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Friday, February 10, 2006

U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers Released, February 10, 1962

Today in 1962, CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers and American student Frederic Pryor were swapped for KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (alias Rudolf Abel) in Potsdam , Germany. This spy swap, as it was called, brought an end to 21 months of Soviet imprisonment for Powers. It also helped temporarily ease tensions between the world’s two superpowers.

Captain Powers came to the CIA from the Air Force in 1956. An experienced fighter pilot, Powers was a natural fit for the Lockheed U-2, the high-altitude spy aircraft that was then used for reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and any other place that would otherwise have been inaccessible. The U-2 was a difficult aircraft to fly due to it’s enormous wingspan and its high operating altitude.

The Pentagon thought that the U-2 was virtually untouchable. Surface-to-air missile technology was still in its infancy in 1960 and the Soviet bloc had no aircraft that could reach the U-2’s operational ceiling, believed to be near 100,000 feet. Fighter aircraft would be sent up to challenge every U-2 overflight, but the most the Soviet pilots could do was fly well below the plane and hope their aircraft blocked something interesting on the ground.

That all changed with the SA-2, the NATO name for the Soviet S-75 anti-aircraft missile. Powers was shot down on May 1, 1960 by one of these missiles, although 14 were fired at him and a MiG-19 was also destroyed accidently. The U-2 contained an explosive charge that was supposed to be used in the event enemy capture of the plane seemed likely. In addition, Powers had a suicide pin that he could use to avoid live capture or torture in captivity. He used neither of these devices.

The Eisenhower administration tried to convince the Soviets that the U-2 was a weather plane because they did not think the Russians had any identifiable pieces of the plane or the pilot. However, it didn’t take long for the Soviets to produce both a living pilot and remains of what was, obviously, a spy plane. Nikita Khruschev, then the head of the Soviet Union, demanded an apology. When President Eisenhower refused to offer one, Khruschev called off a planned Paris summit meeting.

Captain Powers was put on trial in the Soviet Union and was found guilty of espionage. His sentence was 10 years---3 in prison and 7 years of hard labor. Eager to put an end to the embarrassment caused by the incident and worried about what Powers might reveal under duress, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations began backdoor negotiations for a prisoner swap. This occurred 21 months later on February 10, 1962.

Powers was not treated to a complete hero’s welcome upon his return to the United States. Many people felt that he should’ve committed suicide rather than face capture or, at the very least, should have destroyed his plane. The US Senate Armed Services Committee held hearings into the matter and concluded that Powers had conducted himself as a professional and had not divulged any secrets to his captors.

Powers no longer felt at home with the CIA, so he took a job at Lockheed as a test pilot from 1963 to 1970. He then became a helicopter pilot for a Los Angeles radio station. It was during a routine flight that he was killed in 1977. It took Powers’ family 40 years to finally receive the Air Force medals due him, since it was discovered that his 1960 overflight was a joint Air Force/CIA mission.

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