02 August 2010

Francis Gary Powers: After the Return

On May 1, 1960 a lone CIA U-2 spyplane took off from a forward operating base in Peshawar, Pakistan for what would be one of the most fateful flights of the Cold War era. After over 5 years of uneventful US overflights of the Soviet Union, this mission, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, would change the strategic balance of the Cold War. Powers' mission was to take him on a marathon mission over several reconnaissance targets of interest, from the Baikonur missile test facility, the Sverdlosk industrial center, the ICBM bases at Plesetsk, the submarine construction yards at Severodvinsk, and the Soviet Northern Fleet base at Murmansk before recovering at the NATO base at Bodo, Norway. Halfway through his flight before reaching Sverdlosk at an altitude of 70,500 feet, an SA-2 surface-to-air missile exploded aft of his aircraft, sending it spiraling downward. Powers survived and was promptly apprehended by Soviet authorities and in one of the dramatic moments of the Cold War, was tried in the Hall of Columns at the Kremlin in a highly-publicized proceeding that began on August 17, 1960. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage.

For the next 18 months Powers was in prison, the US government negotiated for his release and settled upon a trade for convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Interestingly, the idea for the trade originated with Powers' father, Oliver. In November 1961 acting Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Charles Cabell notified Secretary of State Dean Rusk of the CIA's support of a trade. On February 1962 following President Kennedy's final approval, at a bridge in Berlin that connected East and West sides of the city, Francis Gary Powers was traded for the spy Rudolf Abel. Powers was immediately flown back to the United States for a comprehensive debriefing, convening what the agency called a "damage assessment team" to determine what damage Powers' shootdown and subsequent interrogation/imprisonment had done to US airborne intelligence efforts. Considering that Powers was extensively involved with the U-2 program from its beginnings, it was assumed that he had revealed everything to the Soviets- instructions to U-2 pilots of what to do in case of capture was scant at best. They were advised to "tell everything since they're going to get it out of you anyway". Some pilots flew on Soviet overflights with cyanide capsules and Powers was given a poison-tipped needle to inject himself with in the event of capture, but it was seized from him when he was apprehended after bailing out. At any rate, after a two week debrief, the damage assessment team concluded that the damage was minimal and were very satisfied with Powers' efforts to reveal as little classified information on the U-2 program as possible.

This wasn't sufficient for the newly-appointed DCI, John A. McCone (the previous appointed DCI was Allen Dulles who resigned in November 1961 in the wake of the shootdown and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion) demanded a further examination of Powers' actions while in Soviet custody despite a letter of support from the previous DCI, Allen Dulles. A new board of inquiry headed by federal judge Barrett Prettyman was convened to investigate the matter further. Testimony from the agency experts who debriefed him was taken, a thorough examination of Powers' background from his doctors to his fellow pilots and commanders from his former Air Force units was performed as well as a voluntary polygraph examination of Powers himself. Soviet photographs taken of the U-2 wreckage were reviewed by Lockheed Skunk Works engineer Kelly Johnson (who designed the U-2) and he found them consistent with Powers' story. DCI McCone was unconvinced and ordered the Air Force to have its own panel of experts review the evidence. The US Air Force echoed the Prettyman Board's findings as well with DCI McCone having only a possible procedural error by Powers in maintaining his course/altitude as the only bit of information contrary to Powers' testimony.

DCI McCone ordered the Prettyman Board reconvened to re-examine the evidence but their second report remained essentially unchanged from their original findings. In March 1962 Powers himself testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee who commended his actions and conduct during the mission and his subsequent capture. Despite all this, any findings that exonerated Powers weren't released to the public and the sensationalized press of the day resulted in a very negative portrayal of Francis Gary Powers. With no public statements from government officials commending Powers for his efforts to withhold classified information from the Soviets during his 18 month internment, in the public eye his motives and loyalties were questioned. His 1962 divorce from his wife further stained his reputation in the press. Powers was snubbed by President Kennedy who had already warmly received other pilots who had been shot down and captured by the Soviets and in 1963 DCI McCone awarded the CIA Intelligence Star to all the Soviet overflight U-2 pilots except Powers (It wasn't until 1965 that Powers got the Intelligence Star from McCone's successor).

CIA U-2 pilots were all drawn from USAF units with the agreement that they would temporarily be on leave from the Air Force for their tour of duty with the CIA, after which they could return to the USAF unit and active duty. Though there was significant initial opposition to his reinstatement with the Air Force, it was approved pending the conclusion of all the investigative proceedings. In the interim time, Kelly Johnson hired him as a U-2 test pilot at Lockheed in support of upgrades and developments being worked on for future U-2 versions. In late 1963 he was offered a chance to return to the Air Force, but Powers elected to remain at Lockheed working for Kelly Johnson. In 1969, with the end of U-2 production work, Kelly Johnson reluctantly had to furlough Powers as Lockheed was unable to place Powers in any other programs. Kelly Johnson would write in his test logs "I must let Gary Powers go. I have protected him for about seven years..."

Powers subsequently found work flying for a Los Angeles radio station as a traffic reporter and subsequently went to work for KNBC as a helicopter pilot. On August 1, 1977, Powers and his cameraman, George Spears were flying back to the KNBC heliport in Burbank in a Bell Jet Ranger 206 after covering a brush fire in Santa Barbara, when for reasons unknown, the helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed near the Sepulveda Dam in the San Fernando Valley community of Encino. Powers and Spears were killed instantly. Powers was laid to rest with honors at Arlington National Cemetery. On May 1, 2000, on the 40th Anniversary of his shootdown, USAF and CIA officials posthumously awarded Francis Gary Powers the Prisoner-of-War Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the National Defense Service Medal. The ceremony with Powers' family took place at Beale AFB, home of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing which today still operates the U-2. At the conclusion of the ceremony, a lone U-2 made a low-level flyby.

Powers' shootdown in 1960 marked the first time a surface-to-air missile successfully brought down a hostile aircraft and his overflight would be last US overflight of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union would go on to develop one the most comprehensive air-defense systems in the world and that would dictate US strategic planning well into the 1990s with a shift towards low-level penetration bombers, stealth, and most importantly, the technological shift to relying on satellites to provided imagery of Soviet installations and activities.

Source: Spyplane: The U-2 History by Norman Palomar. Zenith Press, 2001.

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