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Downed spyplane still a mystery, half a century later

Published time: June 25, 2010 17:26
Edited time: June 25, 2010 17:26

It has been 50 years since US pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union, marking a turning point in the Cold War.

A U2 spy plane was on a mission to film Soviet military bases when the aircraft was hit by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. Half a century on, the incident is still full of mystery.

The CIA called it their “invulnerable spyplane.”

The U2 was a phantom. Top secret and a masterpiece of aviation technology, it was designed to fly over Soviet territory undetected, taking unauthorized surveillance pictures at altitudes that were unreachable for Soviet missiles and fighter planes.

But on May 1, 1960 a Soviet surface-to-air missile targeted and took a U2 out of the sky in what was to become a renowned incident that would affect international relations and policy in the US and Soviet Union for many years to come.

“I remember the commander turning to me and saying I should be ready to engage live targets,” recalled Mikhail Voronov, a retired Red Army officer. “Naturally, the tension was huge. We didn’t know for sure that the plane was just an intelligence aircraft. And what if it carried a nuclear bomb on board? When it came down all of us were triumphant.”

Once the plane was hit the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, managed a dramatic bail out and was captured shortly after parachuting down on Russian soil.

But Krushchev purposely omitted any information about the pilot.

The US, assuming that the pilot was dead and the plane destroyed, issued a detailed statement claiming it was a weather plane that had crashed after the pilot had experienced “oxygen difficulties.” But it was a risky deceit.

What the Americans didn’t realize was that not only was Powers still alive and being interrogated, many parts of the U2 spyplane were still essentially intact, complete with espionage equipment including a surveillance camera from which photos were later developed. The incident set US-Soviet relations back greatly and resulted in humiliation for Eisenhower’s government, who’d been caught lying.

Powers was eventually given a 10-year sentence for espionage but was exchanged for a member of the KGB a few years later in a high-profile spy swap.

On his return home, Powers, due in large part to the significant amount of misinformation given out by both sides during his time in captivity, was given far from a hero’s welcome.

“When my father returned home, he was shocked to discover that there were editorials written in the press that he’d defected,” remembered Francis Gary Powers, Jr. “He’d landed the plane intact. He’d spilled – or they’d thought that he’d spilled his guts and told the Soviets everything he knew. So, to him this was a little bit of a shock. He was disappointed at that time that the American government did not do more to help set the record straight.”

He gave an interview to RT, where he said that the Cold War was on an irreversible path, even if his father had not been captured fifty years ago.

Watch the full interview

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50 years on, and the incident still holds massive intrigue, a real life tale of lies, spies and what was ultimately a memorable Soviet success.

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