On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, a pilot in the CIA’s U-2 spy plane program, crash-landed into history. Tasked with photographing Soviet military installations, Powers flew into Russian territory. When his aircraft neared the skies above Sverdlovsk, his plane was hit by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile. He was taken captive by the Soviets.
The United States at first claimed that the downed aircraft was a weather plane. Once it was learned that the U-2 had been recovered intact, the Eisenhower administration admitted that Powers was on a spy mission. An enraged Nikita Khrushchev, premiere of the Soviet Union, cancelled a summit with President Eisenhower.
Meanwhile, Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB. Although he made a public apology, he was nevertheless tried by the Russian government for espionage, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His captivity ended on February 10, 1962 when he was exchanged in a spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who had been caught by the FBI. Powers had been held by the Soviets for 22 months.
Stateside, Powers was initially under a cloud. Some in the government felt he should have destroyed the spy plane and himself—courtesy of a suicide pill sewn into his flight suit. However, after being debriefed by the CIA, he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which concluded that he had not divulged any top secret information to his captors and had conducted himself as “a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.”
Powers’ capture and eventual release are taken up in the new Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies. Ron Capshaw interviewed Powers’ son, Gary Francis Powers, Jr., about it via email.