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The Powers Incident

Francis Gary Powers (right) with U-2 designer Kelly Johnson in 1966. Powers was a USAF fighter pilot recruited by the CIA in 1956 to fly civilian U-2 missions deep into Russia. Powers and other USAF Reserve pilots resigned their commissions to become civilians. (Lockheed Company photo)

Francis Gary Powers (right) with U-2 designer Kelly Johnson in 1966. Powers was a USAF fighter pilot recruited by the CIA in 1956 to fly civilian U-2 missions deep into Russia. Powers and other USAF Reserve pilots resigned their commissions to become civilians. (Lockheed Company photo)

In 1960 the U-2 was at the center of international politics. CIA civilian pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR while photographing missile sites at Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk. The Soviets reportedly fired fourteen newly developed SA-2 surface-to-air missiles at his U-2. Though none hit Powers' aircraft, one of the missiles -- at the extreme limit of its range and radar tracking ability -- exploded behind the U-2, and the shock damaged the fragile aircraft. In the engagement, the Soviets also accidentally shot down one of their own MiG-19 fighters, killing its pilot. Powers bailed out of his stricken U-2 and was captured.

The Soviets conducted a show trial and sentenced Powers to 10 years in prison for espionage, but exchanged him for a Soviet intelligence agent in 1962. After the Powers incident, the U.S. suspended U-2 flights over the USSR.

On the world political stage, a U.S.-Soviet arms control summit planned for 1960 collapsed due to the Powers incident. The event contributed to growing mistrust between East and West, and this wariness nearly resulted in war during the Cuban Missile Crisis two years later.

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