This day in history, May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers is shot down while conducting espionage over the Soviet Union.
U-2 pilots flew espionage missions at altitudes above 70,000 feet above the reach of Soviet air defenses. The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera designed to take high-resolution photos from the edge of the stratosphere.
Flights over the Soviet Union began in mid-1956 and the Soviet Union became aware of these flights by 1958 at the latest. The CIA assured President Eisenhower that the Soviets did not possess anti-aircraft weapons sophisticated enough to shoot down the high-altitude planes, but by 1960, the Soviet Union had effective countermeasures.
On May 1, 1960, a U-2 flight piloted by Francis Gary Powers disappeared while on a flight over Russia after departing from a military airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan. Powers was shot down by an S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile over Sverdlovsk. The CIA reassured the president that, even if the plane had been shot down, it was equipped with self-destruct mechanisms that would render any wreckage unrecognizable and the pilot was instructed to kill himself in such a situation.
Based on this information, the U.S. government issued a cover statement indicating that a weather plane had veered off course and supposedly crashed somewhere in the Soviet Union. With no small degree of pleasure, Khrushchev pulled off one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War by producing not only the mostly-intact wreckage of the U-2, but also the captured pilot. Eisenhower had to publicly admit that it was indeed a U.S. spy plane that crashed in the Soviet Union.
Eisenhower considered the “stupid U-2 mess” one of the worst debacles of his presidency. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was released in 1962 in exchange for a captured Soviet spy, Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher, known as “Rudolf Abel.”