Francis Gary Powers (August 17, 1929 – August 1, 1977) was an American pilot whose Central Intelligence Agency U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Union airspace, causing the 1960 U-2 incident.
Powers was born in Jenkins, Kentucky, to Oliver and Ida Powers. He grew up in Pound, Virginia, just across the state border. Graduating fromMilligan College in Tennessee, in 1950, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. After completing his training, Powers was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, as an F-84 Thunderjet pilot. According to his son, he did not fly combat missions during the Korean War, because he was recruited by the CIA for his outstanding record in single engine jet aircraft.By 1960, Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions.
Powers was discharged from the Air Force in 1956 with the rank of captain. He then joined the CIA's U-2program at the civilian grade of GS-12. U-2 pilots flew espionage missions using an aircraft that could reach altitudes above 70,000 feet (21,3km), 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. U-2 missions systematically photographed military installations and other important sites.
Soviet intelligence, especially the KGB, had been aware of U-2 missions since 1956, but they lacked effective counter-measures until 1960. Powers’ U-2, which departed from a military airbase in Peshawar,Pakistan and may have received support from the US Air Station at Badaber (Peshawar Air Station), was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Surface to Air) missile on May 1, 1960, over Sverdlovsk. Powers was unable to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism before he parachuted to the ground and was captured.
Powers' U-2 plane was hit by the first S-75 missile fired. A total of eight were launched; one missile hit aMiG-19 jet fighter sent to intercept the U-2, but could not 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. 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, as 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, they issued a cover statement claiming a "weather plane" had strayed off course 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 ten years, three years in imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor. He was held in Vladimir Central Prison, 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, in a well-publicized spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany. The exchange was for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel), who had been caught by the FBI and jailed for espionage.
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 charge to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts of his aircraft before his capture. He was also criticized for not using an optional CIA-issued "suicide pill" 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 and including Senators Prescott Bush and Barry Goldwater 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 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. Lockheed fired him, it was widely believed, because the book cast negative publicity on the CIA. Powers became an airborne traffic reporter for radio station KGIL Los Angeles. A fixed-wing pilot, he was then hired by television station KNBC to pilot their "telecopter", a helicopter equipped with externally mounted 360-degree cameras. The telecopter had been in service for years, and was purchased from KTLA, Channel 5.
In 1976, Powers' biography (written with Curt Gentry) became a television movie, Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident. Lee Majors played the role of Powers.
Powers died in 1977 in an accident. He had been covering brush fires in Santa Barbara County. As he returned, his Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, registered N4TV, ran out of fuel and crashed in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area several miles short of Burbank Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board report attributed the probable cause of the crash to pilot error (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 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 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 as an Air Force veteran.[
Powers received the CIA's Intelligence Star in 1965 after his return from the Soviet Union. Powers was originally scheduled to receive it in 1963 along with other pilots involved in the CIA's U-2 program, but the award was postponed for political reasons. In 1970, Powers published his first--and only--book review, on a work about aerial reconnaissance, "Unarmed and Unafraid" by Glenn Infield, in the monthly magazine, Business & Commercial Aviation. "The subject has great interest to me," he said, in submitting his review. (Letter to G. Haber, Managing Editor, BCA)
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, Distinguished Flying Cross, and National Defense Service Medal. In addition, CIA Director George Tenet authorized Powers to posthumously receive the CIA's coveted Director's Medal for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty.
On June 15, 2012, Powers was posthumously awarded the Silver Star medal for "demonstrating 'exceptional loyalty' while enduring harsh interrogation in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow for almost two years." Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz presented the decoration to Powers’ grandchildren, Trey Powers, 9, and Lindsey Berry, 29, in a Pentagon ceremony