In 1956, Powers accepted an offer to fly a new type of aircraft on secret missions as a civilian contractor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The U-2, specially designed by Lockheed to carry cameras and other monitoring devices over the Soviet Union to obtain information not otherwise available, was difficult to fly. Nevertheless, Powers became a proficient pilot, garnering the most flying time in his unit.
On 1 May 1960, during the twenty-fourth U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union, Powers was downed by a Soviet antiaircraft missile, previously believed incapable of reaching the plane's 70,000-foot flying altitude. Unable to activate the destruct mechanism that would destroy the evidence of his espionage activity—the camera and film in the aircraft—Powers bailed out of the U-2 and parachuted to the ground, where he was captured and turned over to the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB). The Soviet Union publicly announced his captivity and the existence of the plane's wreckage after the United States denied any knowledge of the flight, greatly embarrassing President Dwight D. Eisenhower and using this as an excuse to cancel a major East-West summit scheduled to be held in Paris. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev left the preliminary meetings after Eisenhower refused to apologize for the incident.
After a Soviet show trial that garnered international attention, Powers was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served twenty-one months, and in February 1962 he was exchanged for Soviet master spy Colonel Rudolf Abel. Inquiries by the CIA and the U.S. Senate determined that Powers had behaved properly during the ordeal, despite varying opinions to the contrary. He went on to serve as a Lockheed test pilot for seven years, and in 1970 he published memoirs criticizing the CIA for inadequately preparing for a shoot-down. He then became a helicopter pilot for a California television station. Powers was killed on 1 August 1977 in a Los Angeles helicopter crash. Having previously received the Intelligence Star, in 2000 he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Prisoner of War Medal, and the Director's Medal from then-CIA Director George Tenet.
Christopher John Bright
Powers, Francis Gary, with Curt Gentry. Operation Overflight: The U-2 Spy Pilot Tells His Story for the First Time. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.