This Day In History: US Spy Plane Pilot Goes On Trial in Soviet Union (1962)

This day in history the Soviets  captured American the U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. After a show trial, he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for spying on the Soviet Union.

Powers was a pilot who had been on an intelligence mission over the USSR. In 1962 the Cold War was at its height and many believed that a Third World War was inevitable.

Powers took off from Pakistan  in a U2 spy plane, it was a state of the art high altitude plane. Powers’ mission was to fly over the Soviet Union and collect information on is facilities and installations. The plan was for Powers to land in a top secret air base in Norway. Things did not go to plan and  halfway through his mission, the U2 plane was shot down by the Soviets. The Communists with a ground to air missile  over Sverdlovsk in the Urals. Powers had to bail out of his plane at over 15000 feet. Amazingly, Powers survived the descent but he was literally in the middle of the Soviet Union and had no hope of escape. He was soon captured by the Communists and interrogated.

The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced that the American spy aircraft had been shot down. He later stated that the spy was still alive in Soviet custody.   Powers was, alive and well and had been on a spying mission over Soviet territory. The Americans claimed that Powers had not been on an authorized mission and that he may have flown over the Soviet Union by accident.

Shortly after there was a planned summit between America and the Soviet Union. Khrushchev demanded that the American President Eisenhower should apologize over the U2 incident.  Eisenhower refused and the summit was terminated with bitter recriminations. The shooting down of the U2 Plane had resulted in an international incident. The Soviets and their allies used the U2 incident for propaganda purposes, much to the embarrassment of the Americans.

In August, Powers pleaded guilty to espionage charges in Moscow and was sent to prison. However, the Soviets agreed to exchange Powers for a Soviet spy.  Powers and the Soviet spy were exchanged on the famous ‘bridge of spies’, which connected East and West Berlin across Lake Wannsee. Powers was then taken back to the US and to a whirlwind of media attention. The CIA debriefed Powers in West Germany.

Gary Powers (right) and Kelly Jonson before a U2 plane

After returning to the United States, Powers was exonerated by the CIA and the Senate. The Soviets air defenses were much superior that indicated by the CIA and the mission should never have taken place. In 1970, Powers published a book,Operation Overflight, about the shooting down, his capture and imprisonment. In 1977 Powers was killed in the crash of a helicopter that he was flying as a reporter for a television station in L.A.