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U-2 Spy Plane Incident

On May 1, 1960, U.S. pilot* Francis Gary Powers was allegedly shot down while flying an Air Force Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance airplane, affectionately known as the “Dragon Lady.” He was 1,200 miles into Soviet Russia airspace, near Sverdlovsk, about 850 miles east of Moscow. A mystery persists about whether or not the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, or if it was forced down by mechanical problems. Other suppositions exist. The incident sparked a verbal battle between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., and led to the collapse of the Paris Summit at the height of the Cold War. The conference was intended to forge agreements that would ease hostilities and suspicions of military buildup and surprise attacks by any world power on any other. Background Following World War II, a power struggle evolved between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. wanted to expand its communist doctrine into “neutral” countries; the U.S. expended a great deal of time, money, and energy to counter the threat. A buildup of nuclear weapons had begun. Mistrust was rife. The U.S. wanted to monitor the buildup, but the Soviets would have none of that. In 1955, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower offered an “open skies” policy, allowing mutual territorial surveillance, to Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The offer was rebuffed. What resulted was the creation of the U-2 fly-over program, with the first flight occurring in June 1956. The CIA was to be in control so that no security breaches would occur. Ironically, Powers’ assignment was a last-minute throw-in mission before the flights were to be suspended. Had he not flown and been downed, the Cold War may have ended much sooner. The mission The mission was the 28th flight of Powers’ U-2 experience. He was to overfly and photograph two major missile test sites in the Soviet Union, en route to Bodo, Norway; one was at Sverdlovsk, the other, at Plesetsk. A heavy concentration of antiaircraft missile batteries guarded both sites. The U-2's design allowed the aircraft to perform various missions, including mapping studies, atmospheric sampling, and the collection of crop and land management photographic data. One source says that Powers’ U-2, while on his fateful photo run at 67,000 feet (about 12.5 miles), was the target of a number of SA-2 surface-to-air missiles at his aircraft. Although the SA-2s could not gain the same altitude as the U-2, the aircraft broke up from the shock waves caused by the exploding missiles. Powers managed to parachute to safety, but was arrested upon landing. Aftermath Though convicted of espionage by the U.S.S.R.'s Military Division of the Supreme Court and sentenced to 10 years' confinement, Powers was held as a prisoner for only 21 months until the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to exchange him for Soviet spy Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel. On February 10, 1962, the two men walked across the Glienicke Bridge between Berlin and Potsdam, then passed each other silently with a slight nod of their heads. After the men were returned to their respective territories, they were put through a series of debriefings, after which it was concluded that no valuable information was divulged.

*Technically, a civilian flier.