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U-2 Incident

Dwight Eisenhower

U-2 Incident: Dwight Eisenhower was the 34th American President who served in office from January 20, 1953 to January 20, 1961. One of the important events during his presidency was the U-2 Incident.

Definition and Summary of the U-2 Incident
Summary and definition:
The U-2 incident happened during the Cold War on 1 May 1960 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was the US President and Nikita Khrushchev was Premier of the Soviet Union. The U-2 incident occurred 13 days before the important Four Powers Summit meeting between the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France.

The incident was a great embarrassment to the US and involved an American U2 spy plane that was shot down over Russia.

The US at first claimed that it was an off-course weather plane, but the Americans were forced to admit it was a spy plane when the Russians revealed that much of the plane had survived and they had captured the American pilot, Gary Powers. Soviet premier Khrushchev demanded an apology from President Eisenhower at the summit. When he refused, Premier Khrushchev went home, and the summit collapsed bringing the two nations to the brink of a nuclear war.

Facts about U-2 Incident
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on U-2 Incident.

Background History of U-2 Incident: The goal of the top-secret Cold War program known as Oxcart was to develop a spy plane that would be undetectable in the air and could be used for information gathering missions in the Soviet Union and the countries behind the Iron Curtain.

Background History of U-2 Incident: The CIA and the Army Air Force and the CIA needed to know capabilities of the Soviets and furthered their partnership with Lockheed to develop high altitude aircraft to use in surveillance missions.

Background History of U-2 Incident: The U-2 spy plane was designed by Kelly Johnson (February 27, 1910 – December 21, 1990), an innovative Lockheed American aeronautical engineer in 1954 who worked with the "Skunk Works" team of engineers for the Lockheed Advanced Development Projects on "black" aircraft.

Background History of U-2 Incident: The test flights for the U-2's began in 1955 and were conducted by .in a section of government land in the Nevada desert known as Area 51.

The U-2 spy plane was high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, essentially a glider with a jet engine. The spy plane was so light it could fly at an altitude of 70,000 feet and was able to travel distances over 4,000 miles.

The U-2 flew at altitudes that could not be reached by Soviet fighter jets of the period and it was also believed to be beyond the reach of Soviet missiles. The airplane therefore highly suitable for secret aerial reconnaissance, effectively a "spy-in-the-sky"

The first U-2 flights over the Soviet Union began, but President Eisenhower was deeply concerned about the ramifications of such a brazen breach of Russian air space if they were discovered.

The Soviets became aware of encroaching U-2 flights in 1956 from intelligence received from the KGB and their tracking devices and sent a strongly-worded protest to Eisenhower who subsequently suspended the US flights in December 1956.

The CIA, aware of the valuable information they could lose, came up with a solution which was to use British pilots for the sensitive spying missions. This was authorized in the summer of 1958 by the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Four British pilots were trained to fly the U-2's and conducted important, top-secret, spying missions over the Soviet Union and the Middle East  from a secret air base in Turkey. In 1959 the British missions acquired extremely important information. Photographs revealed that new type of Soviet bomber called the Tupolev Tu-22 and vital evidence showing that the Soviets did not have as many bombers as they were claiming.

Following the success of the British, and the need to acquire more accurate number of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, the United States resumed their own U-2 spying missions. President Eisenhower authorized the flying of two missions to take place before the Four Power Paris Summit that was scheduled for May 16, 1960.

Eisenhower had been assured it would be virtually impossible to capture the pilot of such as mission as the plane would virtually disintegrate before it hit the ground.

The Four Powers Summit was to be the first meeting between Western and Soviet leaders in five years. The four powers were to meet in Paris and be represented by the President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Harold Macmillan and French President Charles DeGaulle.

The first of the US spy missions was on 9 April 1960 and piloted by Bob Ericson who flew over four Soviet top secret military establishments.

Although aware of the American spy planes the Soviets had lacked effective countermeasures until 1960 when they developed a high-altitude air defense system (S-75 Dvina), built around a surface-to-air missile operating with with command guidance.

Unknown to the US, spy plane plane, piloted by Bob Ericson, was detected by the Soviet Air Defense Forces.

The second planned U-2 spy mission was to be flown by Captain Francis Gary Powers and scheduled for 1 May 1960, just two weeks before the Four Power Paris Summit meeting.

Captain Francis Gary Powers was an exceptional pilot who was recruited by the CIA for his outstanding record in single engine jet aircraft. By 1960, Gary Powers was already a veteran of many covert aerial reconnaissance missions.

On May 1, 1960 Captain Gary Powers flew a U-2 spy plane to photograph targets in the Soviet Union. The spy plane was detected but Soviet attempts to intercept the plane using fighter aircraft failed because of the U-2's extreme operating altitude.

The plane was eventually brought down by surface-to-air missiles fired by a battery commanded by Mikhail Voronovnear and crashed in Kusulino in the Urals. Powers had been unable to activate the plane’s self-destruct mechanism before bailing out.

Gary Powers bailed out and was captured soon after parachuting safely down on to Russian soil. Gary Powers was aware of the possible "tortures and unknown horrors" awaiting him in a Soviet prison  considered whether to use his suicide device, a poison-laced saxitoxin-tipped injection pin that was hidden in a silver dollar suspended around his neck.

It was incorrectly assumed by the United States that Gary Powers had died and that the spy plane would have disintegrated before it hit the ground.

Four days after the United States government had learned of Powers’ disappearance over the Soviet Union it tried to cover up the plane's purpose and mission and issued a cover statement to the press claiming that a “weather research plane” had been lost while flying over Turkey after its pilot had "reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment".

Nikita Khrushchev received reports about America's cover story and developed a political trap to embarrass President Eisenhower and his administration. Khrushchev released a report announcing that a spy plane had been shot down in Soviet territory.

The Americans, assuming the pilot had been lost, and continued with the 'weather mission' cover-up, explaining that the auto-pilot continued on its path causing the plane to crash in the Soviet Union. .

On May 7, 1960 Khrushchev sprang his trap and announced "I must tell you a secret. When I made my first report I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and well...and now just look how many silly things the Americans have said."

As information and photographs were released it became clear that Gary Powers had been captured and that the Soviets and much of the U-2 spy plane wreckage had survived the crash.

The Soviets had openly embarrassed the Eisenhower administration by revealing the lies and deception of their attempted cover up. Nikita Khrushchev, allowing President Eisenhower to save face and to salvage the up-coming Four Powers Summit, put the blame on  Allen Dulles, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

On May 9, 1960 the Khrushchev told US Ambassador "Tommy" Thompson that he "could not help but suspect that someone had launched this operation with the deliberate intent of spoiling the summit meeting". Allen Dulles duly played down the president’s direct role in approving the U-2 mission.

On May 10, 1960 House Appropriations Chair Clarence Cannon (D-Missouri)  revealed the true nature of the U-2 mission to the House of Representatives confirming that the U-2 was a CIA plane engaged in aerial espionage over the Soviet Union.

President Eisenhower faced mounting criticism in the press for not controlling his own administration and made the decision to come clean and reveal the aerial espionage program and his direct role in it.

A News Conference Statement was made by the President on May 11, 1960 in which he emphasized the need for intelligence-gathering activities, the secret nature and vital necessity of intelligence-gathering activities, that the incident had been given 'great propaganda exploitation' and the Four Powers Summit in which the real issues of the day such as nuclear arms reduction and the whole range of East-West relations

The U-2 incident was a great embarrassment to the United States and prompted a marked deterioration in its relations with the Soviet Union.

The Four Powers Summit only lasted for two days, it began on 15 May and ended on 16 May. The Summit meeting had failed before it even started. Khrushchev demanded an apology before discussions could begin and the promise that the USA would never to violate Soviet airspace again. President Eisenhower refused the demands and the meeting ended in bitter acrimony.

Gary Powers was extensively interrogated by the Soviets for three months before he made a “voluntary confession” and public apology for his part in U.S. espionage. On  19 August, 1960 Gary Powers pleaded guilty and was convicted of espionage and sentenced to a total of 10 years in prison, three years of imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor.

Gary Powers was imprisoned in the "Vladimirsky Central" prison in the city of Vladimir, east of Moscow.

Twenty-one months after his capture, Gary Powers was exchanged in a spy swap on Saturday, February 10, 1962. Powers was exchanged for the Soviet spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, an English-born KGB man who had been caught spying in New York in 1957. The spy exchange was made across Berlin's Glienicke Brucke bridge and is featured in the 2015 movie the Bridge of Spies.

Gary Powers returned home to the United States where he was harshly criticized for not activating his suicide pin rather than be captured. He was exonerated in a Congressional hearing in March 1962. In 2012,  the US Air Force posthumously awarded Gary Powers the Silver Star Medal for his demonstration of “exceptional loyalty” to his country during his captivity.

In 1962 spy satellite systems were introduced and the U-2 spy planes never flew over the Soviet Union again. But they did fly spy missions elsewhere. On October 14, 1962, a U-2 flying over Cuba took photographs that proved that the Soviet Union had established sites for launching medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba - the incident gave rise to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The U-2 Incident was a major event during the Cold War (1945 - 1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union.

US American History
1945-1993: Cold War Era

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