On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, an incident that lead to increased tensions in the midst of the Cold War, the imprisonment of an American pilot and a search for less vulnerable methods for gathering intelligence and reconnaissance imagery.
Over a decade into the Cold War, the United States was looking for a way to monitor the developments and aims of its nuclear adversary, the Soviet Union. In an age before satellites and hi-tech electronic surveillance tools, Washington began seeking new methods of collecting intelligence. Up until that point, aerial surveillance was conducted with regular fighters and bombers equipped with cameras, but the method was highly vulnerable to detection and interception. With that in mind, the US developed the top-secret U-2 spy plane, which could fly at extremely high altitudes in order to soar high above the range of fighter jets and missiles.
In 1956, the U-2 became operational and the Central Intelligence Agency began flying U-2 missions over the Soviet Union to take pictures of nuclear and military sites in an attempt to learn more about its enemy. For four years, the overflights took place, bringing real but limited results. The Soviets had become aware of the new intelligence collection methods but had been unable to do anything about it. In 1960, the US decided to increase the depth of the surveillance flights in order to glean more information on its adversary.
The fateful flight on May 1, 1960 was the second ever to be launched from a Pakistani air base, a location that allowed the spy plane to penetrate deep into Soviet airspace, but the Soviets were expecting its arrival. Air defenses were put on high alert and orders were given to bring down the American plane at whatever cost.
What actually brought down the U-2 is contested. Some narratives claim that a Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) struck the plane, sending it plunging to the ground. Other accounts refute that claim, saying that if a missile had struck the plane that it would have been immediately blown to pieces. That narrative, of a former Soviet military official, claims that the SAM actually struck one of the MiGs sent to intercept the U-2, although even in that account, it is not clear whether the U-2 was rammed by a Soviet jet or if the blast from a nearby missile strike simply damaged its wing. There is no dispute, however, about what happened once the top-secret plane began its plunge toward enemy territory. Having lost control of his aircraft, Francis Gary Powers, a former US Air Force Pilot who retired in order to fly for the CIA, managed to safely eject.
The United States government was quick to deny that the downed plane was in any way related to intelligence or that it had intentionally entered Soviet airspace. The Eisenhower administration changed its story a number of times but was eventually embarrassed when the Soviets produced Powers, whom the US believed to have been killed in the crash. The USSR had also recovered much of the secret plane, which largely survived its crash landing. The Soviets managed to recover images captured from the plane of military sites and the plane’s camera itself, further embarrassing Washington.
One of the most immediate consequences of the episode was the breakdown of East-West talks two weeks later. Insisting that the United States apologize for the spying, then Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev walked out of the multi-lateral meeting, increasing already inflamed tensions between the Cold War adversaries. Further diplomatic damage was averted, however, when the United States put forward a proposal for an open skies agreement that would allow Soviet over-flights through US airspace.
Following the incident, United States intelligence agencies were faced with the fact that their state of the art plane was not immune to air defenses, as it had been touted. Furthermore, the top secret U-2 program was made public. The US Air Force and intelligence agencies began searching for and developing safer methods of intelligence collection, including spy satellites.
Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to a decade of imprisonment, but was released a year later in exchange for a Soviet spy.
Upon his return to the United States, Francis Gary Powers was eventually cleared of wrongdoing after initially being reproached for not utilizing the U-2’s self-destruct function or the dose of cyanide he was carrying. He would later go on to pilot a traffic helicopter for a local Los Angeles television news station. In 1998, Powers died in a helicopter crash while working, covering a Southern California brush fire. Two years after his death he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, the CIA's Director's Medal, the Prisoner of War Medal and the National Defense Service Medal.
The U-2 spy plane, despite being proven vulnerable in its earliest years, continues to be used by the United States over 55 years since becoming operational, although it is slated for retirement from service in the coming years. Though no longer considered a top-secret spying machine, its ability to be quickly directed and deployed to specific targets makes it a valuable intelligence-gathering asset compared to satellites that need to be programmed in advance to cover a specific area.