Into Unfriendly Skies

The U-2 incident was one of the most galvanizing moments of the Cold war. On May 1st, 1960, Francis Gary Powers took of from a small military base in Pakistan and flew into history. His flight into the soviet union that day became one o the most trival points of the Cold war including placing it among the Cuban missile crisis.


The overflights of the Soviet Union had been going on for over 4 years before the time Powers was shot down in 1960. At first President Eisenhower was so hesitant that he had contact the British to see if they could fly the U-@- across the Soviet Union Just so it would have not been as bad of a fall out as if they were exclusively flown by Americans.  Once so overflights were completed the President felt even better about the spy flights since he was finally able to see over the iron curtain.

One of the primary reasons the U-2 was used for this mission was because they were able to fly 13 miles above the surface of the earth and there fore prevented the planes from being attack by both Surface to Air missiles (SAMs) or manned aircraft. The frustrating part for the Russians was the fact that the Russians could pick up these planes on radar but were not able to do anything about them. In early 1960, Russia began using a new surface to air missile, the S-75 Dvina, which was specifically made as a high altitude missile poised to be used against the U-2.

S-75 Dvina surface to air missile  Source: wikipedia

President Eisenhower had set a stop date for Powers’ CIA overflight for set for May 1st since later that month the UK, France, United States, and the Soviet Union were set to meet to discuss peace at the Four Powers summit. President Eisenhower was worried that a overflight to close to the Summit could destroy trust between the nations. As, the deadline drew closer there was bad weather over Russia and Powers’ overflight was delayed till May 1st.

The United States then lost contact with powers as he flew over central Russia. The United States then started to play cover story that the U-2 was a weather plane that got lost and wandered into Soviet airspace after the announcement that was broadcast by the Russians. What the Americans didn’t know was the fact that the Soviets had  recovered both Gary Powers as well as his plane with most of the sensitive materials intact. This fatal misstep on the part of the american caused a media firestorm and a field day for the Soviets since they claimed that america was being deceitful since they had the proof with Gary powers as well as the film that was recovered from the crash site.

The Cover up plot greatly influenced the Four power summit with Krushchev only being at the summit for one day with just enough time to smear the Americans for their blatant act of spying on the Soviet Union. A month later they put Gary Powers on trial in Moscow for spying against the Soviets and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. This is a pretty cool article from a soviet newspaper about the trial.


The Gary Powers’ trial was the last major smearing from the U-2 incident. Khrushchev never again trusted the west in any attempts to make peace and set the stage for the rest of the Cold war. Gary Powers was released a year and a half later in a prisoner transfer on the Glienicke Bridge which is also known as the Bridge of Spies for its use as prisoner exchange point during the cold war.




2 thoughts on “Into Unfriendly Skies”

  1. Great Post. I’m very glad you wrote about this since it was such a significant event in US-USSR relations in the 1960s. It’s also interesting how Krushchev would allow this event to sour relations with the US, while the Soviets had spies all over the United States that we knew about. In fact espionage is how they were able to develop an atomic bomb in the first place.

  2. The detailed account of the flight, the development of Soviet anti-aircraft weapons, and the delays that contributed to the incident are part of the broader context of US-Soviet relations that shaped the Cold War.

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