Francis Gary Powers

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Francis Gary Powers
Powers in 1964
Francis Gary Powers

(1929-08-17)August 17, 1929
DiedAugust 1, 1977(1977-08-01) (aged 47)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of deathHelicopter crash
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery
Known for1960 U-2 incident
Barbara Gay Moore
(m. 1956; div. 1963)
Claudia Edwards Downey
(m. 1963)
AwardsDirector's Award
Intelligence Star
Silver Star
Distinguished Flying Cross
National Defense Service Medal
Prisoner of War Medal
Aviation career
Rank Captain

Francis Gary Powers (August 17, 1929 – August 1, 1977) was an American pilot whose Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)[1] Lockheed U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in Soviet Union airspace, causing the 1960 U-2 incident.

He later worked as a helicopter pilot for KNBC in Los Angeles and died in a 1977 helicopter crash.

Early life and education[edit]

Powers was born August 17, 1929, in Jenkins, Kentucky, the son of Oliver Winfield Powers (1904–1970), a coal miner, and his wife Ida Melinda Powers (née Ford; 1905–1991). His family eventually moved to Pound, Virginia, just across the state border. He was the second-born and only male of six children.[citation needed]

His family lived in a mining town, and because of the hardships associated with living in such a town, his father wanted Powers to become a physician. He hoped his son would achieve the higher earnings of such a profession and felt that this would involve less hardship than any job in his hometown.[2][non-primary source needed]

Education and service[edit]

After graduating with a bachelor's degree from Milligan College in Tennessee in June 1950, Powers enlisted in the United States Air Force in October. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in December 1952 after completing his advanced training with USAF Pilot Training Class 52-H[3] at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona. Powers was then assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, as a Republic F-84 Thunderjet pilot.

Powers married Barbara Gay Moore in Newnan, Georgia, on April 2, 1955.[4] In January 1956 he was recruited by the CIA. In May 1956 he began U-2 training at Watertown Strip, Nevada. His training was complete by August 1956 and his unit, the Second Weather Observational Squadron (Provisional) or Detachment 10-10, was deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. By 1960, Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions.[5] Family members believed that he was a NASA weather reconnaissance pilot.[6]

Powers while he was in Soviet custody
Wooden U-2 model – one of two used by Powers when he testified to the Senate Committee. The wings and tail are detached to demonstrate the aircraft's breakup.

U-2 incident[edit]

Pilot Francis Gary Powers at the American High Altitude Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft

Powers was discharged from the Air Force in 1956 with the rank of captain. He then joined the CIA's U-2 program at the civilian grade of GS-12. U-2 pilots flew espionage missions at altitudes of 70,000 feet (21 km),[7][8] supposedly above the reach of Soviet air defenses.[9] The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera[9] designed to take high-resolution photos from the stratosphere over hostile countries, including the Soviet Union. U-2 missions systematically photographed military installations and other important sites.[10]

Reconnaissance mission[edit]

The primary mission of the U-2s was to overfly the Soviet Union. Soviet intelligence had been aware of encroaching U-2 flights at least since 1958 if not earlier[11] but lacked effective countermeasures until 1960.[12] On May 1, 1960, Powers' U-2A, 56-6693, departed from a military airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan,[13] with support from the U.S. Air Station at Badaber (Peshawar Air Station). This was to be the first attempt "to fly all the way across the Soviet Union ... but it was considered worth the gamble. The planned route would take us deeper into Russia than we had ever gone, while traversing important targets never before photographed."[14]

Shot down[edit]

Powers was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 "Guideline") surface-to-air missile[15] over Sverdlovsk. A total of 14 Dvinas were launched,[16] one of which hit a MiG-19 jet fighter which was sent to intercept the U-2 but could not reach a high enough altitude. Its pilot, Sergei Safronov, ejected but died of his injuries. Another Soviet aircraft, a newly manufactured Su-9 on a transit flight, also attempted to intercept Powers' U-2. The unarmed Su-9 was directed to ram the U-2 but missed because of the large differences in speed.[a]

As Powers flew near Kosulino in the Ural Region, three S-75 Dvinas were launched at his U-2, with the first one hitting the aircraft. "What was left of the plane began spinning, only upside down, the nose pointing upward toward the sky, the tail down toward the ground." According to his book Operation Overflight, Powers delayed activating the camera's self-destruct mechanism until he made sure he could exit the cockpit before the charges detonated. When g-forces unexpectedly threw him from the spinning aircraft, he could no longer reach the destruct switches. While descending under his parachute, Powers had time to scatter his escape map, and rid himself of part of his suicide device, a silver dollar coin suspended around his neck containing a poison-laced injection pin, though he kept the poison pin.[17] "Yet I was still hopeful of escape." He hit the ground hard, was immediately captured, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.[18] Powers did note a second chute after landing on the ground, "some distance away and very high, a lone red and white parachute".[19]

Attempted deception by the U.S. government[edit]

When the U.S. government learned of Powers' disappearance over the Soviet Union, they lied that a "weather plane" had strayed off course after its pilot had "difficulties with his oxygen equipment". What CIA officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact and that the Soviets had recovered its pilot and the plane's equipment, including its top-secret high-altitude camera. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for months before he made a confession and a public apology for his part in espionage.[20]

Portrayal in U.S. media[edit]

Following admission by the White House that Powers had been captured alive, American media depicted Powers as an all-American pilot hero, who never smoked or touched alcohol. In fact, Powers smoked and drank socially.[21]: 201  The CIA urged that his wife Barbara be given sedatives before speaking to the press and gave her talking points that she repeated to the press to portray her as a devoted wife. Her broken leg, according to the CIA disinformation, was the result of a water-skiing accident, when in fact it happened after she had had too much to drink and was dancing with another man.[21]: 198–99 

In the course of his trial for espionage in the Soviet Union, Powers confessed to the charges against him and apologized for violating Soviet airspace to spy on the Soviets. In the wake of his apology, American media often depicted Powers as a coward and even as a symptom of the decay of America's "moral character."[21]: 235–36 

Pilot testimony compromised by newspaper reports[edit]

Powers tried to limit the information he shared with the KGB to that which could be determined from the remains of his plane's wreckage. He was hampered by information appearing in the western press. A KGB major stated "there's no reason for you to withhold information. We'll find it out anyway. Your Press will give it to us." However, he limited his divulging of CIA contacts to one individual, with a pseudonym of "Collins". At the same time, he repeatedly stated the maximum altitude for the U-2 was 68,000 feet (21 km), lower than its actual flight ceiling.[22]

Political consequence[edit]

The incident set back talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower. Powers' interrogations ended on June 30, and his solitary confinement ended on July 9. On August 17, 1960, his trial began for espionage before the military division of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union. Lieutenant General Borisoglebsky, Major General Vorobyev, and Major General Zakharov presided. Roman Rudenko acted as prosecutor in his capacity of Procurator General of the Soviet Union. Mikhail I. Grinev served as Powers' defense counsel. In attendance were his parents and sister, and his wife Barbara and her mother. His father brought along his attorney Carl McAfee, while the CIA provided two additional attorneys.[23]


On August 19, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage, "a grave crime covered by Article 2 of the Soviet Union's law 'On Criminality Responsibility for State Crimes'". His sentence consisted of 10 years' confinement, three of which were to be in a prison, with the remainder in a labor camp. The US Embassy "News Bulletin" stated, according to Powers, "as far as the government was concerned, I had acted in accordance with the instructions given me and would receive my full salary while imprisoned".[24]

He was held in Vladimir Central Prison, about 150 miles (240 km) east of Moscow, in building number 2 from September 9, 1960, until February 8, 1962. His cellmate was Zigurds Krūmiņš, a Latvian political prisoner. Powers kept a diary and a journal while confined. Additionally, he learned carpet weaving from his cellmate to pass the time. He could send and receive a limited number of letters to and from his family. The prison now contains a small museum with an exhibit on Powers, who allegedly developed a good rapport with Soviet prisoners there. Some pieces of the plane and Powers' uniform are on display at the Monino Airbase museum near Moscow.[25]

Prisoner exchange[edit]

CIA opposition to exchange[edit]

The CIA, in particular chief of CIA Counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton, opposed exchanging Powers for Soviet KGB Colonel William Fisher, known as "Rudolf Abel", who had been caught by the FBI and tried and jailed for espionage.[26][21]: 236–37  First, Angleton believed that Powers might have deliberately defected to the Soviet side. CIA documents released in 2010 indicate that U.S. officials did not believe Powers' account of the incident at the time, because it was contradicted by a classified National Security Agency (NSA) report which alleged that the U-2 had descended from 65,000 to 34,000 feet (20 to 10 km) before changing course and disappearing from radar. The NSA report remains classified as of 2022.[27]

In any event, Angleton suspected that Powers had already revealed all he knew to the Soviets and therefore reasoned that Powers was worthless to the U.S. On the other hand, according to Angleton, William Fisher had revealed little to the CIA, refusing to disclose even his real name, and for this reason, William Fisher was still of potential value.[citation needed]

However, Barbara Powers, Gary Powers' wife, was allegedly often drinking and having affairs. On June 22, 1961, she was pulled over by the police after driving erratically and was caught driving under the influence.[21]: 251  To avoid bad publicity for the wife of the well-known CIA operative, doctors tasked by the CIA to keep Barbara out of the limelight arranged to have her committed to a psychiatric ward in Augusta, Georgia, under strict supervision.[21]: 251–51  She was eventually released to the care of her mother. However, the CIA feared that Gary Powers languishing in Soviet prison might learn of Barbara's plight and as a result reach a state of desperation causing him to reveal to the Soviets whatever secrets he had not already revealed. Thus, Barbara unwittingly may have aided the cause of the approval of the prisoner exchange involving her husband and William Fisher.[21]: 253  Angleton and others at the CIA still opposed the exchange but President John F. Kennedy approved it.[21]: 257 

The exchange[edit]

On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged, along with U.S. student Frederic Pryor, for Soviet KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel. Due to political differences between the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic at the time, Pryor was turned over to American authorities at Checkpoint Charlie, before the exchange of Powers for Fisher was allowed to proceed on the Glienicke Bridge.

Powers credited his father with the swap idea. When released, Powers' total time in captivity was 1 year, 9 months, and 10 days.[28]


Clarence Johnson and Francis Gary Powers in front of a U-2

Powers initially received a cold reception on his return home. He was criticized for not activating his aircraft's self-destruct charge to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts. He was also criticized for not using a CIA-issued "suicide pill" to kill himself (a coin with shellfish toxin embedded in its grooves, revealed during CIA testimony to the Church Committee in 1975).[29][better source needed]

He was debriefed extensively by the CIA,[30] Lockheed Corporation, and the Air Force, after which a statement was issued by CIA director John McCone that "Mr. Powers lived up to the terms of his employment and instructions in connection with his mission and in his obligations as an American."[31] On March 6, 1962, he appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing chaired by Senator Richard Russell Jr. which included Senators Prescott Bush, Leverett Saltonstall, Robert Byrd, Margaret Chase Smith, John Stennis, Strom Thurmond, and Barry Goldwater. During the hearing, Senator Saltonstall stated, "I commend you as a courageous, fine young American citizen who lived up to your instructions and who did the best you could under very difficult circumstances." Senator Bush declared, "I am satisfied he has conducted himself in exemplary fashion and in accordance with the highest traditions of service to one's country, and I congratulate him upon his conduct in captivity." Senator Goldwater sent him a handwritten note: "You did a good job for your country."[32]

Divorce and remarriage[edit]

Powers with first wife, Barbara, in 1962

Powers sued his wife for divorce on August 14, 1962, claiming she cursed and abused him for no reason.[33] Powers stated that the reasons for the divorce included her infidelity and alcoholism, adding that she constantly threw tantrums and overdosed on pills shortly after his return.[34] He started a relationship with Claudia Edwards "Sue" Downey, whom he had met while working briefly at CIA Headquarters. Downey had a child, Dee, from her previous marriage. They were married on October 26, 1963.[35] Their son Francis Gary Powers Jr. was born on June 5, 1965.[36] The marriage proved to be a very happy one, and Sue worked hard to preserve her husband's legacy after his death.[37]


During a speech in March 1964, former CIA Director Allen Dulles said of Powers, "He performed his duty in a very dangerous mission and he performed it well, and I think I know more about that than some of his detractors and critics know, and I am glad to say that to him tonight."[38]

Later career[edit]

Powers in 1973, reporting for KGIL

Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1962 to 1970, though the CIA paid his salary.[citation needed] In 1970, he wrote the book Operation Overflight with co-author Curt Gentry.[39] Lockheed fired him, because "the book's publication had ruffled some feathers at Langley." Powers then became a traffic reporting airplane pilot for Los Angeles radio station KGIL. After that he became a helicopter news reporter for KNBC television.[40]


Powers was piloting a helicopter for Los Angeles TV station KNBC Channel 4 over the San Fernando Valley on August 1, 1977, when the aircraft crashed, killing him and his cameraman George Spears. They had been recording video following brush fires in Santa Barbara County in the KNBC helicopter and were heading back when the crash occurred.[41]

His Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed at the Sepulveda Dam recreational area in Encino, California, several miles short of its intended landing site at Burbank Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board report attributed the probable cause of the crash to pilot error.[42] According to Powers' son, an aviation mechanic had repaired a faulty fuel gauge without informing Powers, who subsequently misread it.[43]

At the last moment, it is surmised that he noticed children playing in the area and directed the helicopter elsewhere to avoid landing on them. He might have landed safely if not for the last-second deviation, which compromised his autorotative descent.[43] Powers was survived by his wife, children (Claudia Dee and Francis Gary Powers Jr.), and five sisters. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery as an Air Force veteran.[44]


Bronze star
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
USAF Senior Pilot Badge
Silver Star Distinguished Flying Cross Intelligence Star
(Valor Award)
Prisoner of War Medal Army Good Conduct Medal National Defense Service Medal
w/ 1 bronze service star
Korean Service Medal Air Force Longevity Service Award
w/ two bronze oak leaf clusters
United Nations Service Medal for Korea

Powers received the CIA's Intelligence Star in 1972 after his return from the Soviet Union. Powers was originally scheduled to receive it in 1963 along with other pilots involved in the CIA's U-2 program, but the award was postponed for political reasons. In 1970, Powers published his first—and only—book review, on a work about aerial reconnaissance, Unarmed and Unafraid by Glenn Infield, in the monthly magazine Business & Commercial Aviation. "The subject has great interest to me," he said, in submitting his review.[45][full citation needed]

In 1998, newly declassified information revealed that Powers' mission had been a joint USAF/CIA operation. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the U-2 Incident, his family was presented with his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, and National Defense Service Medal. In addition, CIA Director George Tenet authorized Powers to posthumously receive the CIA's coveted Director's Medal for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty.[46]

On June 15, 2012, Powers was posthumously awarded the Silver Star medal for "demonstrating 'exceptional loyalty' while enduring harsh interrogation in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow for almost two years."[47] Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz presented the decoration to Powers' grandchildren, Trey Powers, 9, and Lindsey Berry, 29, in a Pentagon ceremony.[48][49]


Powers' son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., founded the Cold War Museum in 1996. Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, it was essentially a traveling exhibit until it found a permanent home in 2011 on a former Army communications base outside Washington, D.C in Warrenton, Virginia.[50]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In the 1976 telemovie Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident, Powers was played by Lee Majors.
  • In the 1989 song We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel, one of the lines references the U2 based on this event.
  • In 1999, the History Channel aired Mystery of the U2, hosted by Arthur Kent as part of their History Undercover series. The program was produced by Indigo Films.
  • In the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies, dramatizing the negotiations to repatriate Powers, he is portrayed by Austin Stowell, with Tom Hanks starring as negotiator James Donovan.[51]
  • In April 2018, The Aviationist featured an article about the song "Powers Down", a tribute to Powers.[52]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "CIA FOIA – Francis Gary Powers: U-2 Spy Pilot Shot Down by the Soviets". Archived from the original on August 31, 2012. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
  2. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, p. 3.
  3. ^ "52-H". USAF Pilot Training Class 52-G Association, Inc. Retrieved August 31, 2020.
  4. ^ Newnan-Coweta Magazine, Sep/Oct 2011, p. 78,
  5. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 6–9, 14–15, 24, 50–51, 55–56, 95.
  6. ^ Michael, Tal (September 2, 2012). "The Israeli Air Force : Mysterious Spyplane Revealed". Israeli Air Force. Retrieved June 6, 2020.
  7. ^ "U-2 Specifications". Lockheed Martin. Retrieved November 16, 2015.
  8. ^ Harper, John. "U-2 Dragon Lady". Retrieved November 16, 2015.
  9. ^ a b "American U-2 spy plane shot down – May 01, 1960". Retrieved November 16, 2015.
  10. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, p. 41.
  11. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 47, 59.
  12. ^ Abarinov, Vladimir (April 30, 2010). "Fifty Years Later, Gary Powers and U-2 Spy Plane Incident Remembered". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Retrieved November 16, 2015.
  13. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, p. 53.
  14. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 53–54.
  15. ^ "S-75". Archived from the original on October 5, 2012. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
  16. ^ Polmar, Norman (2001). Spyplane: The U-2 History Declassified. Osceola, WI: Zenith Press. p. 137. ISBN 0760309574.
  17. ^ Dobbs, Michael. "Gary Powers Kept a Secret Diary With Him After He Was Captured by the Soviets". Smithsonian.
  18. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 61–63, 67–71, 76.
  19. ^ Rich 1994, pp. 159–60.
  20. ^ "This Day in History – What Happened Today in History". Retrieved August 31, 2012.[permanent dead link]
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h Reel, Monte (2018). A brotherhood of spies: the U-2 and the CIA's secret war. New York. ISBN 978-0-385-54020-9. OCLC 1015258913.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  22. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 127–128.
  23. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 110, 114, 119–20, 142–43, 148, 157–58, 162, 188, 220.
  24. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 157–61.
  25. ^ "Air Force Museum – Monino, Russia". Archived from the original on April 3, 2018. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
  26. ^ Famous Cases: Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case), Federal Bureau of Investigation, archived from the original on January 21, 2016
  27. ^ "CIA documents show US never believed Gary Powers was shot down". Retrieved August 31, 2012.
  28. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 237–40.
  29. ^ "The 1962 Spy Exchange of Powers for Abel". Francis Gary Powers, Jr. Archived from the original on May 19, 2014. Retrieved March 27, 2014.
  30. ^ "Report of the board of inquiry into the case of Francis Gary Powers (sanitized copy)" (PDF). Central Intelligence Agency. February 27, 1962. p. 1. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 11, 2013. Retrieved July 12, 2010.
  31. ^ New York Daily News. March 7, 1962. p. 2
  32. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 264, 270–80.
  33. ^ "Mrs. Gary Powers Files Counter Divorce Suit". Winona Sunday News. Milledgeville, Georgia. AP. September 30, 1962. p. 4. Retrieved April 23, 2023.
  34. ^ Musgrove, Eric. "Remembering the people and events that shaped Suwannee County history: Barbara Moore – part 2". Suwannee Democrat. Archived from the original on February 7, 2017. Retrieved August 10, 2018.
  35. ^ VA Marriage Records 1936–2014, Certificate #32518
  36. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 287, 292–93, 323.
  37. ^ Writer, a Times Staff (June 25, 2004). "Claudia 'Sue' Powers, 68; Wife of Spy Plane Pilot Downed During Cold War". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved August 10, 2018.
  38. ^ Powers & Gentry 2004, pp. 295–96.
  39. ^ Powers, Francis Gary; Gentry, Curt (May 1970). Operation Overflight: The U-2 pilot tells his story for the first time. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 0030830451. Archived from the original on October 13, 2010. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  40. ^ "May Day Over Moscow: The Francis Gary Powers Story - CIA". Retrieved February 19, 2023.
  41. ^ "Widow of U-2 pilot Powers dies". The Spokesman-Review. August 2, 1974.
  42. ^ "NTSB Identification: LAX77FA060". Retrieved January 17, 2022.
  43. ^ a b "The 1962 Spy Exchange of Powers for Abel". World Press. Archived from the original on May 19, 2014. Retrieved February 22, 2017.
  44. ^ "Francis Gary Powers – Captain, United States Air Force Pilot, CIA". January 10, 2023.
  45. ^ Letter to G. Haber, Managing Editor, Business & Commercial Aviation
  46. ^ Boghardt, Thomas (2007). "Traitor or Patriot?: The Story of U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers" (PDF). Washington, DC: International Spy Museum. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 26, 2009. Retrieved May 1, 2015.
  47. ^ "Press Advisory: Silver Star to be Posthumously Presented to Capt. Francis Gary Powers". Archived from the original on October 12, 2012. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
  48. ^ "U-2 Pilot Gary Powers Receives Silver Star". June 15, 2012. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
  49. ^ "Cold War pilot Francis Gary Powers to get Silver Star". Retrieved August 31, 2012.
  50. ^ "Cold War Museum". Archived from the original on June 30, 2014. Retrieved July 13, 2014.
  51. ^ McNary, Dave (June 16, 2014). "Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg Cold War Thriller Set for Oct. 16, 2015". Variety. Variety Media, LLC. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  52. ^ Cenciotti, David (April 30, 2018). "Rock Band Honors Gary Powers With New Song on U-2 Incident Anniversary". The Aviationist. MH Magazine.



  1. ^ The Su-9 flew above Mach 1.1, while the U-2 flew at approximately Mach 0.6.[citation needed]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]