Francis Gary Powers and the U-2


Francis Gary Powers.

I suspect that name lives astride a generational divide. If you were born much after the mid-1950s, it may not resonate at all. If you’re older, it likely has a more visceral connotation and for me, that’s an unhappy stew of cold war terror, shame and embarrassment. That this should be so is ridiculous, but a 10-year-old mind is a pliable thing.

Powers’ name comes back into the consciousness as a result of Steven Spielberg’s new film, Bridge of Spies. The core of the story concerns the trial of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 45 years in prison in 1957. Powers, a U-2 pilot, was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and two years later, he was exchanged for Abel in a rare moment of Cold War cooperation. Spielberg does an admirable job of conveying the raw fear that gripped the country between the mid-1950s and late 1960s through vignettes depicting the silly nuclear war preps we all seemed to take so seriously. If the phrase “duck and cover” doesn’t elicit both a laugh and wistfulness for a simpler time, you can’t really gain a sense of how scary and real nuclear fears were in those days.

I was getting interested in airplanes about the time of Powers’ shoot-down and recall reading the two-line banner headlines describing the event and his subsequent trial. I remember grainy black and whites of Powers standing in the docket, with the hammer and sickle as a backdrop. I can’t remember much about the prisoner exchange, but I do remember that Powers wasn’t favorably viewed after his return, yet another example of how people in high places blame those in low places when something goes awry. When Powers wrote his own book in 1970, Operation Overflight, to set the record straight, I remember reading it, but I don’t recall shaking the idea that he somehow screwed up.

The film mildly conveys this and in its sole action sequence, it re-creates the shoot-down. My memory suggested that Powers, cruising at 70,000 feet, suffered a flameout and had to descend to get a relight. And that’s what allowed a Soviet SAM to knock him down. But the film doesn’t play it this way and the film is right. According to Powers’ owndetailed debrief, he was at his planned altitude when he saw and felt an explosion, followed by a loss of pitch control. He mentioned neither a flameout nor descending. To climb as high as it did, the U-2 was of feather-light construction and couldn’t be aggressively maneuvered nor could it tolerate much G-loading. The uncommanded pitch basically broke it; Powers believed both wings departed as the result of a SAM.

For drama, the film depicts Powers—played by Austin Stowell—being flung from the aircraft attached only by his oxygen umbilical. He struggles to get back inside the cockpit to activate the U-2’s destruct mechanism. He fails. This isn’t much of an exaggeration either, according to Powers’ debrief. The airplane was probably in a high-G flat spin, which Powers said pushed him so far forward that he feared losing his legs if he ejected. Instead, he jettisoned the canopy and the slipstream drew him into a standing position half in and half out of the airplane, tethered by the oxygen hose and struggling to reach the destruct switches. Eventually, the hose parted and Powers’ parachute opened automatically.

The film used an interesting device to show one reason Powers was reviled after being repatriated. It gave the impression that in the event of trouble, pilots were expected to blow themselves up with the destruct mechanism. Failing that, they were provided with a silver dollar hiding a small poison-tipped needle that they were expected to use in the event of imminent capture, so sensitive was the program and their knowledge of the airplane. That Powers failed to do this was viewed as cowardice. Except that wasn’t the expectation at all, according to Powers’ debrief. The needle and a pill were considered optional and pilots weren’t expected or required to carry either.

Too bad the film had to go in that direction, but it was probably unavoidable. His image actually began to recover as soon as 1965 and thanks to efforts by his children, Powers was eventually awarded the Silver Star and CIA Director’s Medal, among other awards. The CIA determined that despite harsh interrogation, Powers never divulged any classified information.

In retrospect, just considering the airplane and the flights themselves shows how desperate the CIA and military were for intelligence on the Soviet Union. Between 1956 and Powers’ last flight in 1960, 24 overflights were made. They were extremely provocative and thanks to the lack of intel, the actual risk of losing an airplane to ground fire was probably undersold. After all, by 1960, the Soviet Union was three years into the space program that launched the first satellite and was about to launch the first human into space. It may have been whistling past the graveyard to imagine they couldn’t shoot down a U-2 flying at 70,000 feet.

Whether you know the history or not, the film is worth seeing, just to learn about James Donovan’s work in Abel’s defense and in negotiating a trade to bring Powers home.