When the Soviets Shot Down A U-2 Spyplane, The Cold War Turned Hot


The Lockheed U-2 also known as the “Dragon Lady” is a high altitude recon aircraft that was built in 1957 to gather a range of information while cruising at undetectable high altitudes. It has a surface ceiling of 70,000 feet and can be equipped with a variety of sensory and communications systems for spying purposes. It is because of its robustness and reliability that, to this day, the U-2 is still in service.

The end of World War II kicked off the Cold War, and America was in dire need of an aircraft that could transmit back accurate information about Soviets plans & projects. This was a time when satellites & geo-positioning were still far from perfected, and Soviet air defenses made it impossible for traditional recon/bomber planes like the B-52 to carry out these activities.

In the end, it was the CIA that pushed for the creation of the U-2. The Lockheed proposal for the recon plane was approved and from 1957 onwards, the plane was in action over enemy territory.

The U-2 held a tactical advantage over Soviet jets since Russia was yet to build an aircraft capable of reaching the same heights. In addition to this, the US also believed that the Soviets were far away from developing any missile system capable of bringing down a U-2.

U-2 "GRAND SLAM" flight plan on 1 May 1960, from CIA publication 'The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance; The U-2 And Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974', declassified 25 June 2013. Wikipedia / Public Domain
U-2 “GRAND SLAM” flight plan on 1 May 1960, from CIA publication ‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance; The U-2 And Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974’, declassified 25 June 2013.

President Eisenhower did not want to send American pilots over Soviet territory as he knew this might damage relations even further. A solution was proposed., that involved British pilots flying U-2 aircraft over Soviet territories. This would allow the US to maintain plausible deniability should anything go wrong.

The first two missions were a success, and thanks to new information gathered with U-2, it was confirmed that the Soviets were working on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. While these new developments were taking place, however, the Four Power Paris Summit was scheduled for May 16th, at which the US and Soviet officials were meant to engage in a series of positive talks. Still, pressure was mounting on President Eisenhower to a get a closer look at the Soviet bases, so two more missions were approved almost a month before the summit. This time, the missions were to be flown by American pilots.

On April 9th, 1960, a U-2 spy plane was dispatched, piloted by Bob Ericson. At first, the mission seemed to progress smoothly. However, unknown to the CIA, the Soviets had now developed a radar system capable of detecting a U-2. Several attempts were made to intercept the plane, but in the end U-2 reached an Iranian landing strip unharmed. The Soviets started massing their defenses.