This Day in History: May 1, 1960 by Simonov

This Day in History: May 1, 1960


1 May 2020 at 20:31:14 MDT

On May 1, 1960, American pilot Gary Powers is shot down while flying a Lockheed U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. One of a series of missions conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) using British and American pilots to spy on strategic military installations in the USSR, the mission launched from Peshawar, Pakistan, with the objective of photographing such sites as Baikonur and Plesetsk Cosmodrome before landing in Norway. Soviet forces expected the flight, likely due to the previous U-2 missions in the area, and had placed air defense units on high alert; however, the U-2 was believed to fly at high enough of an altitude to avoid interception by Soviet fighters and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Unfortunately for the Americans, a Soviet SA-2 Guideline SAM successfully brought down the aircraft near Kosulino. Powers was soon afterward captured by the Soviets.

Meanwhile, the United States attempted to cover-up the true nature of the flight with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) releasing a report that one of their research aircraft had been lost somewhere north of Turkey. To bolster this story, a Lockheed U-2 was quickly repainted in NASA colors. This coverup attempt was approved under the assumption that Powers was dead, either from the shoot-down itself or through the use of a poison he had been provided to avoid capture. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev utilized the situation to his advantage to embarrass the Americans just before a summit to be held between the leaders of the US, UK, France, and USSR. Relations between the US and USSR were further strained and the summit itself failed. Furthermore, relations between the US and Pakistan were also strained due to the clandestine nature of the flights that had been launched from there. The loss of the U-2 over the Soviet Union also caused the United States to reevaluate its tactics, shifting away from the use of high-altitude flights to avoid interception. Instead, such aircraft as the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and Convair B-58 Hustler were given high-speed, low-altitude missions and new aircraft, such as the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, were developed specifically for such missions. Yet another aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird, would also be developed in response the new dangers in flying spy missions over the Soviet Union.

Gary Powers had served as a fighter pilot in the US Air Force until he was discharged in 1956 with the rank of captain. From there, he entered service with the CIA until the May 1 incident. On August 19, 1960, Powers was convicted by the Soviets on charges of espionage and sentenced to three years in prison and a further seven in a labor camp. However, Powers was exchanged on February 10, 1962, for Soviet spy William Fisher, who had been caught by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and convicted of espionage. That same year Powers and his wife Barbara separated and were divorced the following year. On October 26, 1963, he married Claudia Edwards "Sue" Downey. Downey had a daughter, Dee, from a previous marriage and had a son, Francis Gary Powers II, with Powers. Powers worked as a test pilot with Lockheed until 1970 before becoming a helicopter traffic reporter for KNBC News Channel 4 in Los Angeles, California. On August 1, 1977, Gary Powers and cameraman George Spears were killed when their helicopter crashed after running out of fuel.

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    Ever see Bridge of Spies? Good movie about the exchange.