How The Gary Powers U-2 Incident Really Unfolded

The U-2 spy plane was supposed to disintegrate in a crash. It was supposed to leave no debris that could be traced back to the United States, and the pilot was expected to the be killed. Nothing was meant to survive a fall from 70,000 feet with secrets intact. It was, in effect, a security measure U-2 program managers were banking on. But then one did. Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 survived being downed over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. The famous May Day Incident had effects on the Cold War beyond what anyone could have imagined.

This is part 3 in a series about the U-2, which is part of a larger look at Cold War aerial espionage. Part 1 about its genesis is here. Part 2 about the political challenge of deciding to fly it is here.

Operation Grand Slam

When 1960 dawned, Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles was desperate for information on Soviet SS-6 missile installations, but President Ike Eisenhower was wary of continued violations of Soviet Airspace. The U-2, the plane designed to be out of range of Soviet fighters and missiles, had been spotted on radar on its first mission, and Soviet pilots were getting more aggressive in their attempts to intercept it.

In talking over possible flights with Eisenhower, Dulles and head of the U-2 program Richard Bissell argued that the time for aggressive Soviet overflights was sooner rather than later. Dulles, in particular, wanted overflights of known missile sites and adjacent rail lines to get a better sense of the enemy’s arsenal and settle the looming missile gap question. Flying before the Soviets’ planes and weapons got much better meant a higher probability for success. Agency Intelligence also said detection from the U-2’s starting point in Peshawar, Pakistan, was increasingly likely, adding to the urgency.

In mid-February, the CIA presented Eisenhower with four possible Soviet overflights. The President’s chosen time frame of April meant only two of those missions were on the table. Operation GRAND SLAM called for a flight going south to north flying from Peshawar over Tyuratam, Sverdlovsk, Kirov, Kotlas, Severodvinsk, Murmansk, then landing at a base in Norway flying. Operation TIME STEP called for a U-2 to fly from a US Air Force base in Thule, Greenland, on a route over Novaya Zemlya, then covering railways from the Polyarnyy Ural Mountains to Kotlas, then over Murmansk on its way to land at Bodo or Andoya on Norway.

TIME STEP was considered less desirable; analysts said there was a 90 percent chance of detection and accurate tracking on this flight, which at the very least would elicit a detailed diplomatic protest, but no one raised the same concerns for GRAND SLAM. Eisenhower approved GRAND SLAM on the condition that it fly by May 1, 1960. He was scheduled to meet with Khrushchev at the Paris Summit beginning on May 16, and he didn’t want anything to sour relations too close to that meeting.

With the mission plan selected, the last piece was the pilot. The CIA picked a veteran for this risky and aggressive mission: Francis Gary Powers. He was the most experienced pilot in the program with 27 missions under his belt.

On April 27, a U-2 was transferred from Incirlik to Peshawar to fly the next morning, but the weather forecast wasn’t ideal, and the plane had racked up so many flight hours it was due for maintenance. Three days later, on April 30, a new plane, article 360, arrived at Peshawar. This particular U-2 wasn’t one pilots trusted. Plagued by maintenance issues, it spent so much time with maintenance staff it was considered a Hangar Queen. Its most recent issue was a crash landing at Atsugi in Japan that had necessitated significant repairs. The silver lining was that in rebuilding the aircraft, maintenance crews had been able to install an uprated J-75 engine. But the plane still wasn’t problem-free; its current idiosyncrasy was that one fuel tank didn’t feed all its fuel into the engine. Nevertheless, installing the latest B-model camera, a new electronic intelligence unit, and a new System-IXB device that gave false-angle information in response to radar pulse from some Soviet airborne missiles meant the plane was ready to fly.

With the plane and pilot ready, Operation GRAND SLAM — technically mission 4154 and 24th deep penetration overflight of the Soviet Union — was set for the following morning, May 1. CIA planners thought the date might be ideal. May Day or International Labor Day was a national holiday in the Soviet Union. Flying this risky mission while the country was distracted with celebrations might provide an extra layer of cover.

On the morning of May 1, things got off to a rocky start. Every U-2 mission began with authorization from Washington sent to Adana, Turkey, which then radioed to crews stationed at the base codenamed HBJARGON in Peshawar, Pakistan. But communications between Adana and Peshawar were spotty during sunrise and sunset in the spring and fall — during these transitional times of day during transitional seasons, the ionosphere can’t as reliably support communications signals. The operator at Adana had to send messages in the clear using backup frequencies, which of course, introduced the potential for someone to hear the coded message.

At Peshawar, Powers sat in his U-2 at the end of the runway while operators scanned radio frequencies. They heard a morse code transmission of the letters J-G-O-H-B. Finally, one heard a break in the code revealing the order: H-B-J-G-O. The mission from base codenamed HBJARGON was GO. The operators gave Powers the signal. He started his takeoff roll at 1:59Z GMT (Zulu) on May 1, 1960. It was 9:59 pm EDT the previous day in Washington.

When he reached 66,000 feet, Powers clicked his radio switch to tell operators at Peshawar that everything was fine and the mission would proceed as planned. That signal was the last communication he was scheduled to make; penetration flights came with strict radio silence to limit the traces Soviet interceptors could detect. CIA officials would be tracking the flight as best they could, but Powers was on his own.

Inside the Plane

May Day turned out to be a bad day for an overflight. The country might have been focussed on celebrations, but there was less Soviet military air traffic than usual. Radar operators saw Powers when he was still 15 miles south of the Soviet-Afghan border. By the time the U-2 reached Tashkent, more than a dozen interceptors had scrambled into the sky to follow him.

Four and a half hours into the flight, still with the telltale condensation trails of Soviet fighters below him, Powers was at about 68,000 feet (some accounts list his altitude at this point as 70,500 feet) approaching Sverdlovsk. Then the Soviets launched three missiles. One hit another Soviet interceptor, one did nothing, and one detonated close to and just behind the U-2. In that instant, Powers heard a hollow-sounding explosion behind him accompanied by an orange-yellow flash. The shockwave of the blast was powerful enough to rip apart the delicate aircraft. Powers was suddenly losing altitude.

As the U-2 fell, it entered a spin. Centrifugal forces in the cockpit were so strong Powers was thrown against the canopy, at by the time he hit 30,000 feet, he had to accept he couldn’t use his ejection seat from that position. He popped the canopy and released his seatbelt, and was instantly sucked out of the cockpit. The only thing keeping him connected was his oxygen hose. Dangling precariously, he tried but couldn’t reach the destruction switches designed to destroy the camera. Protocol dictated he at least try to hide the plane’s true intention by destroying the film that would reveal its mission.

The hose eventually broke, sending Powers tumbling away from the plane. His parachute opened automatically at 14,000 feet when he separated from the plane, and he survived the fall to land in a rural area, as did his plane. The first to greet him we farmers, followed in short order by Soviet officials. He didn’t once think about resisting his arrest. He went with his captors willingly.

On the Ground

In the late morning in Moscow, US Air Attaché Colonel Edwin Kirton sat in the foreign diplomats’ section of the stands in Red Square watching the May Day parade. His attention was pulled away by the late arrival of the Chief of the Soviet Air Forces Konstantin Vershinin. What was strange was that instead of taking his seat, Vershinin held visibly urgent and serious conversations with high-ranking officials, including Soviet Air Defense Chief Nikolay Voronov (Viryoxov) and Minister of Defense Rodion Malinovsky.

Around the same time, about 3:30 in the morning in Washington, CIA personnel got the first indications that GRAND SLAM wasn’t proceeding as planned. Those tracking the mission through communications intelligence (COMINT) channels had seen the Soviets pursuing the U-2 as they had with almost every previous mission, so this didn’t raise alarm bells. But the Soviet tracking had ceased nearly two hours earlier when Powers should have been southwest of Sverdlovsk, a little less than halfway through his mission. Something was wrong, but with no direct radio communications from the pilot, they could only guess. It was becoming increasingly apparent, though, that the aircraft was lost.

Key CIA personnel came together and were joined by Air Force Project Officer Colonel Leo P. Geary and NASA Press Relations Officer Walter Bonney to analyze what little data they had to start planning the next move. This kicked off Operation MUDLARK.

Richard Bissell joined the growing group around 3:30 in the afternoon to find they’d written a cover story to be released from the base at Adana. In essence, it said that a NASA high altitude research plane was missing on a mission over Turkey and that the last radio communication had been a report of problems with the oxygen system. The idea was to use the oxygen problem to argue hypoxia leading to pilot error, explaining how the plane had accidentally entered Soviet airspace. The release also hid the participation of other nations, namely Pakistan as the launch site and Norway as the intended landing site. The problem was, this story didn’t fully explain why a weather research plane from Turkey would be so far into Soviet territory. But there was a possibility this wouldn’t even be an issue. The Americans thought there was a chance the Soviets would lie about how far the U-2 had penetrated its airspace for the sake of not admitting their defences were so weak. The cover story was a hard one to maintain, but until the CIA got real information on what happened, it was the best story for a myriad of possible next steps.

At no point in planning this cover story did anyone seriously consider that Powers might be alive.

The cover story, backed up with a falsified mission flight plan, was sent to Detachment B in Adana where personnel started damage control. With the base commander still in Pakistan, other personnel had to break the news to Barbara Powers, who’d been living in Turkey with her husband. For her safety, her return to the United States was arranged by the Government on May 3, the same day the U-2 cover story hit the press under an Istanbul dateline.

Once the cover story was released, Americans briefed the Pakistani officials on what was really going on in Washington. By and large, they were grateful for continued American protection; with the Soviets routinely violating Pakistan’s airspace, the country leaned heavily on American support for protection. Key personnel continued hashing out details of the cover story the following day in Washington, giving NASA talking points for a question and answer press conference that was sure to come.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Khrushchev realized having a downed US plane and its pilot was a powerful bargaining chip. He deliberately waited on an announcement. It finally came on May 5 during a convocation of the Supreme Soviet. “The United States, apparently encouraged by previous (incursions), crossed the Soviet frontier on May 1. The Minister of Defense informed the Government. We said that the aircraft should be shot down, this was done […] it has been established that the plane flew in either from Turkey, or Iran, or Pakistan. Nice Neighbours! […] In the past we protested against these violations, but the United States rejected them. We decided to send a severe warning that we would take the steps necessary to insure the security of our country. […] Just think what would be the reaction of the United States if a Soviet plane flew over New York or Detroit. This would mean the beginning of another war. Why then do you not think that we may reply with the same measures should a foreign plane appear over our country. […] The governments of those countries providing facilities for the United States should realize that they may suffer the consequences. […] Is this was done by the US military on their own bat, this must alarm world public opinion.”

The reaction to Khrushchev’s speech in Washington was a mix of panic and uncertainty. In one follow-up meeting with Secretary of Defense Gordon Gray, Douglas Dillon, Allen Dulles, Andrew Goodpaster, and Eisenhower, the decision was made that the President should stay personally uninvolved. The Department of State would take the lead on all subsequent public facing elements of the May Day Incident.

Another meeting involving Richard Bissell saw CIA and government officials attempting to read between the lines of Khrushchev’s statement. Veiled within the Soviet Premier’s words was a fairly brilliant propaganda play: he didn’t say anything about the nature of the plane or the fate of the pilot, forcing the Americans into a tough spot: should they change the cover story in anticipation of what the Soviets might announce? But what might the Soviets say next?

Press conferences that followed reflected the chaos the American people didn’t know were causing their Government to struggle. A NASA press conference repeated the prepared cover story; the Agency was apparently unaware that the State Department was handling all publicity. The State Department then held its own briefing maintaining the same cover story that the plane hadn’t intentionally violated Soviet airspace.

It was only after these two press conferences that the United States learned via cable from the US Ambassador to Moscow that Powers was alive. At first, the State Department didn’t believe it and thought it was an attempt to force an American reaction. But Khrushchev confirmed Powers’ survival in a statement on May 7. “The US State Department claimed in an official press statement… [that] this plane had allegedly strayed off its course because the pilot had oxygen trouble. […] Comrades, I must tell you a secret: When I was making my report I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and in good health and that we have parts of the plane. We did so deliberately, because had we told everything at once the Americans would have invented another version. And now, just look how many silly things they have said — Lake Van, scientific research and so on and so forth. […] The name of the pilot is Francis Harry [sic] Powers. He is 30 years old. […] The inquiry continues, but already the picture is fairly clear […] This was, indeed, a high altitude, low speed Lockheed U-2. They counted on its high altitude and believed that this plane could not be brought down by any fighter or antiaircraft artillery. That is why they thought it could fly over Soviet territory with impunity. […] The plane was in no way equipped for “upper atmosphere research” or for taking “air samples” […] This was a real military reconnaissance aircraft fitted with various instruments for collecting intelligence and, among other things, aerial photography.”

The US cover story was well and truly demolished, but Washington stuck to it. The State Department released a statement that evening. “Insofar as the authorities in Washington are concerned, there was no authorization for any such flights as described by Mr. Khrushchev. […] It is certainly no secret that given the state of the world today, intelligence collection activities are practiced by all countries, and postwar history certainly reveals that the Soviet Union has not been lagging behind in his field. The necessity for sure activities as measures for legitimate national defense are enhanced by the excessive secrecy practiced by the Soviet Union in contrast to the Free World. […] To reduce mutual suspicion and to give a measure of protection against surprise attack, the US in 1955 offered its “Open Skies” proposal […] It was in retaliation to the danger of surprise attack that the planes of the type of unarmed civilian U-2 aircraft have been patrolling the frontiers of the Free World for the past four years.”

Also on May 7, NASA displayed a NASA-marked U-2 at Edwards Air Force Base for the press. The atmospheric sampling instruments had nothing to do with the now obviously false cover story.

The days that followed saw another flurry of activity. In Washington, U-2 managers briefed select congressional leaders about the program’s true nature. Further reports from Moscow unveiled more of the program to the world, and on May 10, pieces of the plane were put on display in Gorky Park in Moscow for the press to see, prompting American authorities to scramble into damage assessment mode. Lingering bits and pieces, including things like pilot records from the Lovelace Clinic, were transferred to CIA headquarters. The CIA Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee met to go over the history of the U-2 program and the recent incident, which ended with a vote of confidence in Allen Dulles’ decision to have pressed forward with the mission.

These behind-the-scenes meetings prompted Congressional leaders to make public statements. Democrat Clarence Cannon from Missouri stated that members of the house had not been apprised of the flights but did feel that it was an “absolute and unavoidable military necessity, fundamental [to] national defense. […] We have here demonstrated conclusively that free men confronted by the most ruthless and criminal despotism can under the Constitution of the United States protect this Nation and preserve world civilization.”

Democrat Lyndon Johnson from Texas addressed the Senate. “This is a time in which Americans — and people everywhere — must keep their heads. We cannot afford hysteria, panic, or hasty and ill-advised action. […] The incident, of course, will be assessed with great care and all of its implications will be explored carefully […] it is whether this incident will become an excuse and an alibi for sabotaging the Summit Conference. […] If blunders have been made, the American people can be certain that Congress will go into them thoroughly. But there is something that should be done objectively and not merely as a panicky reaction to Soviet charges. And I think that one point should be crystal clear. Nikita Khrushchev cannot use this incident in such a way as to divide the American people and to weaken our national strength.”

Through it all, Eisenhower worried world impression was that he had lost control of the situation. So he decided to speak. On Wednesday, May 11, the President addressed the world. “No one wants another Pearl Harbour. This Eans that we must have knowledge of military forces and preparations around the world, especially those capable of massive surprise attack. Secrecy in the Soviet Union makes this essential.” As to the nature of the flights, he explained, “they are secret because they must circumvent measured designed by other countries to protect secrecy of military preparations. […] We do not use our Army, Navy or Air Force for this purpose, first to avoid any possibility of the use of force in connection with these activities, and second, because our military forces. […] Must be kept under strict control in every detail. […] It is a distasteful but vital necessity. We prefer and work for a different kind of world — and a different way of obtaining the information essential to confidence and effective deterrents. Open societies, in the day of present weapons, are the only answer. … This incident has been given great propaganda exploitation. Then emphasis given to a flight of an unarmed, non-military plane can only reflect a fetish of secrecy. The real issues are the ones we will be working on at the Summit — disarmament, search for solutions.”

The Paris Summit

The Summit was the Paris Summit, a long-planned meeting between President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, President Charles de Gaulle, and Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to discuss the major problems between their countries. This was the meeting that had forced Eisenhower on a tight time frame for Operation GRAND SLAM, the meeting he wanted to go into without any new conflicts. Now the Paris Summit was cast under the shadow of the May Day incident. The American delegation arrived in Paris on May 12 amid a flurry of diplomatic protests.

There was no immediate indication Krushchev wasn’t willing to negotiate or at least talk as planned. If he wasn’t, the Americans reasoned, why would he have arrived in Paris two days early to prepare? It transpired he was there to torpedo negotiations. In a surprise move, Khrushchev initiated a meeting with de Gaulle on Sunday morning, May 15, the day before the planned Summit. Khrushchev filled de Gaulle in on the Soviets’ real attitude towards the U-2 incident and left the French leader with a dozen supplemental pages. That afternoon, Khrushchev held the same private meeting with Prime Minister Macmillan.

Khrushchev denied deliberately not speaking with Eisenhower, claiming he had no idea the American president wished to speak with him. Of course, Neither de Gaulle nor Macmillan had asked for these meetings.

The result of these meetings was an indirect demand for Eisenhower. Khrushchev made two points abundantly clear: “the Soviet government was outraged at the U-2 intrusion” and that, according to Intelligence Analyst Sherman Kent who was in attendance, quote, “Khrushchev would not discuss the substantive issues of the Summit’s agenda until the President of the United States undertook three actions: condemn the provocative act which Khrushchev’s aide memoire ascribed to the US Air Force; guarantee that the US would refrain from such acts in the future; and punish the individuals responsible for the U-2 operation.” The American contingent was left wondering whether Khrushchev intended to move forward with any talks if his three points weren’t met or whether it was, in fact, an ultimatum.

When the formal Summit kicked off, Khrushchev read a statement that included these three points, then ended with an uncivil paragraph withdrawing his invitation to how Eisenhower in the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower followed with a statement reiterating his already public stance on the U-2 flights. “In point of fact these flights were suspended after the recent incident and are not to be resumed,” he said, but he didn’t apologize or agree to punish those responsible. Khrushchev’s points remained unmet. The meeting ended with no resolution or real progress.

The Beginning of the End

The American reaction, Soviet protest notes to the Us and other nations, and the failed Paris Summit all sent ripples through CIA field stations around the world that marked the beginning of the end for U-2 espionage missions, at least as they had been originally conceived. All the CIA field sites, even those not directly involved in the Powers flights, were issued propaganda guidance advising them to take their information from the official State Department release and Eisenhower’s statement and not to offer any additional information.

It wasn’t long before attachment B at Adana, Turkey, was shut down. Remaining flights were cancelled and three of the four planes were disassembled and loaded onto C-124 cargo planes bound for Edwards. The fourth stayed in a hangar at Incirlik airbase with a skeleton crew just in case the Adana base needed to be reactivated. It closed for good after 44 months. In total, 21 pilots had flown from Adana, including four Brits and three pilots transferred from Detachment A. The pilots dispersed, too. On May 7, the British pilots left for London to hide their involvement in the program; a small unit of RAF U-2 pilots went to join Detachment G at Edwards Air Force Base to be ready if there was ever a need to fly the British plane again. They were there until the end of the program in 1974.

The timing turned out to be fortuitous. Less than a month later on May 27, 1960, a coup ousted Turkish Premier Adnan Mendered, and the new Government didn’t know about the U-2.

Anti-American sentiment soon arose from other parts of the world. On July 8, 1960, the Japanese Government, faced with growing complaints about spy planes in the country, asked the US to leave. Detachment C was also dismantled and loaded back onto C-124s. At the same time, the US Embassy in Moscow received some 6,000 letters and 200 telegrams ostensibly written by Soviet citizens outraged by the American flights. But close inspection revealed they were little more than a psychological propaganda campaign from the Soviet Government.

Even at home, there was a negative feeling. NASA became concerned about the damage to its reputation over the May Day Incident, and decided to end its support of the cover story.

The Show Trial

As the The U-2 program entered a holding pattern, there was no news on Francis Gary Powers’ fate. Soviet press releases suggested he was alive, but no one in the US knew what he might have said. The whole program might be compromised. Powers’ instructions in the event of capture — as was the case with all U-2 pilots — was to tell the Soviets what they wanted to know. The CIA reasoned that if the pilot survived, it was likely the plane would also be in good enough shape to tell its secrets. There was no point in trying to lie. Cooperating with his captors was the pilot’s best chance for survival.

It turned out that Powers was alive and well in a Soviet facility, his time split between solitary confinement and sometimes twelve-hour days spent under intense interrogation.

The US Government started trying to figure out how to offer Powers legal help. The President of the Virginia State Bar got involved, agreeing to furnish legal counsel without cost and with full awareness of the secretive nature of working with the CIA. Of course, this was all pending what the Soviets’ would allow.

On July 2, 1960, the Soviet news agency published an indictment of Powers with the start date of a public trial set for August 17. The CIA assumed it would follow a classic “show” trial procedure, namely that Powers would be well-rehearsed in his statements following intensive sessions of Soviet brainwashing.

Leading up to the trial, CIA analysts studied letters between Powers and Barbara. They looked for a secret code taught to all U-2 pilots in the event of their imprisonment. When no letters seemed to contain the code, analysts looked for evidence of changes in his mental state or demeanour based on handwriting samples — the science that was experimental at the time but still considered worth exploring. Handwriting comparison, according to experts, revealed that there was more than likely some type of organic psychiatric change, such that could result from brain injury, electroshock, or some kind of cerebral infection. The question of Powers’ mental state deepened. The Soviet practice of rigging trials and extorting confessions was well known, but the CIA decided to keep his apparent change in mental state close to the vest.

On July 29, Allen Dulles appointed John M. Maury Chief of the Soviet Russia Division to handle all Agency coordination of Powers’ trial. Maury worked on getting visas for necessary personnel to get to Moscow for trial, a group that included Barbara Powers, whose displeasure with the Agency’s handling of her husband’s case was well known. Agency reps had to handhold her through the process and manage her finances as she’d become a bit of a loose cannon. She’d been dealing with the stress through excessive alcohol intake and sexual promiscuity. There was a lot of concern about what she might do if she travelled to Moscow alone for the trial. Barbara Powers’ mother was permitted to travel, too, as well as their family physician James M. Baugh to make sure she wasn’t alone. On the public-facing side, Life Magazine had exclusive rights over the coverage.

Murray’s Ad Hoc committee met as needed over the pre-trial period. As the day drew closer, it became apparent lawyers wouldn’t be allowed to participate; their travel visas were held up almost to the night they left for Russia.

On August 10, the State Department released a statement about US policy regarding public utterances about the Powers trial. To avoid prejudicing the situation and in the interest of national security, “the US Government for the present will withhold comment on any aspect of the trial itself. However, it is to be noted that Powers has been in exclusive control of Soviet authorities for 101 days, that despite all efforts of this Government no one other than his jailers and captors has had access to him, and that anything he says should be judged in light of these circumstances and Soviet past practices in matters of this kind.”

Once the group was en route to Russia for the trial, the CIA began bracing for whatever might come next. There was serious concern Powers’ testimony would reveal information about the U-2 program over the Middle East, Indonesia, and China, all regions no one knew were targets for overflights. If anyone mentioned the British pilots, the United States’ proverbial tongue was tied; the British Government was the authority on that and the only one able to comment.

Norway was another possible problem. Colonel Karl Evang, the Americans’ point of contact at the landing base in Bodo, was worried about possible jail time for aiding the Soviet spy flights. Evang had granted the US Government use of the base at Bodo without clearing the participation with the Norwegian Government. Now that there was a problem, Evang was taking a self-interested stance and sticking with his personal cover story that the US had misled him as to the true nature of the May Day flight. This prompted the Norwegian Government — via the Norwegian ambassador to Moscow — to conclude that the Americans were “so inept and unwise in their handling of the incident that it would be best for Norway to be absolutely straightforward in their dealings with the Russians no matter how much this might offend the State Department.” The Foreign Minister in Oslo, it transpired, was keeping the Russian Ambassador to Oslo apprised of everything with the intent to convince the Russians that the Powers flight took place without their knowledge, that no one cared to cover the Americas landing at Bodo on May Day and that the Norwegian Government assumed Powers had freely told the Russians all about its participation in the flight.

The trial started on August 17. Powers had no idea his family was in the country until he saw them in the courtroom. Over three days, the May Day incident was examined from every angle.

The prosecution’s main argument focussed on Powers invading Soviet airspace. The defence countered by building up the image of Powers as a victim of the capitalist system, emphasizing his proletarian family background, lack of political motivation, and his not resisting arrest. The defence also highlighted Powers’ last minute assignment and the fact that this was his first mission over the Soviet Union. In discussing the plane, the Soviet prosecution had to admit that in their inquiries, Powers clearly knew nothing about the specialized equipment; he really was just a pilot following a flight plan. But the existence of a destruction switch found in the cockpit told the Soviets that he wasn’t completely blameless; he at the very least knew he was carrying secret equpment. In attempting to place blame, it came out that Powers had left the Air Force to fly for the CIA, confirming the flight wasn’t military, somewhat lessening the aggressive element.

Powers’ final statement after three days of hearings was honest about his role: “I realize I have committed a grave crime and that I must be punished for it. I ask the court to weigh all the evidence and tot take into consideration not only the fact that I committed the crime, but also the circumstances that led me to do so. I also ask the court to take into consideration that no secret information reached its destination, that it all fell into the hands of the Soviet authorities… I plead with the court not to judge me as an enemy but as a human being… who is deeply repentant and sincerely sorry for what he has done.”

The final ruling was a 10-year sentence of “deprivation of liberty” during which time he was permitted one letter, 8 kilos of goods, and 100 rubles of pocket money every month.

Once the trial was done, the Powers family was allowed to meet briefly; it was a tear-filled meeting. Powers told his family he hadn’t been treated poorly, and what was more, and what was more, he’d been mentally prepared for a death sentence.

The end of the trial brought a reassessment of security protocols for the U-2 program. Since so much had come out in the trial, the CIA release more information to t he public. It admitted the plane had been flying since 1956 and involved Turkey, Pakistan, Norway, but details of other nations and missions were kept secret. Going forward, other nations’ involvement as well as technical details were to remain classified; it was still an ongoing program with ample elements worth protecting.

The next 18 months saw confidential negotiations for Powers’ return, a final arragement that traded convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for Powers on February 10, 1962.

The End of the Affair

Powers’ story didn’t end with his return to the US. The CIA needed to know what he’d told the Soviet Government so the American Government could move forward accordingly. This meant Powers arrived home to intense debriefings — the original Damage Assessment Team that had worked together for months after the initial incident reformed for this purpose.

It turned out the damage was less than most people had thought. By and large, the CIA was pleased with how Powers had handled himself and felt confident that he hadn’t been plied with drugs or other hallucinogens to elicit a confession during his imprisonment. But changes with the agency meant Powers wasn’t able to return to his old job. Allen Dulles had resigned in November of 1961, and the new DCI John A. McCone was the one who’d ordered a closer look at Powers’ actions. The debrief also looked closely at Powers’ mental state. His testimony was compared with expert analysis from doctors, psychiatrists, USAF colleagues, and his commander at Adana. Wreckage photographs analyzed by Johnson and found to be consistent with Powers’ account.

It was finally determined on February 27 that Powers hadn’t been coerced or given up any secret information but instead had acted in accordance with “his obligations as an American citizen during this period.” It CIA team recommended he receive back pay and be reinstated to the Air Force.

The American press was far less kind to the returned pilot. Many thought he must be hiding something; that some elements of the U-2 program and his time in the Soviet Union remained classified was viewed as suspicious. Powers also received no public recognition of what he’d been through. President Kennedy snubbed him, and McCone treated him with some hostility. In April of 1963, McCone awarded the Intelligence Star to all U-2 pilots except Powers. Powers only got that recognition on April 25, 1965, after DDCI Marshall S. Carter was in office.

But absent accolades were less of a concern for Powers than his future employment. The CIA and US Government had gone to great lengths to prove the U-2 program was not military, so there was some concern that allowing Powers to return to the Air Force would call that into question. On April 4, 1962, the USAF, CIA, State Department, and White House eventually agreed to reinstate Powers to the service, but the decision was almost immediately reverse when it came out that Powers had initiated divorce proceedings against Barbara. This adverse publicity on the heels of the whole May Day incident — divorce was particularly unsavoury for public figures in the early 1960s — led the Air Force to postpone his reinstatement until such a time that his divorce was finalized.

In the meantime, Powers started working for Lockheed as a U-2 pilot and ultimately decided to stay. He was there until testing ended in September of 1969 at which point he began working as a traffic reporter in Los Angeles. He died in a helicopter crash on August 1, 1977; he and a cameraman were on their way to an assignment.

The U-2 after Powers

There were no Soviet overflights after the May Day incident. The plane’s original intention of gaining information on the Soviet Union was well and truly done. But there were more effects on the program as a whole.

The May Day incident ushered in a new approval procedure for U-2 missions. Under Eisenhower, it was fairly unstructured with a handful of key players developing the missions and the president giving final approval. A secondary chain of command with the British pilots meant that Government — and specifically Prime Minister Harold Macmillan — could also okay missions. After May of 1960, Macmillan ceased to be a source of approval since the RAF pilots had left Adana. On the US side, the approval process became more formal. The National Security Council became the governing body that approved or denied proposed flights, each of which had to be presented with a fully detailed submission from the CIA. Missions only went to the President for approval if they raised some controversy.

The process for establishing the need for an overflight also changed. In August of 1960, the US Intelligence Board took over the Ad Hoc Requirements Committee and merged it with the Satellite Intelligence Requirements Committee to form a new managing group: the Committee on Overhead Reconnaissance or COMOR. But aerial photography was no longer the only way to look into restricted areas. Satellites were able to cover certain regions without violating airspace, and the US Air Force had its own fleet of U-2s so could undertake its own reconnaissance missions.

In the spring of 1961, the Joint Chiefs of Staff established the Joint Reconnaissance Centre to coordinate military reconnaissance activities to the tune of 500 requests per month. What this meant, though, was that the military had multiple means for approval and the CIA only had COMOR. Conflicts sprung up over who would manage missions in the Far East, Vietnam, and China. The military remained at odds with the CIA over flight issues.

U-2s and the Bay of Pigs

With missions over the Soviet Union finished, Cuba became the next major target for the U-2; it was the closest point to the United States where the Soviet Union was known to be erecting an arsenal of missiles, posing a real threat to the American people.

U-2 overflights played a big part in the lead up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, the US-backed offensive by Cuban exiles who opposed Fidel Castro’s rule. U-2 overflights of Cuba fell under Operation KICK OFF to get a bird’s eye view of the land and provide information on local geography. The U-2 was necessary; by virtue of their orbits, spy satellites couldn’t cover the area about which the US needed information.

Detachment G, the fleet based at Edwards Air Force Base in California, flew Cuban missions from Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio, Texas. The round-trip distance meant that even if the engine flamed out, the plane could still glide back to Florida for a safe landing. Adapting the U-2 for aerial refuelling increased its range and allowed for longer missions — this iteration was the U-2F — but it wasn’t without problems. Aerial refuelling is a delicate dance at best, and it was more complicated with the U-2. Fully loaded KC-135 tankers had a hard time slowing to 200 knots, which was the safe refuelling speed for the U-2. The U-2 pilot, meanwhile, had to be careful flying close to the tanker; if he got too close, the turbulent air could hit the airframe with deadly stresses. Though aerial refuelling worked, it didn’t add much. Pilot fatigue was the true limiting factor of a mission, and experience showed that 10 hours was the longest anyone could safely fly without becoming a danger to himself.

Coincident with the first Cuban flights were structural changes in the program that were poised to take their toll. On January 1, 1959, Richard Bissell had been named Deputy Director for Plans, a new role that left all CIA Air Assets under the Development Projects Division, and Bissell as its head controlled all Agency air operations. This meant Bissell had the use of the U-2 for covert activities under his control, and this disturbed some of his backers, foremost among them James Killian and Edin Land. They worried his newfound power would affect his clear thinking about priorities. When U-2 photographs failed to help predict the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Bissell fell further out of favour with Killian and Land, and lost his credibility in President Kennedy’s eyes, too.

Bissell lost even more support in November of 1961 when Allen Dulles resigned. The tensions between Bissell and Kennedy’s close advisors led to a power struggle. Killian and Land fought to remove Agency reconnaissance programs from the Development Projects Division and put them in a new science-oriented directorate, and Bissell fought back. In the end, Bissell was effectively forced to resign on February 17, 1962, when his position had become untenable. The new science-oriented directorate came into existence two days later, ending the U-2’s involvement with covert operations. It was also a confusing time for the Development Projects Division — the group in charge of the U-2 lost the man who had built and run the program.

Even after the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba remained a high priority target as Soviet activity in the area increased. In August of 1962, reconnaissance confirmed an increase in Soviet arms delivered to Cuba and at least eight SA-2 sites on the island. An overflight on September 3 found more missiles and fleets of MiGs; the appearance of these planes on Cuba made the US government wary of a second diplomatic crisis akin to the May Day Incident.

The U-2 over China

In Asia, where Soviet radars were thought to be less sophisticated, Detachment C flew over mainland China to get a picture of troops mobilizing in the conflict between the People’s Republic of China and Nationalist China (Taiwan) to see if they were planning to invade the island.

The cooperation between American and Chinese Nationalist pilots started in 1952 when the CIA brought them into the fold with the Civil Air Transport under Project BGMARQUE, a program that gathered photographic coverage of the railway from Shanghai to French Indochina. In 1955, Project STPOLLY used Agency aircraft with Nationalist Chinese crews to gather SIGINT and conduct psychological warfare against the People’s Republic of China.

When it came to the U-2, the CIA initially opposed Chinese nationalist pilots because it would destroy the cover story of the plane flying weather flights. But a handful trained nonetheless. After the May Day incident, once the cover story was destroyed and the CIA needed a new base in the Far East after Japan asked the Americans to leave, Bissell suggested turning over two U-2s to Nationalist China for a new program run along the lines of STPOLLY. On August 26, 1960, Eisenhower approved the idea, swayed in part by the added deniability of US involvement should something happen to one of those planes. Though this wasn’t a new US detachment, the American Government maintained strict control over the missions. The transfer occurred on December 7, 1960; the two U-2s officially licensed for export to nationalist China fell under TACKLE or Detachment H.

The principal interest in China was over nuclear energy and missile development. Chinese Nationalist pilots flew the first mission on January 12, 1962, over the missile testing range at Shaungchenzi. Three more missions in June of high priority installations. But the pace of flights slowed in August of 1962 when the People’s Republic of China accused the United States of masterminding the overflights. Kennedy very plausibly denied responsibility saying the planes were transferred to the Nationalist Chinese pilots before he took office, but it was a setback nonetheless.

In this instance, the U-2 became more involved in clandestine efforts to contain communism and found evidence of roads, railroads, and airfields in the process.

The U-2 in the late 1960s

When Lyndon Johnson assumed the Presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, he didn’t resume Soviet overflights. But the plane continued to evolve.

New ECM equipment was installed that told pilots when an SA-2 missile had been launched. It was nicknamed Oscar-Sierra for “Oh Shit!” which was most pilots’ involuntary exclamations when they saw a rocket coming towards them.

There was also an effort to adapt the U-2 for aircraft carriers so they could deploy from more places without needing a base in a foreign country. One flew from the USS Kitty Hawk in August of 1963, getting airborne in just 321 feet with a fun load of fuel. Landing, on the other hand, was harder. The plane landed and bounced, hitting one wingtip, then barely got airborne again before the end of the deck to make as safe go around. The U-2 clearly needed a hook, which meant the airframe had to be beefed up to hold the extra weight, and it would also need spoilers to help it stop. This version was the U-2G that made its first successful landing on March 2, 1964. It flew one mission over a French atomic test area — a mission over an ally was ideal for a test — but the whole plan proved fruitless. The cost of launching from an aircraft carrier was more complicated and expensive than just sending a detachment to a foreign base.

Though active missions were slowing, there was still a demand for more planes from the Air Force in the summer of 1966. The newer ones had some improvements. Kelly Johnson had developed a longer fuselage and wider wingspan that translated to enough space for two payload bays. This larger version also had a bigger envelope. Rather than the 6 knot difference between stall speed and overspeed, it was now 20 knots. It also had an upgraded Pratt & Whitney J75/P-13B engine with better restart capability that could get the plane to 74,000 feet and hit speeds of Mach 0.72. A new camera could resolve objects as small as four inches. This new version was the U-2R. But the U-2R also cost $7.1 million per aircraft, making it almost ten times what the original planes cost.

The U-2Rs began coming off the production line in Autumn of 1968, but by then overflights were more or less a thing of the past.

There were some civilian applications for the U-2. The Department of Defense used it to test cameras and processing techniques for use in other reconnaissance systems. U-2s flew weather photography missions coincident with the Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 flew to give scientists image data to match against the crews’ observations. The Department of the Interior used U-2s to check for damage caused by offshore oil well in CA Santa Barbara Channel. U-2s flew missions to gather data on snowfall to help hydrologists. Office of Emergency Preparedness used U-2s to survey for Hurricane Baseline Study. U-2s flew over LA to survey damage after an earthquake on February 9, 1971. Some U-2s flew surveillance missions to ensure the continued ceasefire in the Suez Canal, as well as after the Arab-Israeli war in 1973. The U-2 also began flying missions that lined up with its original cover story: pilots from Detachment C flew high altitude air sampling missions.

But none of that had anything to do with aerial espionage, and the CIA’s program was put under review in 1969. Incoming President Richard Nixon opted to keep it alive until 1971.

The CIA’s program ended up lasting two years longer than Nixon had given it. On August 30, 1973, the CIA approved a plan to phase out the U-2. The Air Force would take over the financial and physical planes. The CIA’s program ended in 1974.

The military’s U-2 program, however, continues. In 2020, the US Air Force awarded Lockheed a new contract for advanced capabilities in the historic airplane.

Sources: “The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance, the U-2 and Oxcart Programs” Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welzenbach; Directorate of Science & Technology, History of the Office of Special Activities, 1969; “Waging Peace” by Dwight Eisenhower; “Sputnik, Scientists, and Eisenhower” by James Killian; “Reflections of a Cold WArrior” by Richard Bissell; “Skunk Works” by Ben Rich and Leo Janos.

Historian and author of Fighting for Space (February 2020) from Grand Central Publishing. Also public speaker, TV personality, and YouTuber. [The Vintage Space]

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