Shot Down U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers To Be Awarded The Silver Star


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Shot Down U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers To Be Awarded The Silver Star

By Mike Mitchell

December 19, 2011 - The United Stats Air Force will award the Silver Star, posthumously to Francis Gary Powers for valor in the face of the enemy when his U-2 spy plane was shot down on May 1, 1960, while flying a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Union airspace. 

Powers’ son, Francis Gary Powers Jr. had made a request to the Air Force that his father be considered for the medal. This week the Air Force confirmed to Powers’ son that the medal would be awarded to his father. “It is vindication of my father 50 years afterwards. Dad is one of our American heroes.” 

The United States government at first denied the U-2 spy plane's purpose and mission, but then was forced to admit its role as a covert surveillance aircraft when the Soviet government produced its intact remains and surviving pilot, as well as photos of military bases in Russia taken by Powers.  

In 1998, newly declassified information revealed that Powers’ mission had been a joint USAF/CIA operation. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the U-2 Incident, his family was presented his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, and National Defense Service Medal.

In addition, CIA Director George Tenet authorized Powers to posthumously receive the CIA's coveted Director's Medal for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty. He was awarded the CIA's Intelligence Star in 1963 after his return from the Soviet Union. 

Powers served in the United States Air Force. He then joined the CIA's U-2 program. U-2 pilots flew espionage missions using an aircraft that could reach altitudes above 70,000 feet, making it invulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft weapons of the time. The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera designed to take high-resolution photos from the edge of the stratosphere over hostile countries, including the Soviet Union. U-2 missions systematically photographed military installations and other important sites. 


Soviet intelligence, especially the KGB, had been aware of U-2 missions since 1956, but lacked the ability to launch counter-measures until 1960. Powers’ U-2, which departed from a military airbase in Peshawar, was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Surface to Air) over Sverdlovsk. Mayak, the site of the 1957 Kyshtym disaster, was a goal of this mission. Powers was unable to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism before he parachuted to the ground and was captured. 

Powers' U-2 plane had been hit by the first S-75 missile fired. A total of 3 had been launched; one missile hit a MiG-19 jet fighter sent to intercept the U-2, but which was unable to reach a high enough altitude. The Soviet pilot, Sergey Safronov, crashed his plane in an unpopulated forest area rather than bail out and risk his plane crashing into nearby Degtyarsk. Another Soviet aircraft, a newly manufactured Su-9 in transit flight, also attempted to intercept Powers' U-2.  

The unarmed Su-9 was directed to ram the U-2. The pilot attempted but missed because of the large differences in speed. Powers claimed, it is recounted in "The Skunk Works", that upon ejecting he saw the parachute of another pilot deploy behind him. When the U.S. government learned of Powers' disappearance over the Soviet Union, it issued a cover statement claiming a "weather plane" had crashed after its pilot had "difficulties with his oxygen equipment."  

What CIA officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact, and the Soviets recovered its equipment. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for months before he made a confession and a public apology for his part in espionage.  The incident set back talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower. On August 17, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and was sentenced to a total of 10 years, three years in imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor. He was held in "Vladimir Central Prison", some 100 miles east of Moscow.  

On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged along with American student Frederic Pryor in a well publicized spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel), a Soviet colonel who was caught by the FBI and put in jail for espionage, at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany. Powers received a cold reception on his return home. Initially, he was criticized for having failed to activate his aircraft’s self-destruct charge to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts of his aircraft before his capture. He was also criticized for not using an optional CIA-issued "suicide pin" to kill himself.  

After being debriefed extensively by the CIA, Lockheed, and the Air Force, on March 6, 1962, Powers appeared before a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing chaired by Senator Richard Russell and including Senators Prescott Bush and Barry Goldwater Sr. It was determined that Powers had followed orders, had not divulged any critical information to the Soviets, and had conducted himself “as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances.” 

Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1963 to 1970. In 1970, he co-wrote a book called Operation Overflight, a memoir of the U-2 Incident. It is rumored that this led to his termination from Lockheed due to negative publicity for the CIA from the book. Powers became an airborne traffic reporter for radio station KGIL Los Angeles. He was then hired by television station KNBC to pilot their new "telecopter", a helicopter equipped with externally mounted 360 degree cameras. The telecopter wasn't new it had been in service for years, and was purchased from KTLA, Channel 5. Prior to this time Powers' experience was with fixed wing aircraft. 

In 2010, CIA documents were released indicating that "top US officials never believed Powers’ account of his fateful flight because it appeared to be directly contradicted by a report from the National Security Agency, the clandestine US network of codebreakers and listening posts. The NSA report remains classified, possibly to spare the blushes of its authors. For it is now possible to piece together what really happened high over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960, and to understand why America’s most secretive intelligence agency got it so wrong".

According to the article cited, the still classified NSA report is incorrect based on the CIA documents that were declassified which show that Powers' account of being shot down at altitude was accurate. Powers died in 1977 in an helicopter accident. He had been covering bush fires in Santa Barbara County. As he returned, his Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, registered N4TV, ran out of fuel and crashed in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area several miles short of Burbank Airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board report attributed the probable cause of the crash to pilot's fault (poor fuel management). According to Powers' son, an aviation mechanic had repaired a faulty fuel gauge without telling Powers, who misread it. At the last moment he may have noticed children playing in the area, and directed the helicopter elsewhere to prevent their deaths. If not for the last second deviation, which compromised his autorotative descent, he might have landed safely.

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