The Incident

Or the stuff movies are made of….

The year is 1960 and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is about to reach new heights…

Gary Powers, a “civilian” is piloting the U-2 “weather plane” over Soviet air space when he is shot down by surface to air missiles. It is later determined that Mr. Powers was in the employ of the CIA and that the plane he was piloting was actually a high-tech spy plane designed specifically for covert surveillance. Upon learning of the circumstances, the United Sates demanded his immediate return. The Russians, they were wondering what the hell he was doing up there in the first place.

So begins the saga that sparked what was one of the biggest crises of the Cold War. After being imprisoned in the Soviet Union for about two years, an exchange of prisoners was agreed upon. Mr. Powers was to be traded back to the United States in return for a Soviet Colonel by the name of Rudolph Abel. The exchange was to take place on February 10, 1962 in then divided Berlin. Specifically, the Glienicke Bridge which spans the River Havel. At one end of the bridge stood American authorities and Colonel Abel, on the other stood Soviet authorities and Mr. Powers.

After a pre-arranged signal was given, both men started across the bridge towards each other, Powers heading towards the west and Abel headed towards the east. As they passed each other, they seemed to nod their heads in silent recognition in the roles that they played as spies. The swap went off without a hitch. Incidentally, this scene would be played out in numerous occasions over the next decades when prisoner exchanges were agreed upon.

The Aftermath

Or fodder for conspiracy theory?

So how was Mr. Powers greeted upon his return to the shores of the United States. Was he hailed as a conquering hero who endured two years imprisonment in a foreign country in service to his country? Quite the contrary, in what I hope was a sign of the times, Mr. Powers was severely criticized on two counts. The first was for not ensuring the destruction of the plane after it was damaged by the missiles, the second was for not killing himself with the poison that he carried for just such an occasion.

After being given the cold shoulder by his cronies at the Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Powers eventually left their services. He died in 1977 at the age of 47 when a television news helicopter he was piloting crashed in Los Angeles.

On May 1st of 2000,in order to mark the 40th anniversary of the incident, the United States Government (perhaps to save face?) presented Mr. Powers family members with the Prisoner of War medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the National Defense Service Medal in recognition of Mr. Powers efforts to serve his country.

A final footnote, my sources inside the former Soviet Union have yet to get back to me on the whereabouts or circumstances of one Colonel Rudolph Abel. Perhaps as time goes on, we may learn more about his fate.

The exact chronology of the U-2 incident is a bit more complicated, and much more embarrassing, than the one cursorily given above.

First of all, the U-2 planes were indeed carefully disguised as NASA "meteorological aircraft," including two actual press releases from NASA about the program issued before the incident.

Gary Powers was shot down on May 1, 1960. He was under orders to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism in case of an emergency, but chose to eject without doing so because he feared (correctly?) that it would have activated immediately and killed him as well.

So, four days after Powers disappeared (and blissfully unaware of his capture), NASA issued a very detailed press release noting that an aircraft had "gone missing" north of Turkey. The press release speculated that the pilot might have fallen unconscious while the autopilot was still engaged, even claiming that "the pilot reported over the emergency frequency that he was experiencing oxygen difficulties." To bolster this, a U-2 plane was quickly painted in NASA colors and shown to the media.

After hearing this, Nikita Khrushchev announced to the Supreme Soviet (and hence the world) that a "spy plane" had been shot down. The White House, presuming Powers was dead, gracefully acknowledged that this might be the same plane, but still proclaimed "there was absolutely no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet airspace and never has been," and attempted to continue the façade by grounding all U2 aircraft to check for "oxygen problems."

On May 7, Khrushchev dropped the bombshell:

I must tell you a secret. When I made my first report I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and well... and now just look how many silly things they (the Americans) have said.

Not only was Powers was still alive, but his plane was essentially intact. The Soviets managed to recover the surveillance camera and even developed the photographs! Powers' survival pack, including 7500 rubles and jewelry for women, was also recovered. Khrushchev sneered:

Why was all this necessary? Maybe the pilot was to have flown still higher to Mars and was going to lead the Martian ladies astray?

This brought the 1960 Paris Summit between the superpowers to a halt. The US ended up with a lot of egg on its face, not just politically but also technologically, since the U2's altitude of 68,000 feet had been thought to be beyond the reach of the Soviets' SAMs.


In a somewhat ironic twist, in 1971 NASA was actually given two U-2s for research.

The wreckage of the plane in question is now on display in Ekaterinburg, the restored name of what was Sverdlovsk in Soviet times and the closest city to the shootdown site.


Trans-Siberian Handbook, 4th Edition

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