█ LARRY GILMAN
The U-2 spy plane, a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft built by the U.S. starting in the 1950s, was the subject of many "incidents" or diplomatic confrontations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War; however, the debacle referred to as the U-2 incident began on May 1, 1960, when a U-2 plane flown by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pilot Gary Powers took off from a U.S. air base at Peshawar, Turkey. The mission scheduled for Powers, codenamed Grand Slam, was to be the most ambitious U-2 flight undertaken up to that time. Its route would take it from Turkey to Soviet nuclear-weapons facilities in the Ural Mountains, various railroads, intercontinental ballistic missile sites in Siberia, then back across northern Russia, there to photograph shipyards before leaving Soviet airspace above the Arctic Circle and landing in Bodo, Norway.
The mission was unsuccessful. Powers took off at 6:26 A.M. on what was to have been the twenty-fourth U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union. He flew first to the east, over Iran to Afghanistan, in order to cross the Soviet border from an unexpected direction. He was, however, detected by Soviet radar while still 15 miles from the Afghan-Soviet border. Although undesirable, detection was not unusual; in fact, all previous U-2 flights over the Soviet Union had been detected at some point. The U-2 relied for success not primarily on stealth but on the fact that the Soviets had no fighter planes or, for the first few years, surface-to-air missiles that could fly high enough (70,000 ft [21 km]) to shoot it down. A recently deployed Soviet surface-to-air missile, the SA-2, could reach the U-2, but only if it happened to be stationed in the plane's flight-path and if its operators were on alert status, ready to fire.
Powers flew over an SA-2 battalion soon after entering Soviet airspace, but its crew was not on alert and so could not fire while he was within range. About a dozen Soviet MiG fighter planes also attempted to shoot down Powers's U-2, but could not climb high enough to get within weapons range.
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) was notified of Powers's ongoing flight at 8:00 A.M. Moscow time. It being May 1 (May Day or International Labor Day), he was preparing for the massive official festivities that always scheduled for that occasion. Outraged at what he perceived as a deliberate political provocation, he ordered that Powers's U-2 be shot down at any cost.
By this time Powers was approaching the Russian city of Sverdlosk. The pilot of an Su-9 fighter jet was ordered to carry out a suicide attack on Powers, ramming the U-2 with his own plane; however, he was unable to locate Powers. An SA-2 battalion stationed outside the city was on alert, and when Powers entered its zone of engagement it fired a missile. It exploded near Powers's plane. The fragile U-2 was damaged by the concussion and began to break to pieces. Powers managed to bail out, and was captured as soon as he parachuted to the ground.
Because the U-2 overflights violated treaty law, the U.S. always denied publicly that they were occurring. Early on, in fact, the CIA, which ran the U-2 program, had considered using non-U.S.-citizens as pilots. Therefore, after the loss of Powers's plane (but before the Soviet Union had revealed that it had captured Powers alive) the U.S. issued several false cover stories. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for example, claimed that it had lost a U-2 being used as a weather plane over Turkey; the idea was that if the Soviets recovered the plane itself, the U.S. would claim that it had strayed accidentally into Soviet airspace when its oxygen supply failed and the pilot lost consciousness. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of State assured reporters at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on May 6 that "There was no—N-O—no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet air space, and there has never been," and added that it was "monstrous" of the Soviets to assert that the U.S. would lie to the world.
But the next day, May 7, Khrushchev revealed that he had proof that the U-2 had been a spy plane: Powers himself. The statements by NASA and the State Department were exposed, causing an international political embarrassment for the U.S. On May 11, President Eisenhower made a speech in which he admitted that the U.S. had been overflying the Soviet Union. That same day, the remnants of Powers's U-2 were put on public display in Gorky Park in Moscow and were toured by Soviet leaders. Political protest in Japan caused the U.S. to withdraw its U-2 detachments from that country; soon the U.S. had withdrawn all its other overseas U-2 detachments as well. For the U.S., both the political and operational costs of the U-2 incident were high.
Powers was questioned, but revealed nothing of value to his captors. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a spy but was traded back to the U.S. for a captured Soviet spy two years later. Coincidentally, the day Powers was sentenced—August 19, 1960—the U.S. made its first use of a technology that would eliminate altogether the need for U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union, recovering a film package from its first spy satellite, the Corona. The Corona's pictures showed more of the Soviet Union (albeit at lower resolution) than all reconnaissance missions made up to that time by the U-2 and high-altitude balloons. From that day forward satellites, not airplanes, would provide direct intelligence of Soviet activity—and would do so without political risk.
█ FURTHER READING:
Peebles, Curtis. Shadow Flights: America's Secret Air War against the Soviet Union. Novato, CA: Presidio. 2000.