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Cold War Spy Plane Mystery Solved after 50 Years — May 1, 1960

Fifty years ago, on May Day 1960, Francis Gary Powers took off from Northern Pakistan on a flight across the Soviet Union, scheduled to land in Norway. Powers never completed his mission. The events that followed were to change the course of world history.

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Early that morning, Nikita Khrushchev was woken by a phone call from his Minister of Defense, who told him that an American U2 spyplane had entered Soviet air space.

A few hours later, high above central Russia, Powers was thrust violently forward into his canopy as a surface-to-air missile exploded behind him. The blast ripped off the plane’s tail but left the cockpit intact, allowing Powers to eject and parachute down where he was surrounded by Soviet farmers and soldiers.

The Americans maintained that a weather plane had strayed off course, until Khrushchev presented the new captive together with the on-board spy equipment. Eisenhower was forced to admit the existence of the mission though he refused to apologise. This effectively scuppered the proposed summit at which détente was to be launched.

After an infamous show-trial, Powers was sentenced to ten years in prison, most of it in hard labor. But after less than two years he was released and returned to the US in return for the Soviet agent, Rudolph Abel.

What has only just been revealed, after the recent declassification of CIA documents, is that many top US intelligence officers at the time (and during Powers’s later debriefings),  never actually believed that Powers was shot down at 70,000 feet, obviously underestimating the capabilities of the Soviet SAMs.

In a summary of the documents by one of the world’s leading experts on the CIA, Matthew Aid, the agency believed that Powers made a slow descent down to 34,000 feet before changing direction and heading off the radar screen. If this were true, then it would have meant that Powers had lied and could have even been a traitor. One theory was that after dropping to a low level, he bailed out to safety and spent his first night as a defector in a nearby nightclub.

In reality, one of two Soviet MiG pilots from a missile battalion south of Sverdlovsk sent to intercept the U2, got accidentally shot down by a stray rocket from another battalion. The radar trace from the Soviet plane closely matched the data from the US signals intelligence. According to Aid, the CIA mistook the Soviet pilot for Gary Powers.

His son, Gary Powers Jr, now a Cold War historian, said last month: “the American military, the American government just couldn’t bring themselves to believe that the Soviets were more advanced than they may have thought.”

Was Francis Gary Powers shot down, or did he land his plane?

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