Francis Gary Powers was born into a working class family in Burdine, Kentucky.
After graduating from Milligan College in Eastern Tennessee in 1950 he volunteered for the US Air Force. He was trained in Greenwich, Missouri and Phoenix, Arizona. He was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia as an F-84 Thunderjet pilot. Although assigned to operational flying in the Korean War he in fact moved to the Lockheed Aircraft Company.
In 1956 he left the Air Force with the rank of Captain and soon after joined the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret U-2 spy plane programme. He went to Navada for training. The cover story was that he was employed by NASA on high-altitude sampling and weather research. In fact he was part of a secret aerial reconnaissance unit tasked with overflying Soviet and Warsaw Pact territory.
Many of the flights originated in Turkey, crossing Iran before entering Soviet air space over the Caspian Sea. They then returned over Afghanistan and Pakistan before landing back in Turkey.
In April 1960 Powers was at Peshawar in Pakistan. On 1 May he took off with a flight plan over the Aral Sea, Sverdlovsk, Kirov, Archangel, Murmansk landing in Bodo, Norway. His mission was to photograph missile launching sites and other important military establishments. Powers entered Soviet air space at 20,000m (65,000ft). His aircraft was damaged by a Soviet ground to air missile near Sverdlovsk. He parachuted to safety but was almost immediately captured. The CIA assured American President Dwight D Eisenhower that neither the pilot nor the plane could be recovered. Gary Powers had the facilities to destroy both the U-2 and its intelligence payload. He also carried a lethal dose of curare for suicide. He used none of these.
The US President issued a plausible denial but very quickly was found to be lying when the Soviet authorities produced not only the American pilot but parts of his plane.
Powers was tried for espionage on 17 August 1960. He said very little at his trial and pleaded guilty. He was convicted and sentenced to three years' imprisonment and seven years hard labour. However, on 10 February 1962, twenty-one months after his capture, he was exchanged in a spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyan Fisher (aka Rudolph Abel) at the Glienicker Bridge, Berlin, Germany.
On his return to the US Powers was criticized for having failed to destroy his aircraft and its payload and not committing suicide. He was debriefed by the CIA, Lockheed and the USAF before appearing in front of a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing in March 1962. They concluded he had obeyed orders, not divulged critical information and had attempted to mislead his Soviet interrogators. They felt he had conducted himself "as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances".
Gary Powers severed his relationship with the CIA and went to work for Lockheed as a test pilot. In 1970 he co-wrote a book about the Incident, called Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident. He left Lockheed and went to work for KNBC, a Los Angeles radio station, providing weather and traffic reports; first from Cessna light aircraft and then helicopters. He and his crew died on 1 August 1977 in a helicopter crash. President Jimmy Carter authorized his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington DC.
The U-2 Incident not only left the Americans humiliated politically and technologically, but it also brought the 1960 Paris Summit between the superpowers to a halt. With the Soviets now able to bring down the high flying spy planes the West had to turn to other means of intelligence gathering; the era of the spy satellite had arrived.