Gary Powers and the U-2 Incident

Demise of the Paris Summit

Gary Powers
1962: Gary Powers, the American spy pilot shot down over Russia, with a model of the U 2 spy plane at a Senate Armed Forces Committee in Washington. Keystone / Stringer/ Hulton Archives/ Getty Images

On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was brought down near Svedlovsk, Soviet Union while performing high altitude reconnaissance. This event had a lasting negative impact on U.S. - U.S.S.R. relations. The details surrounding this event are to this day still shrouded in mystery.

Facts About the U-2 Incident

Following World War II, the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union grew increasingly wary. The USSR did not agree to a U.S. 'Open Skies' proposal in 1955 and relations continued to deteriorate. The U.S. instituted high altitude reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union because of this aura of mistrust. The U-2 was the plane of choice for the spying missions. This plane was able to fly extremely high, with an overall ceiling of 70,000 feet. This was key so that the Soviet Union would not be able to detect the planes and see this as an act of warfare for violating their airspace.

The CIA took the lead in the U-2 project, keeping the military out of the picture to avoid any possibilities of open conflict. The first flight in this project occurred on July 4, 1956. By 1960, the U.S. 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, Gary Powers was making a flight that left from Pakistan and landed in Norway. However, the plan was to divert his flight path so that he would fly over Soviet airspace. However, his plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile near Sverdlovsk Oblast which was located in the Ural Mountains. Powers was able to parachute to safety, but was captured by the KGB. The Soviet Union was able to recover most of the plane. It had proof of America's spying over their land. When it was obvious that the Soviet Union had caught the US red-handed, Eisenhower admitted on May 11th to knowledge of the program. Powers was interrogated and then put on trial where he was sentenced to hard labor. 


The conventional story given to explain the crash of the U-2 and the subsequent capture of Gary Powers is that a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane. However, the U-2 spy plane was constructed to be unassailable by conventional weapons. The major benefit of these high altitude planes was their ability to stay above enemy fire. If the plane was flying at its proper height and had been shot down, many question how Powers could have survived. It would have been very likely that he would have died in the explosion or from the high altitude ejection. Therefore, many individuals question the validity of this explanation. Several alternative theories have been put forward to explain the downing of Gary Powers spy plane:

  1. Gary Powers was flying his plane below the high flying reconnaissance altitude and was hit by anti-aircraft fire.
  2. Gary Powers actually landed the plane in the Soviet Union.
  3. There was a bomb on board the plane.

The newest and probably least probable explanation offered for the downing of the planes comes from the pilot of a Soviet plane involved in the incident. He claims to have been ordered to ram the spy plane. Admittedly there is little evidence to support this claim. However, it further muddies the waters of explanation. Even though the cause of the incident is shrouded in mystery there is little doubt to the short and long term consequences of the event.

Consequences and Significance

  • The Paris Summit between President Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev collapsed in large part because Krushchev demanded an apology that Eisenhower was unwilling to give.
  • Gary Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment and 7 years of hard labor. He only served 1 year 9 months and 9 days before being traded for the Soviet spy Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel.
  • 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.