Gary Powers: The U-2 spy pilot the US did not love

  • 3 January 2016
  • From the section Magazine
Francis Gary Powers at a Senate Committee hearing Image copyright Getty Images

Steven Spielberg's most recent movie, Bridge of Spies, tells the story of a Cold War prisoner exchange between the Soviet Union and the US. The deal allowed US spy plane pilot Gary Powers to return home - but once there he faced a chorus of criticism.

Gary Powers had been in flight for four hours when his troubles began. His spy mission from an American airbase in Pakistan took him over central Russia, where, at more than 70,000 feet above the ground, he believed he was beyond the range of either fighter planes or missiles.

The 30-year-old CIA pilot, a veteran of the Korean war, expected to make his way, without incident, all the way across the Soviet Union to another base in Norway.

But when he was over the Russian city of Sverdlovsk, the unimaginable happened. His U-2 spy plane was hit by a Soviet missile barrage.

"I looked up, looked out, and just everything was orange, everywhere," Powers recalled.

"I don't know whether it was the reflection in the canopy [of the aircraft] itself or just the whole sky.

"And I can remember saying to myself, 'By God, I've had it now.'"

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A later variant of the U-2 high altitude reconnaissance plane flown by Francis Gary Powers

Shockwaves hit the plane and the controls stopped responding. The blast snapped off a wing and Powers found himself hurtling down to earth in an uncontrollable spin.

What happened next is a tale Powers told to his son, Gary Junior, who was still a boy at the time.

"He thinks about ejecting - that's the first thing pilots are trained to do - get out of a plane that's been damaged or crippled," says Powers's son.

"But he realises that if he does eject he will sever his legs on the way out. The U-2 cockpit is very small, very tight, very compact. To eject you have to be in the perfect position to clear the airframe."

Panicked, the pilot frantically tried to get himself into a position to eject safely. But after a moment's pause Powers remembered there was an alternative escape route - he could simply open the canopy and climb out.

It was his best chance of coming out alive. But when he released the canopy, he was "immediately sucked up half-way out of the airplane", says his son.

Powers told a 1962 Senate committee hearing that from his position part way out of the aircraft - which was spinning tail-first towards the ground - he had not been able to reach the self-destruct mechanism on the plane's dashboard.

He was still attached to the cockpit by his oxygen pump but wrestled with it until it broke, leaving him free-falling until his parachute deployed a short time later.

Image copyright Getty Images

The pull of the chute brought Powers to his senses.

He still had maps on him, which he destroyed, and a poisoned suicide pin hidden inside a silver dollar. Fearing that the dollar would simply be stolen if he was captured, he decided to break it open and keep the deadly pin in a pocket of his flight suit, where it might go undetected.

As he got closer to the ground he noticed a car tracking his descent, and when he landed he was promptly arrested by the Russian secret service and taken to KGB headquarters.

What followed was a major international incident which saw the Americans at first try to deny that Powers was flying a spy mission.

The US concocted a cover story claiming Powers had been studying weather patterns for Nasa and had merely strayed off course. The cover-up even went as far as to present the US media with a U-2 plane painted with fake Nasa logos and serial numbers.

But the deception unravelled when the Soviets revealed they had not only captured Powers, but recovered the wreckage of his plane - and from it, information about his planned route across the USSR.

The incident undermined a major peace summit between the two Cold War superpowers, and resulted in the withdrawal of an invitation to US President Dwight Eisenhower to visit Moscow.

Powers was put on trial for espionage.

In a radio report from late 1960, BBC correspondent Ian McDougall described one of the pilot's Moscow court appearances.

"There stood this crew-cut, diffident, simple, rather polite man, surrounded by the entire apparatus of Soviet law, and knowing himself to be, as he said himself, the cause of a lot of trouble.

"An astonishingly naive person, yet a charming one, a frightened man with his back to the wall, a boy who wanted to own his own service station and instead found himself the cause of his president not being able to come to Russia."

Image copyright Getty Images

The journalist later described how the attitude in Russia towards Powers changed as his trial progressed.

"Before the trial there was the very different view that not only was he a spy who'd flown over the Soviet Union but he was also a traitor to his own country for having given away so much information.

"By the time the trial was over, that feeling had changed very considerably, and the people who had gathered in front of this courtroom to watch... were frequently saying that he really was quite clearly only a tool and he should get off, and that he was really not a bad chap at all."

Perhaps it was the captured pilot's compliant demeanour which generated this more sympathetic view. But that same contrite attitude went down badly in the United States, where his final plea at the proceedings in Moscow won him few friends.

"You've heard all the evidence of the case and now you must decide what my punishment is to be," Powers told the court. "I've committed a grave crime and I realise I must be punished for it."

The judges agreed. Powers was sentenced to 10 years in prison - including seven years of hard labour.

He was sent 100 miles east of Moscow to Vladimir Central Prison, where he might have spent three years before being moved to a labour camp.

But in 1962, the swap was negotiated by the lawyer played by Tom Hanks in Spielberg's movie. Powers was traded for the Soviet intelligence officer, Vilyam Fisher - also known as Rudolf Abel - who had been serving a 30-year prison term for espionage against the US at a penitentiary in Georgia.

The exchange took place on the famous Glienicke bridge in Berlin - referred to in the title of the film, Bridge of Spies.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Tom Hanks as lawyer James B Donovan
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Glienicke bridge just after the Powers swap on 10 February 1962

But was he welcome back in the United States? Not exactly.

"When my father returns home he is shocked to discover that editorials had been written while he was in prison. These editorials in the American and British press basically said he had defected," says Gary Powers Junior.

"He had landed the plane intact, he had spilled his guts and told the Soviets everything he knew, or that he hadn't followed orders and committed suicide - all of which were part truths, mis-truths, some outright lies and innuendoes."

Why had Powers not committed suicide? Why had he not destroyed the aircraft before ejecting? Why had he followed the instructions of his Russian lawyers so obediently?

The discussion around these questions in the US media painted Powers in a deeply unflattering light.

Image copyright Alexander Nemonov
Image caption Gary Powers Jnr. with the wreckage of his father's U-2 plane, on display in Moscow

But while he had indeed been issued with a poisoned pin, he was under no orders to take his own life. The pin was available to pilots to use voluntarily should they choose to - perhaps in the face of unbearable torture.

And, like other U-2 pilots, Powers had been told by the CIA that it was not necessary for him to withhold information about his mission if he fell into the hands of the Soviets.

"Granted he bungled his job. Granted he wasn't very brave, granted he clearly followed closely the suggestions of his Russian defence counsel," reflected Ian McDougall. "He remained for all that, a convincing and genuine person caught between forces far too big for him".

A Senate committee hearing in 1962 gave Powers a chance to rehabilitate himself in the public eye. He was fully exonerated and even awarded $50,000 in back pay to cover the period of his incarceration in Russia.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Powers used a model of his U-2 plane to explain how he was shot down to the Senate committee hearing

In an unusual move, the CIA published its own report into Powers's conduct, saying he acted honourably throughout - and entirely in accordance with the instructions given to him.

But Powers was never able to entirely dispel the whiff of disfavour around him. He was fired from his job as a test pilot for manufacturer Lockheed in 1970, perhaps because of a negative representation of the CIA in his book about his ordeal, published the same year.

He took a job as a pilot for a television news station, and died in 1977 - his helicopter crashed as he was returning to base after covering brush fires in Santa Barbara County.

He is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery where his gravestone reads: "Francis Gary Powers, Capt US Air Force, Korea, Aug 17 1929, Aug 1 1977".

It then lists two honours, both awarded posthumously: the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Prisoner of War medal.

Listen to an interview with Gary Powers Jnr on the BBC World Service programme Witness

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