Pilot’s son dispels myths in U2 spy plane story

By Gregory Harutunian for Chronicle Media

Francis Gary Powers Jr. signs books, during his appearance at the Vernon Area Public Library. (Photo by Gregory Harutunian/for Chronicle Media)

Aug. 1, 1977: a helicopter crash takes the lives of a traffic reporter and cameraman who had been giving actualities for an NBC media outlet’s coverage of a California brush fire.

The reporter was Francis Gary Powers. His 12-year old-son, and namesake, knew his father was a spy-plane pilot who was shot down over Russia, but not much else. While in college, he began asking relatives about his father and needed to understand more about U2 spy plane programs from the 1950s.

“More and more questions came up, along with numerous conspiracy theories like sabotage, a UFO encounter, a bomb placed in the tail section, or CIA involvement,” said Francis Gary Powers Jr., during a July 21 presentation. “I once gave a talk to kids in high school, and it was a great turnout, but they thought I was going to talk about U2, the rock band. That moment dovetailed into creating the Cold War Museum in 1990, as an informational tool … the largest collection of civil defense memorabilia in the world.”

Powers’ father was shot down May 1, 1960 over Sverdlosk, Russia while piloting a secret U2 mission to photograph a potentially functional missile site at that location.

“There was,” said his son.

The resulting fallout led to the cancellation of a planned summit between United States and Russian leaders, and subsequently to the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco, and the “Cold War” with a nuclear holocaust scenario. It also led to the still-questioned aspects of the John F. Kennedy assassination.

The Oliver Stone film “JFK” intimated that Kennedy assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, may have given information about the “untouchable” spy plane when he defected to Russia. “There is no direct proof of that occurring, but it could have happened,” Powers Jr. said. “He was a radio operator in Japan, and as a result, was privy to the elevations and altitudes that the planes flew at, and might have passed it along.”

The 2015 film, Bridge of Spies, detailed the brokered exchange of prisoners, Powers and Col. Rudolf Abell, between the two countries on the Pottsdam Bridge, nearly 21 months after the plane was shot down. Powers Jr. was hired to be a consultant.

“It’s substantively true, but the details are embellished … broad strokes for dramatic effect,” he said.

“In July 2014, I was able to contact Steven Spielberg’s company, and they sent a contract and the last sentence was something like ‘we don’t have to listen to you.’ It was a big picture and an accurate portrayal of the time period … the tensions that existed between the two countries.”

The Vernon Area Public Library and the Lincolnshire Morningstar Rotary Club partnered to present the program.

“We reached out to him, and he agreed to speak here, after we learned he was on a promotional tour,” said Roz Topolski, the library’s program coordinator. “The library has evening programs every month, which include presentations and lectures. This was a wonderful opportunity to hear about this subject, and from someone that was close to it.”

An estimated 90 people attended the free lecture, and Powers Jr. placed them “right in the cockpit” in relating the events of his father’s life, starting with the 1950-54 Air Force period of flying F-84 jets. In 1955, he was selected to fly the U2 planes and had completed flights over the former Soviet Union.

At 6 a.m., May 1, 1960, he left on a 2,500-mile flight from Pakistan to Bodo, Norway with an on/off photo imaging camera in its nose. Four hours into the flight at an altitude of 70,500 feet, the plane was suddenly pushed forward. It was an explosion coming from the back of the plane.

The plane’s wings sheared off, as the fuselage pitched forward with no response from the controls or any ability to free himself for ejection from the cockpit. He popped open the canopy and was halfway out of the plane, tethered only by two to three feet of air hose. After finally breaking free, his parachute opened at 15,000 feet, and he drifted onto a farm field. He had watched a black car follow his movements in the air, and eventually, arrive at his drop location.

Five days later, Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev addressed the world saying the plane was shot down, although no information on the pilot was given. Powers was interrogated, and though suffering mental abuse, he divulged misinformation to his captors. He was told that the veracity of his statements would be checked, as the Russians would get the information anyway from American newspapers.

He was given a 10-year sentence for espionage, and basically, abandoned by the United States government. His time in prison was marked by the ability to write letters to his family. Powers Jr. noted,

“The letter bodies were re-arranged to prevent any secret codes, and he would write a second draft, but they weren’t censored.”

A deal, brokered by a corporate attorney, James Donavan, ended Powers’ 18 months of imprisonment by trading him for Abell, a Russian spy held in a United States prison. Back home, he was finally cleared by officials that he had acted appropriately and divulged no secret information.

From 1963-70, he worked for Lockheed International, as a U2 test pilot, and was let go after publishing his autobiography. He then was employed by KGIL, completing radio traffic reports, before moving to the NBC affiliate. He perished the following year.

And what initiated the U2 spy plane program?

“It was us offering an ‘open sky’ program, where the Russians could fly over and photograph our country from the air, and we could do the same over their country,” Powers Jr. said. “Khrushchev declined, and boasted of all these weapons and sites that he didn’t want photographed. The famous slogan, ‘we will bury you,’ came from this.

“Our leaders started thinking, ‘well, what does he have?’ The truth of the matter? He didn’t have anything … it was boasting and bragging. I got that from Khrushchev’s son, Sergei,” he said. “We are good friends and we’ve been on panels together.”

“And look at the sequence of history that evolved from that chain of events.”

Click here for the Cold War Museum website