The U-2 Spy Plane Incident

Introduction

Over the course of the Cold War, world powers found themselves constantly at odds with each other.  Nuclear testing was rampant.  Atomic research was unchecked.  Safety procedures were limited.  The name of the game was espionage, spying, and various other forms of information gathering.  After all, this was the definition of the Cold War: a war in which we spent countless time, money, manpower, and resources to one up the other.  While certainly not the only definition, this defines one of several key components of the Cold War.  The Space Race added another dimension to this, but despite the fact that satellites in theory could be launched, the most reliable form of intel gathering was using aircraft.  The United States, CIA, Air Force, and DARPA, flew countless missions over the Soviet Bloc.  Unfortunately, one of them didn't go quite as planned.

The Plane

The aircraft in question in the incident was a U-2C Spy Plane, aptly named the Dragon Lady, tail number 56-6693.  The U-2 is a large aircraft with an absolutely incredible and distinguished wing profile.  Capable of flying at extreme altitudes of over 75,000 feet and over 6,000 miles in distance, many aspects of the aircraft remain classified.  The aircraft was designed based on a glider design.  In many cases, the aircraft required precision handling, as the wings were prone to snapping off.  In addition, at cruising altitude, the aircrafts stall speed and maximum speed were anywhere from 1 to 6 miles per hour apart.  This meant that the pilot had very little room for error when he was at altitude.  On landing, the resistance generated by the wings would sometimes cause the plane to hover at the end of the runway.  A single wheel was on the underbelly of the plane, meaning the plane had to teeter and balance itself on its belly on landing.  On takeoff, the wheels on the wings broke away, as any modifications to the wings could cause them to snap off.

The Incident

On 1 May 1960, Captain Francis Gary Powers was in his routine flight pattern above Soviet airspace in his U-2C, tail number 56-6693.  This U-2 was under ownership of the CIA.  His route was to take him through the Eastern Soviet Union, overflying numerous Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) sites, Surface-to-air Missile (SAM) sites, and enrichment sites for atomic weapons.  These were routine flyovers that were designed to observe the movement of war materiel, and examine Soviet capabilities.  The same practices were used to determine action later during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But on 1 May 1960, no such event had transpired.  It was business as usual.  The U-2's were designed to fly higher than SAM sites could reach, leaving them generally undisturbed.  However, the Soviets had other thoughts in mind with new and improved anti-air defense technology.

The Takedown

Soviet officers were ordered into the skies in MiG-19 aircraft, and given the command to ram the aircraft if necessary.  However, due to the operating altitude of the aircraft, this proved to be impossible.  All things seemed to be going according to plan aboard Powers' craft, until he entered the region covered by new SA-2 SAM sites.  One of the three SAM sites successfully launched a volley that connected with Powers' plane, forcing him to eject and trash the plane.  In the process, however, the Soviets intercepted at least one of their own MiG-19's in the volley.  The MiG-19 was destroyed, and the pilot was killed.  Powers landed in Soviet territory and was immediately captured.  Despite this, the Soviets continued to believe the aircraft was still airborne for over a half hour after the plane had hit the ground.

Powers would eventually be released back to the United States.  He served 19 months of jail time in the Soviet Union before he was traded by Americans in exchange for a Soviet spy.  The incident highlighted the need for higher flying and faster aircraft, eventually leading to the demand for the program that would birth the SR-71 Blackbird. The U-2 continues to fly various missions in different capacities for the USAF and NASA today.

Author: The Kid

A junior Military Historian. In 2018 I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History. I'm also a professional student, specializing in Cold War era military history and American aviation history. I have composed several publications over the last four years, and continue to publish writings and photos to various journals, publishers, and blogs - including this one.

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