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

Part of the U-2 wreckage. Wikipedia / Mikko Tapio Vartiainen / CC BY-SA 2.5
Part of the U-2 wreckage. Photo Credit

On April 28th, a U-2 spy plane was ferried all the way from Turkey to the US base at Peshawar in Pakistan. Francis Gary Powers was selected as the pilot for the mission while Bob Ericson was chosen as the backup pilot. The mission was planned for the 29th but due to bad weather conditions over the Soviet territories, the mission was delayed by one day.

On May 1st, the U-2 spy plane took off from the US base in Peshawar with the code word “Grand Slam”. Its mission was to fly over Soviet facilities, photograph them and then land at Bodo, Norway. This time, however, the Russians were ready for them.

A huge numbers of Soviet Air Defense Units in Central Asia, Siberia, Ural and the European Region had been placed on high alert, with orders engage with anyone violating their air space.

Though the U-2 managed to avoid attacks at first, it was eventually brought it down. Gary Powers struggled to break out and finally enabled his parachute, allowing him to reach the ground unhurt. He was captured by Russian forces shortly afterwards.

Four days after Powers’ disappearance, the US government issued a press release through NASA, speculating on his current status. Eventually, they attempted to cover up the whole incident, stating that the plane had simply crashed while on a routine mission, killing the pilot.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were successful in gathering the wreckage of the aircraft, along with the remains of surveillance equipment. The Russian authorities were then able to publicly present the damning evidence to the world, implicating the US and blaming the CIA for the whole debacle.

Soviet Premier Inspecting the remains of U-2
Soviet Premier Inspecting the remains of U-2. 

On May 10th, amidst mounting pressure, House Appropriations Chair Clarence Cannon revealed the true nature of the U-2 mission, confirming the Soviet claims as the truth. Shortly afterward, President Eisenhower personally confirmed the allegations and took responsibility for the mission.

The Four Powers Summit still went smoothly, and there were hopes that matters wouldn’t worsen after US-Soviet talks. The two powers failed to find a middle ground, however.

The pilot, Powers, was eventually exchanged for Soviet agent Rudolf Abel on February 10th 1962.