Francis Gary Powers (1929 – 1977) was a US Air Force pilot who was shot down while flying a U-2 spy plane a during reconnaissance mission over Soviet Union airspace. This provoked what is known in history as the 1960 U-2 Incident.
Francis Gary Powers was born on August 17, 1929, in Jenkins, Kentucky. His parents were Oliver and Ida Powers. Francis grew up in Pound, Virginia, just across the state border. Having graduated from Milligan College in Johnson City, Tennessee, Powers joined the US Air Force. After completing his training in 1950, he was commissioned a second lieutenant was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, as an F-84 Thunderjet pilot.
Powers 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. In 1956, Powers joined the CIA’s U-2 program. By 1960, Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions. U-2 pilots flew espionage missions using an aircraft that could reach altitudes above 70,000 feet, 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.
Having taken off from a military airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan, Powers’s U-2 aircraft was shot down by an S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile on May 1, 1960, over Sverdlovsk, deep within Soviet territory. Powers was unable to activate the plane’s self-destruct mechanism before he parachuted to the ground and was captured. The plane crashed almost fully intact, and the Soviets were able to recover its equipment. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for months and then forced to make a voluntary confession and a public apology for his part in espionage. The incident set back talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower. On August 17, 1960, on his birthday, Powers was convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and was sentenced to a total of 10 years, three years in imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor.
Nevertheless, on February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged along with American student Frederic Pryor in a well publicized spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel), a Soviet colonel who was caught by the FBI and put in jail for espionage, at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany. Powers received a cold reception on his return home. 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.
Francis Gary Powers died in 1977, at the age of 47, in a helicopter crash. He had been covering bush fires in Santa Barbara County. As he returned, his Bell Jet Ranger helicopter, registered N4TV, ran out of fuel and crashed in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area several miles short of Burbank Airport. He was married and had two children. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery as an Air Force veteran.