Cold War tensions fuelled a constant demand for up-to-date intelligence about the ‘enemy’. One innovation pioneered by the United States was the U-2 spyplane, developed by American aircraft manufacturer Lockheed. First constructed in the mid-1950s, the U-2 was state of the art: a jet aircraft capable of flying at 21,000 metres, twice the altitude of modern passenger jets. This high ceiling allowed it to fly over enemy territory, largely undetected by ‘spotters’ and radar. The U-2 was designed primarily for reconnaissance. Its underbelly contained an array of cameras so powerful they could capture a newspaper headline from miles in the sky. But flying the U-2 was notoriously difficult. It had to be flown at close to its maximum speed to prevent stalling; it was also sensitive to crosswinds and troublesome to land. Pilots had to wear high-altitude gear not dissimilar to spacesuits. To minimise the dangers of discovery, U-2s flying missions over Soviet Russia were armed with a self-destruct mechanism and their pilots supplied with suicide devices.
Downed over Soviet Russia
In 1960 the US conducted U-2 runs over Soviet bases, test sites and missile silos in central Asia. These operations were conducted by the CIA, since the presence of a military plane over Soviet territory might be construed as an act of war. In April, a U-2 launched from Pakistan played cat-and-mouse with Soviet MiG jets before landing in Iran. Another U-2, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, was launched on May 1st, with orders to photograph Soviet installations, including ICBM silos and a plutonium factory. Soviet air defences became aware of this mission and scrambled jets – but the U-2’s altitude prevented it from being located. But while flying over the Ural Mountains, Powers’ U-2 was struck by a surface-to-air missile and forced to crash-land. Powers ejected from his crippled plane, parachuting into Russia, where he was immediately arrested, detained and questioned by the KGB.
When Powers failed to arrive at his designated landing site, American commanders assumed he was dead and his plane had either crashed or been shot down. Washington informed the press an American plane was missing in eastern Europe – but described it as a “weather plane”. To support this charade, another U-2 was painted with NASA livery and shown to the media, to suggest they regularly undertook meteorological research. Believing Powers to be dead, the US also claimed the loss may have been due to faulty oxygen supplies on U-2s, which caused pilots to ‘black out’ and fly dramatically off-course. Days after this fictitious cover story was paraded to the world, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sprang his trap. Khrushchev announced that the USSR had possession of an American spyplane; that it had been shot down over Soviet territory; and that its pilot was alive and in custody. The Russians even salvaged film from cameras onboard the U-2; once developed it revealed covert photographs of Soviet military and nuclear installations.
The propaganda war
US Army general
The capture of Powers, the U-2 wreckage and its surveillance images created a propaganda crisis for the US. Washington had been caught lying and Khrushchev made the most of it, demanding an apology from US president Dwight Eisenhower (he refused). Powers’ plane was shot down a fortnight before the start of a four-nation summit in Paris; the U-2 incident torpedoed this conference, which was abandoned on the second day. The US government also had to decide what to do about Powers himself. After weeks of interrogation by the Soviet military and the KGB, Powers was put on trial, charged with espionage against the Soviet Union. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, followed by seven years confinement in a labour camp.
Eighteen months after his trial, Powers was returned to American authorities, in trade for a captured Soviet spy. The prisoner exchange took place at one of the few transit gates in the freshly-constructed Berlin Wall. Powers was treated with some suspicion on his return to the US. Many asked why he had failed to follow operating procedures for spy missions, such as initiating self-destruct in the U-2 and committing suicide to avoid capture. He was fiercely grilled by his superiors at the CIA, and then later by a congressional committee. Powers was subsequently found to have acted honourably and courageously, not revealing critical information to his captors. He was discharged from the CIA and became an airborne traffic reporter for a Los Angeles TV station. Ironically, one of Francis Gary Powers’ duties in his new civilian role was to pilot a helicopter with television cameras installed in its belly.
1. The U2 was a US-developed spyplane, designed to fly at high altitudes and gather images, avoiding Soviet radar.
2. In 1960 the US used U2s piloted by the CIA to conduct spy flights over Soviet territory, launched from Asia.
3. One U2, piloted by Gary Powers, was shot down. The Soviets arrested Powers and seized the wreckage.
4. They revealed evidence that the U2 was on a spy mission, creating a propaganda crisis for the US.
5. Powers was tried and sentenced to ten years’ detention but was eventually returned to the US as part of a prisoner exchange.