On May 1, 1960, the Soviet forces shot down an American U-2 aircraft and managed to capture the pilot alive. This caused the United States to admit they had been spying on the Soviets for years and led to increased tension between the United States and the Soviet Union for the remainder of the Cold War. Read on for insight into exactly what happened during this critical incident in history.
In the spring of 1960, Francis Gary Powers — a man from Jenkins, Kentucky — was asked to travel over the Soviet Union in a U-2 aircraft to take photographs and gather intelligence. U-2s, also known as “Dragon Ladys,” were designed to fly at very high altitudes and in all types of weather — making them ideal for covert missions.
The plan was for Powers to take off in Peshawar, Pakistan, complete the mission, and then land in Bodø, Norway. Unfortunately, the Soviets expected the U-2 plane and were plotting how they could take it down. Once detected, the Soviets attempted to destroy the aircraft with fighter airplanes but, due to the U-2 flying at such a high altitude, they found it impossible. They then began launching high altitude surface-to-air missiles at the U-2 — and were successful.
The United States tried to play off the fact that they had an aircraft flying over the Soviet Union as a simple mistake – claiming the plane was one of NASA’s that was flying for weather research and had most likely gotten lost. NASA even reported an incorrect claim that one of their pilots “was experiencing oxygen difficulties” and then showed a U-2 that was painted with NASA’s colors — all of which was an attempt to make it more believable.
These claims were made while the American people were under the impression that the pilot had been killed in the shooting — which was inaccurate. Francis Gary Powers parachuted out of the U-2 and landed in the Soviet Union — where he was captured, then admitted the plans, and stood as living proof of the intentions of the United States.
Just days later, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union met in Paris. It was here that Eisenhower was forced to explain to the Soviets that spying was performed, but it was done out of defensive measures — not aggressive. His excuse wasn’t accepted, and Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, left the meeting early. As for Francis Gary Powers, he was sentenced to Soviet prison for a decade but fortunately was released in 1962 as part of a “spy swap” portrayed in the movie Bridge of Spies with the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.