1962: American spyplane pilot, Gary Powers. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

On May 1, 1960 Francis Gary Powers, piloting a U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down near the town of Sverdlovsk, U.S.S.R. and he was captured. The event escalated tensions between Russia and the US that eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

May 1, 1960

Powers took off from a military base in Peshawar, Pakistan. His mission was to photograph Russian missile bases and gather other military information. Russian intelligence was aware of these flights as early as 1956 but the US planes flew so high (70,000 feet) that they simply did not possess the technology to attack until 1960.

Eight missiles were fired at Powers and the first one, a S-75 Dvina, hit it’s target. Powers claimed he was unable to activate the self-destruct failsafe built into the plane so it crashed intact giving the Soviets much valuable information.

Russians Shot Down Two Planes

The Russians actually shot down two planes that day. Unfortunately for MiG-19 Russian pilot, Sergei Safronov, he was also hit by one of the missiles. In a humanitarian effort he crashed the plane into a heavily wooded area rather than bail out and let the plane hit the nearby town of Degtyarsk.

Government Cover Story

Since there were no 24/7 news channels in 1960 most people trusted their government. Washington issued a statement claiming that a “weather plane” had gone off course do to a malfunction in the oxygen equipment.

At the time Washington was unaware that the plane crashed almost totally intact so the Russians blew that story out of the water pretty quickly leaving President Eisenhower’s government with egg on their faces. Peace talks between Eisenhower and Khrushchev were obviously set back.

Power’s Apology

After months of KGB interrogation Power’s finally made a public confession and apology on national TV. On August 17, 1960 Powers was convicted of espionage and was sentenced to three years in prison followed by ten additional years of hard labor.

February 10, 1962

The US and Soviets negotiated a prisoner exchange to take place on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany. Powers was swapped for KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher who had been caught by the FBI and also convicted of espionage.

Some Final Thoughts

Gary Powers hardly received a hero’s welcome on his return. Many thought he was a traitor for confessing and for not destroying the plane. Keep in mind that World War II had only ended 15 years earlier. The rebuilding of Europe was in its infancy.

This event was a major embarrassment to the American people on top of Russia being first in space two years earlier with Sputnik.