The 1962 Spy Exchange of Powers for Abel

Francis Gary Powers, U-2 PilotSoviet intelligence, including the KGB, had been well aware of U-2 missions since 1956, but lacked the technology to launch counter-measures until 1960. Francis Gary Powers departed from a military airbase in Peshawar in a U-2, which was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Surface to Air) missile on May 1, 1960, over Sverdlovsk. Powers was unable to activate the plane’s self-destruct mechanism before he parachuted to the ground and into the hands of the KGB.

When the U.S. government learned of Powers’ disappearance over the Soviet Union, it issued a cover statement claiming that a “weather research plane” had been lost after its pilot had “reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment.” What U.S. officials did not realize was that the plane wreckage was almost fully intact, and the Soviets recovered its photography equipment, as well as Powers, whom they interrogated extensively for three months before he made a “voluntary confession” and public apology for his part in U.S. espionage.

On August 17, 1960, Powers was convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to a total of 10 years in prison, three years of imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor. Powers was held in the famous “Vladimirsky Central” prison in the city of Vladimir, east of Moscow.

First Prisoner Exchange Between the Superpowers | Glienicker Bridge

Glienicker Bridge, Germany

On Saturday, February 10, 1962, twenty-one months after his capture, pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged in a spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Ivanovich Abel) at the now famous Glienicke Bridge. American student Frederic Pryor was also released at the same time at Checkpoint Charlie. Abel was an English-born KGB man who had been caught spying in New York in 1957.

The Soviet Union and the United States used the Glienicker bridge three times to.

Though Powers had not divulged any classified details of the U-2 program, he received a cold reception upon his return to the United States. Initially, he was criticized for having failed to activate his aircraft’s self-destruct charge designed to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts of his aircraft before capture. In addition, others criticized him for deciding not to use an optional CIA-issued “suicide pin”.

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

After his return, Powers worked for Lockheed as a test pilot from 1963 to 1970. In 1970, he wrote a book titled “Operation Overflight”, which led to his termination from Lockheed at the request of the CIA. He then became an airborne traffic reporter for radio station KGIL in the San Fernando Valley, and was known for his unique sign off “Gary Powers, KGIL skywatch” when he finished his report. He was then hired by Los Angeles television station KNBC to pilot their “telecopter,” a helicopter equipped with externally mounted 360 degree cameras.

Powers died, aged 47, on August 1, 1977 when, upon his return from covering brush fires in Santa Barbara county, his helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed just a few miles from Burbank Airport where he was based. KNBC cameraman George Spears was also killed in the incident. Many have wondered or speculated on how an experienced pilot such as Powers could have allowed the aircraft to run out of fuel.

According to Powers’ son, Powers had reported a fuel gauge error to the mechanics a week beforehand. When the plane’s fuel gauge indicator displayed “Empty,” he actually had enough fuel for 20 more minutes of flight time. Apparently the aviation mechanic fixed the fuel gauge in the KNBC helicopter, but did not tell Powers of the correction. When he was returning to Burbank from the aforementioned brush fire coverage (live helicopter coverage now being common and ubiquitous throughout Southern California for brush fires and other breaking news) Powers ran out of fuel and subsequently crashed in a field in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area.

Eyewitnesses suggested that Powers attempted to autorotate the helicopter onto recreational fields at this location. However, he intentionally banked to avoid children on the fields and ultimately crashed the helicopter into an adjacent agricultural field, resulting in the aircraft rolling and the occupants’ deaths. Powers was survived by his wife Sue, and two children, Dee and Francis Gary Powers, Jr. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1998, information was declassified revealing that Powers’ fateful mission had actually been a joint USAF/CIA operation. In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the U-2 Incident, his family was presented with his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star and National Defense Service Medal. In addition, then 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. In June 2012 Powers was posthumously awarded the USAF Silver Star in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon.

Background

Powers had flown for the U.S. Air Force before shifting to the Central Intelligence Agency to become one of the first U-2 pilots in 1956. He flew 27 successful missions in U-2s (not all of them over the Soviet Union) before a surface-to-air missile downed his ship near Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960.

Additional Resources

Central Intelligence Agency article, A Look Back … The Cold War: Strangers On a Bridge

10 comments

  1. David Evans says:

    Salute! An extraordinary man doing a dangerous and exemplary job in extraordinary times.

    Semper Fi.

  2. William Heartsill says:

    Our fathers died doing what they loved, flying. Mine was an instructor/cargo pilot
    I want to thank your father for his service to our country, he did what he loved and the things he accomplished you should be proud.
    When you work for Government Agencies, later you are as if you don’t exist.
    I worked for Pearcy Marine as a Chief Mate transporting ammunition to the Contra Rebels during the Iran/Contra Affair aboard the Amelia Pearcy, taking ammo to El Salvador, Ca. 1987-89, and I later when I asked about the crews I worked with being recognized for the dangerous jobs we did for the U. S. Government in the time of need, they never returned my calls, you don’t exist, except for the photos that were taken.
    But bravo for your father.

  3. Dr. Donnie Smith says:

    Not only was Gary a great pilot, he was indeed a man’s man and worthy of the medals he earned in the service of his country.

  4. john Newman says:

    I cannot even begin to imagine being shot down, survive the fall, interrogated, imprisoned and then return to the states only to be questioned by your own gov. What a story and what a brave man. You must be very proud of your father.

  5. John B. Donovan says:

    Hello Gary,

    I’m proud to say that you and I shared a platform about this in Minneapolis. I was in the marine infantry in Vietnam, and I could exhibit some qualities of courage and perseverance entirely because of unit cohesion — the presence all around me of those who were mutually committed to one another. Your father had to exhibit courage in a situation where he was about as far removed from mutual support as a human being can be. For that his country owes him all the honor it can bestow.

    John Donovan
    son of Jim Donovan
    who negotiated his release

    • Gary Powers says:

      John,

      Thank you for the kind words about my father. It was an honor and a privilege to share the stage with you in Minneapolis a few years ago. I look forward to doing a similar program with you in the future. Gary

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