Powers, Francis Gary ("Frank")
POWERS, Francis Gary ("Frank")
(b. 17 August 1929 in Burdine, Kentucky; d. 1 August 1977 in Encino, California), pilot of the ill-fated U-2 reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union on 1 May 1960 who was captured and later released in the first Soviet-American spy swap.
Powers was the sixth child and only son of Oliver Powers, a coal miner who managed a shoe-repair shop and worked in a defense plant, and Ida Ford, a housewife. He took his first airplane ride at the age of fourteen. Powers attended Grundy High School in Pound, Virginia. His father wanted him to become a physician and had him enroll in a premedical program at Milligan College, a church school near Johnson City, Tennessee. Powers dropped out of the program in his junior year but continued to study biology and chemistry. He graduated in June 1950, then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, achieving the rank of first lieutenant in 1952.
Powers married Barbara Gay Moore in April 1955. He hoped to pilot commercial airliners after his enlistment expired in December 1955, but he was recruited to work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In January 1956 the CIA asked Powers to fly the Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which was designed for high-altitude flights to observe foreign military installations. The agency offered him the then-considerable sum of $2,500 a month. Powers flew a U-2 over the eastern Mediterranean in autumn 1956, monitoring the Anglo-French buildup prior to the invasion of the Suez Canal. The body of the shiny aircraft was so thin that a workman who bumped his tool kit against the plane left a four-inch dent. Technicians joked that the aircraft was made from Reynolds Wrap.
The U-2 had a ceiling of 20–21 kilometers, while Soviet fighters could not exceed 15–17 kilometers. Longer-range Zenith rockets had entered the Soviet arsenal in 1960. There were about twenty U-2 flights between 1956 and 1960, with the U-2s flown in circular paths, exiting the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) at different points. Powers was the first to fly in a line that could be plotted by Soviet radar. On 1 May 1960 he began his most famous mission: a nine-hour, 3,788-mile flight from Peshawar, Pakistan, over the missile launch site at Tiuratom in the Soviet Union. Powers was to pass Sverdlovsk and photograph the missile base under construction at Plesetsk before landing at Bodø, Norway. His aircraft, number 360, had experienced fuel-tank problems and made an emergency landing in Japan in September 1959. During his 1960 flight Powers had problems controlling the pitch of the plane.
Three missiles were fired at Powers's U-2 over Sverdlovsk. The first exploded near the aircraft, causing it to lose altitude, and the second hit the plane. The tail and both wings flew off. Without pressurization, pinned by G forces, and being strangled by his oxygen hoses, Powers somehow managed to bail out. A third missile, shot from a MiG-19, destroyed another Soviet fighter trying to intercept the U-2.
Powers's flight was the last U-2 mission scheduled before a summit between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Paris in May 1960. The leaders had planned to discuss a limited test-ban treaty, the first major agreement of the cold war. On 5 May, Khrushchev told the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet that an American plane had been shot down. Although the summit was cancelled, Khrushchev apparently wanted it to go ahead and blamed the spy flight on Pentagon militarists who had acted without Eisenhower's knowledge.
When Powers's U-2 disappeared, U.S. officials wrongly assumed that he was dead and the plane had been destroyed. They did not know Powers had been captured on a collective farm near Sverdlovsk. After sixty-one days of interrogation in Moscow's Lubianka Prison, he went on trial for espionage on 17 August 1960. The audience at the Hall of Trade Unions exceeded 1,000 people. Powers was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison, and transferred to a jail in Vladimir, Russia, in September 1960. The wreckage of his U-2 aircraft was exhibited in the chess pavilion at Gorkii Park, and later was piled in a corner of the Central Museum of the Armed Forces of the U.S.S.R. in Moscow.
On 10 February 1962 Powers was exchanged for the Soviet spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel in the first Soviet-American "spy swap." Khrushchev claimed that, because he delayed Powers's release until after the 1960 U.S. presidential election, the Republican candidate Richard Nixon failed to benefit from improved Soviet-American relations, and John F. Kennedy was able to clinch his narrow election victory.
Once back in the United States, Powers found work with the CIA in Virginia, but he soon resigned and later joined Lockheed in Burbank, California. He obtained a divorce from his first wife in January 1963 and married Claudia ("Sue") Edwards Downey, a CIA employee, on 24 October of the same year. Powers adopted his seven-yearold stepdaughter, and the couple had a son in 1965. Powers chronicled his U-2 experience in the book Operation Overflight (1970). He lost his job at Lockheed, and in the 1970s worked as a traffic-watch pilot for KGIL radio in Los Angeles, at an aircraft communications company, and as a reporter for KNBC.
Powers died at the age of forty-seven when his aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed on a baseball field in Encino. Boys playing on the field felt he had maneuvered his helicopter to spare their lives. Although Powers had received broad public criticism in 1960 for not committing suicide after he was captured by the Soviets, President Jimmy Carter granted permission for him to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Powers has been depicted as unexceptional and unlucky. An obituary characterized him as "a human element necessary only until robot satellites would come along." Indeed, the day Powers was sentenced, the United States recovered the first film from a spy satellite whose cameras had photographed more territory than all the U-2 missions combined. However, reconnaissance from U-2s proved crucial during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and these aircraft were still in use during the 1991 Gulf War.
The early U-2 flights disclosed that the Soviets did not enjoy superiority in bombers or missiles, allowing U.S. leaders to allocate resources more prudently. The historian Michael Beschloss has written that the flights may have persuaded Moscow to accept arms control, since Soviet leaders could no longer bluff about enjoying a strategic advantage. They also eased fears among Americans that Washington did not know or care what was happening in the Soviet Union. In his memoirs Eisenhower called the U-2 incident involving Powers insignificant compared to the information gained from the flights.
The best books about the May 1960 U-2 incident and this period in U.S.–Soviet relations include Francis Gary Powers and Harold H. Burman, trans., The Trial of the U-2: Exclusive Authorized Account of the Court Proceedings of the Case of Francis Gary Powers, Heard Before the Military Division of the Supreme Court of the U.S.S.R., Moscow, August 17–19, 1960 (1960); David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, The U-2 Affair (1962); Dwight D. Eisenhower, Waging Peace, 1956–1961 (1965); Francis Gary Powers with Curt Gentry, Operation Overflight: The U-2 Spy Pilot Tells His Story for the First Time (1970); James Bamford, The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency (1982), and Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-secret National Security Agency from the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century (2001). See also John Prados, The Soviet Estimate: U.S. Intelligence Analysis and Russian Military Strength (1982), and Michael R. Beschloss, Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair (1986). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Aug. 1977).
John L. Scherer