U-2 Affair

From New World Encyclopedia

The wreck of Francis Gary Powers’s U–2.

The U–2 Affair of 1960 occurred when an American U–2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. The U.S. denied the true purpose of the plane, but was forced to admit it when the U.S.S.R. produced the living pilot, Garry Powers, and the largely intact airplane to corroborate their claim of being spied upon aerially. The incident worsened East–West relations during the Cold War and proved a great embarrassment for the United States. Alongside events such as the Berlin Air Lift and the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is one of the best known Cold War incidents. Powers was exchanged, on the Glienicke Bridge, a bridge across the Havel River connecting Berlin and Potsdam, Germany, for the Russian secret agent, Rudolf Abel, whose underground exploits as a Russian spy in the United States comprised the material of which spy novels are written. Both sides went to great lengths during the Cold War to gather information on their rival’s military capability in an effort to ensure their own superiority. At the time of the incident, the U.S. was concerned that the U.S.S.R. was ahead in the competition to accumulate the most missiles, jeopardizing the Mutually Assured Destruction that actually succeeded in keeping the war Cold.


On May 1, 1960, fifteen days before the scheduled opening of an East–West summit conference in Paris, a U.S. Lockheed U–2 spy plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, left Peshawar, Pakistan, intending to overfly the Soviet Union and land at Bodø, Norway. The goal of the mission was to photograph ICBM development sites in and around Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk, in the Soviet Union. Attempts to intercept the plane by Soviet fighters failed due to the U–2’s extreme altitude, but eventually one of the fourteen SA–2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles launched at the plane managed to get close enough. According to Soviet defector Viktor Belenko, a Soviet fighter pursuing Powers was caught and destroyed in the missile salvo.[1] Powers’s aircraft was badly damaged, and crashed near Sverdlovsk, deep inside Soviet territory. Powers was captured after making a parachute landing. Deciding to unbuckle his belt first before he pushed the plane's self-destruct switch but later said that before he could do so, he was "hurled halfway out onto the windscreen" and decided to save himself before it was too late. When the Soviets captured him, they found a needle tipped with curare on him, intended as a suicide device. [2]

The U-2

The U-2 is a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft equipped with various cameras and sensors. It is a single-seat plane. Its first flight took place in August, 1955. The missions over the Soviet territory (which were a violation of Soviet air-space) revealed that the Soviets were exaggerating their missile capability. However, the U.S could not make this intelligence public without risking a revelation that they had the capacity to fly over Soviet territory more or less at will. Two years after the U-2 incident, it was a U-2 that sighted the Soviet missiles in Cuba (October, 1962). The U-2 was built by Lockheed.

American cover-up and exposure

Four days after Powers disappeared, NASA issued a very detailed press release noting that an aircraft had “gone missing” north of Turkey. The press release speculated that the pilot might have fallen unconscious while the autopilot was still engaged, even claiming that “the pilot reported over the emergency frequency that he was experiencing oxygen difficulties.” To bolster this, a U–2 plane was quickly painted in NASA colors and shown to the media.

U–2 incident exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum.

After hearing this, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev announced to the Supreme Soviet, and thus the world, that a “spyplane” had been shot down, whereupon the U.S. issued a statement claiming that it was a “weather research aircraft” which had strayed into Soviet airspace after the pilot had “difficulties with his oxygen equipment” while flying over Turkey. The Eisenhower White House, presuming Powers was dead, gracefully acknowledged that this might be the same plane, but still proclaimed that “there was absolutely no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet airspace and never has been,” and attempted to continue the facade by grounding all U–2 aircraft to check for “oxygen problems.” Eisenhower thought that Powers was dead, either having died in the crash or from having used the poisoned needle provided by the Air Force in case of capture.

On May 7, Khrushchev announced, "I must tell you a secret. When I made my first report I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and well… and now just look how many silly things [the Americans] have said."[3]

Not only was Powers still alive, but his plane was also essentially intact. The Soviets managed to recover the surveillance camera and even developed the photographs. Powers’s survival pack, including 7500 rubles and jewelry for women, was also recovered. Today, a large part of the wreck as well as many items from the survival pack are on display at the Central Museum of Armed Forces in Moscow. A small piece of the plane was returned to the United States and is on display at the National Cryptologic Museum.[4]

Rudolf Abel

Abel’s real name was name William August Fisher. Fisher, a Colonel in the KGB, was born in England where his father, Genrich Fischer, had been sent by Vladimir Lenin in 1901, to recruit communists. Abel went to Russia with his father in 1927, and jointed the Secret Service (later the KGB). In 1948, he entered the United States under a false identity where he became an underground agent, or sleeper. He worked for some time as an artist in New York City, communicating with Russia by short-wave radio. His arrest in 1957 followed from information provided by a Soviet defector. Tried for espionage, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.


The Paris Summit between Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev collapsed, in large part because Eisenhower refused to make apologies over the incident, which were demanded by Khrushchev. Khrushchev left the talks on May 16.

Powers pleaded guilty and was convicted of espionage on August 19, and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment and 7 years of hard labor. He served one and three-quarter years of the sentence before being exchanged for Rudolf Abel on February 10, 1962. The exchange occurred on the Glienicke Bridge connecting Potsdam, East Germany to West Berlin. Also exchanged for Abel was Frederic L. Pryor, an American student whom the East German authorities had detained without charge since August 1961.

Another result of the crisis was that the U.S. Corona spy satellite project was accelerated, while the CIA accelerated the development of the A–12 OXCART supersonic spyplane (which first flew in 1962) and began developing the Lockheed D-21/M-21 unmanned drone.

Powers later published his own account of the incident, Operation Overflight: The U-2 Spy Pilot Tells His Story for the First Time (1970).


  1. William E. Burrows, Deep Black Space Espionage and National Security (New York: Random House, 1986). ISBN 9780394541242
  2. Area 51, Mayday for the U-2 Affair. Retrieved October 25, 2007
  3. L. Fletcher, "Krushchev's Challenge: The U-2 Dilemma," in The Secret Team (1973).
  4. National Security Agency, U-2 Incident Exhibit.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beschloss, Michael R. 1987. MAYDAY: The U-2 Affair: The Untold Story of the Greatest U.S.-U.S.S.R. Spy Scandal. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 9780060914073
  • Cook, Fred J. 1973. The U-2 Incident. New York: F. Watts.
  • Garmon, Linda and Roy Scheider. 2003. Spy in the Sky. Boston: WGBH. ISBN 9781593750732
  • Powers, Francis Gary and Curt Gentry. Operation Overflight: The U-2 Spy Pilot Tells His Story for the First Time. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. ISBN 9780030830457
  • Wise, David and Thomas B. Ross. 1962. The U-2 Affair. New York: Random House.


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