Francis Gary Powers

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Francis Gary Powers
Powers wearing special
pressure suit for stratospheric flying, 1960
Born (1929-08-17)August 17, 1929
Jenkins, Kentucky, U.S.A.
Died August 1, 1977(1977-08-01) (aged 47)
Los Angeles County, California, U.S.A.
Cause of death Helicopter crash
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
Relatives Two children
Aviation career
Known for 1960 U-2 incident
Air force U.S. Air Force
Rank Captain
Awards Intelligence Star
Silver Star
Distinguished Flying Cross
National Defense Service Medal
Prisoner of War Medal

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

Early life

Powers was born in Jenkins, Kentucky, son of Oliver Winfield Powers, a coal miner, and his wife Ida Melinda Ford.[2] Of part Melungeon ancestry, he grew up in Pound, Virginia, just across the state border. He was the second born and only male of six children.[3] His family lived in a mining town, and because of the hardships associated with the life in such a town, his father wanted Powers to become a doctor. He hoped his son would achieve the higher earnings of such a profession and felt the life of a doctor would involve less hardship than any job in his hometown.[3]


Graduating from Milligan College in Tennessee in 1950, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. After completing his advanced training with USAF Pilot Training Class 52-H at Williams AFB, AZ, Powers was assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, as an F-84 Thunderjet pilot. According to his son, he did not fly combat missions during the Korean War, because he was recruited by the CIA for his outstanding record in single engine jet aircraft.[4] By 1960, Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions.[citation needed]

A Soviet photograph of 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 upon impact.

The U-2 incident

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 above 70,000 feet (21.3 km),[5][6][7] above the reach of Soviet air defences.[8] The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera[8] designed to take high-resolution photos from the edge of the stratosphere over hostile countries, including the Soviet Union. U-2 missions systematically photographed military installations and other important sites.[citation needed]

Soviet intelligence was aware of encroaching U-2 flights since 1956[citation needed] but lacked effective countermeasures until 1960.[9] On May 1, 1960, Powers' U-2, which departed from a military airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan[4] with support from the US Air Station at Badaber (Peshawar Air Station), was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) surface-to-air missile[10] over Sverdlovsk. Powers was unable to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism before he bailed out and was captured.[citation needed]

Powers' U-2 plane was hit by the first missile fired. A total of eight were launched;[11] 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 in 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 (the SU-9 flew above Mach 1.1, while the U-2 flew at approximately Mach 0.6). In The Skunk Works, Powers claimed that upon ejecting he saw the parachute of another pilot deploy behind him.[citation needed]

When the U.S. government learned of Powers' disappearance over the Soviet Union, they issued a cover statement claiming 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 the Soviets recovered its equipment. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for months before he made a confession and a public apology for his part in espionage.[12] The incident set back talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower. On August 17, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and was sentenced to a total of ten years, three years in imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor. He was held in Vladimir Central Prison, 100 miles east of Moscow. The prison now contains a small museum with an exhibit on Powers, who allegedly developed a good rapport with Russian prisoners there. Some pieces of the plane and Powers' uniform are on display at the Monino Airbase museum near Moscow.[citation needed]

On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged, along with American student Frederic Pryor, in a well-publicized spy swap at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. The exchange was for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher, known as "Rudolf Abel", who had been caught by the FBI and tried and jailed for espionage.[13]

In 2010, CIA documents were released indicating that American officials did not believe Powers' account of the incident at the time, because it was contradicted by a classified National Security Agency report. However, newly released declassified CIA documents confirm the accuracy of Powers' report[how?]. The NSA report remains classified.[14]


Powers initially received a cold reception on his return home. He was criticized for having failed to activate his aircraft's self-destruct charge to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts of his aircraft before his capture. He was also criticized for not using an optional CIA-issued "suicide pill" (later revealed, during CIA testimony to the Church Committee in 1975 to be a coin with shellfish toxin embedded in its grooves) to kill himself.[15] After being debriefed extensively by the CIA,[16] Lockheed, and the Air Force, on March 6, 1962, Powers appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing chaired by Senator Richard Russell and including Senators Prescott Bush and Barry Goldwater Sr. It was determined that Powers had followed orders, had not divulged any critical information to the Soviets, and had conducted himself "as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances".

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

Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1963 to 1970. In 1970, he co-wrote a book called Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident. Lockheed fired him, it was widely believed, because the book cast negative publicity on the CIA. Powers became an airborne traffic reporter for radio station KGIL Los Angeles. A fixed-wing pilot, he was then hired by television station KNBC to pilot their "Telecopter", a helicopter equipped with externally mounted 360-degree cameras. The telecopter had been in service for years, and was purchased from KTLA, Channel 5.

In 1976, Powers' biography (written with Curt Gentry) became a television movie, Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident. Lee Majors played the role of Powers.


On August 1, 1977, Powers had been covering bush fires in Santa Barbara County in the KNBC helicopter and was heading back from flying over them. As he returned, his Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, registered N4TV, ran out of fuel and crashed at the Sepulveda Dam recreational area in nearby Encino, several miles short of its intended landing site at Burbank Airport, killing Powers instantly. The National Transportation Safety Board report attributed the probable cause of the crash to pilot error (poor fuel management).[17] According to Powers' son, an aviation mechanic had repaired a faulty fuel gauge without telling Powers, who misread it.[18] At the last moment he noticed children playing in the area, and directed the helicopter elsewhere to avoid landing on them.[17] If not for the last-second deviation, which compromised his autorotative descent, he might have landed safely.[18]

Powers was survived by his wife, two children, Dee and Francis Gary Powers Jr., and five sisters. Powers is buried in Arlington National Cemetery as an Air Force veteran.[17][19]


Powers received the CIA's Intelligence Star in 1965 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.[20]

In 1998, newly declassified information revealed that Powers's 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.[21]

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."[22] Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz presented the decoration to Powers's grandchildren, Trey Powers, 9, and Lindsey Berry, 29, in a Pentagon ceremony.[23][24]


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.[25]

In popular culture

  • In the 1976 telemovie Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident, Powers was played by Lee Majors.
  • 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.


  1. "CIA FOIA – Francis Gary Powers: U-2 Spy Pilot Shot Down by the Soviets". Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Francis Gary Powers (1929 - 1977) - Find A Grave Memorial".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Powers, Francis (2004). Operation Overflight. 22841 Quicksilver Drive Dulles, Virginia 20166: Brassey's, INC. p. 3. line feed character in |location= at position 25 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Powers, Francis Gary; Curt Gentry (May 1971). Operation Overflight. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. ISBN 978-1-57488-422-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "U-2 Specifications". Lockheed Martin. Retrieved 2015-11-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Lockheed Martin U-2 Dragon Lady - Development and Operational History, Performance Specifications and Picture Gallery". Retrieved 2015-11-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Harper, John. "U-2 Dragon Lady". Retrieved 2015-11-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 "American U-2 spy plane shot down - May 01, 1960 -". Retrieved 2015-11-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Abarinov, Vladimir (2010-04-30). "Fifty Years Later, Gary Powers and U-2 Spy Plane Incident Remembered". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Retrieved 2015-11-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "S-75". Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Таким образом, всего по Lockheed U-2 и двум МиГ было выпущено семь ракет. Еще одну (восьмую) ракету выпустил зенитный ракетный дивизион соседнего полка под командованием полковника Ф. Савинова." Юрий Кнутов, Олег Фаличев. Бой в небе над Уралом Retrieved January 13, 2012.
  12. "This Day in History — — What Happened Today in History". Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Famous Cases: Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case). Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  14. "CIA documents show US never believed Gary Powers was shot down". Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "The 1962 Spy Exchange of Powers for Abel". Francis Gary Powers, Jr. Retrieved 2014-03-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Report of the board of inquiry into the case of francis gary powers (sanitized copy)" (PDF). Central Intelligence Agency. 1962-02-27. p. 1. Retrieved 2010-07-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 "The Francis Gary Powers Helo Crash". Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Powers Helicopter Crash". Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Michael Robert Patterson. "Francis Gary Powers, Captain, United States Air Force". Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Letter to G. Haber, Managing Editor, Business & Commercial Aviation
  21. Traitor or Patriot? Boghardt, Thomas. International Spy Museum. Retrieved 1 May 2015.
  22. "Press Advisory: Silver Star to be Posthumously Presented to Capt. Francis Gary Powers". Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "U-2 Pilot Gary Powers Receives Silver Star – ABC News". 2012-06-15. Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Cold War pilot Francis Gary Powers to get Silver Star". Retrieved 2012-08-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Cold War Museum". Retrieved 2014-07-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg Cold War Thriller Set for Oct. 16, 2015,, access date 5 June 2014


  • Khrushchev, Sergei N. Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower. State College, PA: Penn State Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-271-01927-7.
  • Powers, Francis Gary with Gentry, Curt. Operation Overflight. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1971 (hard cover) ISBN 978-0-340-14823-5. Potomac Book, 2002 (paperback) ISBN 978-1-57488-422-7.
  • West, Nigel. Seven Spies Who Changed the World. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991 (hard cover). London: Mandarin, 1992 (paperback).
  • The Trial of the U2: Exclusive Authorized Account of the Court Proceedings of the Case of Francis Gary Powers, Heard before the Military Division of the Supreme Court of the U.S.S.R., Moscow, August 17, 18, 19, 1960. Translation World Publishers, Chicago: 1960.
  • Powers, F.G., Gentry, C. (1970) "Operation Overflight – A Memoir of the U-2 Incident"

External links