC Television Network, licensed to Los Angeles, California, USA. KNBC's studios and offices are located within the NBC Studios complex in Burbank, California, and its transmitter is located on Mount Wilson...

 to pilot their new "telecopter", a helicopter equipped with externally mounted 360 degree cameras. The telecopter wasn't new---it had been in service for years, and was purchased from KTLA, Channel 5. Prior to this time Powers' experience was with fixed wing aircraft.

Fatal crash

Francis Gary Powers died in 1977 in an accident. He had been covering bush fires in Santa Barbara County. As he returned, his Bell 206 Jet Ranger
Bell 206
The Bell 206 is a family of two-bladed, single- or twin-engine helicopters, manufactured by Bell Helicopter at its Mirabel, Quebec plant. Originally developed as the Bell YOH-4 for the United States Army's Light Observation Helicopter program, the 206 failed to be selected...

 helicopter, registered N4TV, ran out of fuel and crashed in the Sepulveda Dam
Sepulveda Dam
Located in Los Angeles, California, the Sepulveda Dam is a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, built in 1941 to withhold winter flood waters along the Los Angeles River...

 Recreation Area several miles short of Burbank Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board
National Transportation Safety Board
The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent U.S. government investigative agency responsible for civil transportation accident investigation. In this role, the NTSB investigates and reports on aviation accidents and incidents, certain types of highway crashes, ship and marine...

 report attributed the probable cause of the crash to pilot's fault (poor fuel management). According to Powers' son, an aviation mechanic had repaired a faulty fuel gauge without telling Powers, who misread it. At the last moment he may have noticed children playing in the area, and directed the helicopter elsewhere to prevent their deaths. If not for the last second deviation, which compromised his autorotative
In aviation, autorotation refers to processes in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. The term means significantly different things in each context....

 descent, he might have landed safely.

Powers was survived by his wife, two children, Dee and Francis Gary Powers Jr., and five sisters. Powers is buried in Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia, is a military cemetery in the United States of America, established during the American Civil War on the grounds of Arlington House, formerly the estate of the family of Confederate general Robert E. Lee's wife Mary Anna Lee, a great...

 as an Air Force veteran.


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 his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal
Prisoner of War Medal
The Prisoner of War Medal is a military award of the United States armed forces which was authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on 8 November 1985...

, Distinguished Flying Cross, and National Defense Service Medal
National Defense Service Medal
The National Defense Service Medal is a military service medal of the United States military originally commissioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower...

. In addition, CIA Director George Tenet
George Tenet
George John Tenet was the Director of Central Intelligence for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and is Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University....

 authorized Powers to posthumously receive the CIA's coveted Director's Medal for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty. He was awarded the CIA's Intelligence Star
Intelligence Star
The Intelligence Star is an award given by the Central Intelligence Agency for a "voluntary act or acts of courage performed under hazardous conditions or for outstanding achievements or services rendered with distinction under conditions of grave risk." The award citation is from the Director...

 in 1963 after his return from the Soviet Union.

T.H.E. Hill, in cooperation with Francis Gary Powers Jr., designed a Commemorative Cinderella stamp
Cinderella stamp
In philately, a cinderella stamp has been defined as "Virtually anything resembling a postage stamp, but not issued for postal purposes by a government postal administration..." The term also excludes imprinted stamps on postal stationery.- Types :...

 sheet for the fiftieth Anniversary of the U-2 Incident.

Depiction in the arts

In 1976, Powers' biography (written with Curt Gentry
Curt Gentry
Curt Gentry is an American writer. He is best known for co-writing the book Helter Skelter with Vincent Bugliosi , which detailed the Charles Manson murders...

) became a television movie, Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident. Lee Majors
Lee Majors
Lee Majors is an American television, film and voice actor, best known for his starring role as Colonel Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man and as Colt Seavers in The Fall Guy ....

 played the role of Powers.

Ted Allbeury's novel Berlin Exchange (1987) fictionalizes the events that led to the exchange of Powers for the Soviet spy Colonel Abel
Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher
Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher was a noted Soviet intelligence officer...

 in Berlin in 1962.

In June 1997, Gary Powers Jr., along with a group of ex-CIA operatives and authors, visited Moscow's KGB Museum, located in the bowels of the infamous Lubiyanka building, the former KGB headquarters. Belgian TV report here:

Powers Jr. has dedicated his professional life to preserving Cold War history. His own museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and essentially a traveling exhibit since he founded it in 1996, has just found its first permanent home on a former Army communications base outside Washington. He also runs spy tours of the U.S. capital.

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 978-0-271-01927-7.
  • Francis Gary Powers, Curt Gentry, Operation Overflight. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1971 (hard cover) ISBN 978-0-340-14823-5. Potomac Book, 2002 (paperback) ISBN 978-1-57488-422-7.

External links

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