U2 Spy Plane

U-2 Spy Plane Incident -- Francis Gary Powers, 1960


Following World War II, the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union grew increasingly suspicious. The USSR did not agree to a United States 'Open Skies' proposal in 1955 and relations continued to deteriorate. The United States instituted high altitude scouting flights over the Soviet Union because of this atmosphere of mistrust. The U-2 was the plane of choice for the spying missions. The CIA took the lead, keeping the military out of the picture to avoid any possibilities of open conflict. By 1960, the United States had flown numerous 'successful' missions over and around the U.S.S.R. However, a major incident was about to occur. On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was brought down near Svedlovsk, Soviet Union. This event had a lasting negative impact on the United States - U.S.S.R. relations. The details surrounding this event are to this day still shrouded in mystery.

Main Point

On May 1, 1960, thirteen days before the scheduled opening of an East–West summit conference in Paris, a U.S. Lockheed U-2A spy plane, 56-6693, Item 360, left the US base in Badaber on a mission to over fly the Soviet Union, photographing ICBM sites in and around Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk, then land at Bodø in Norway. The U-2's course was out of range of several of the nearest SAM sites, and one SAM site even failed to engage the violator since it was not on duty that day. According to the official version of the event, the U-2 was eventually hit and brought down near Degtyarsk, Ural Region, by a salvo of fourteen SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles. The plane's pilot, Gary Powers, successfully bailed out and parachuted to safety, although in doing so he violated his orders to destroy the aircraft were he to be shot down. He was captured soon after parachuting to earth in Russia. The SAM command center was unaware that the plane was destroyed for more than 30 minutes. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, and thus the world, that a "spy plane" had been shot down but intentionally made no reference to the pilot. As a result, the Eisenhower Administration, thinking the pilot had died in the crash, authorized the release of a cover story claiming that the plane was a "weather research aircraft" which had strayed into Soviet airspace after the pilot had radioed "difficulties with his oxygen equipment" while flying over Turkey.


The Eisenhower White House acknowledged that this might be the same plane, but still proclaimed that "there was absolutely no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet airspace and never has been", and attempted to continue the facade by grounding all U-2 aircraft to check for "oxygen problems." Not only was Powers still alive, but his plane was also essentially intact. The Soviets managed to recover the surveillance camera and even developed some of the photographs. The incident resulted in great humiliation for Eisenhower's administration, caught in a lie. The Four Power Paris Summit between president Dwight Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, Harold Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle collapsed, in large part because Eisenhower refused to accede to Khrushchev's demands that he apologize for the incident. This incident set in motion a pattern of mistrust that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations reached an all time low. No one can predict if the Cold War might have ended sooner had the U-2 incident not occurred.