Friday, May 01, 2009

This Day in U.S. History, May 1st.

On May 1st, 1960, Francis Gary Powers was shot down by Soviet Air Defenses while piloting his U-2 spy plane.

Flying from an airbase established in Pakistan, Powers was supposed to take pictures of several top-secret soviet facilities before landing in Norway. Unfortunately, the Soviets were aware of the flights and were prepared.

Their first attempts to bring the U-2 down were with MiG-19 fighters, with orders to bring it down by any means including ramming if necessary. Due to the extreme operating altitude of the spy plane, the MiG-19s were unable to engage but continued to chase it. Finally a salvo of surface-to-air missiles hit the aircraft and it began to descend. Powers bailed out just before a second salvo hit the aircraft and was captured. A pursuing MiG was brought down by friendly fire.

Initially, the United States tried to cover up the incident. NASA claimed one of their aircraft had gone missing, and a U-2 was given a NASA paintjob in an attempt to convince the press that it was operating these aircraft. The Soviets continued to tell the world (correctly) that they had shot down a spy-plane.

The Soviets made no mention that Francis Gary Powers had been captured, and then President Dwight D. Eisenhower assumed he had been killed (or had killed himself using poison he carried in a fake silver dollar to avoid capture). The White House issued a statement saying a weather research aircraft had lost its way and that "there was absolutely no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet airspace and never has been."

The White House had walked right into a trap, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev 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." Not only did they have Powers, but the Soviets had even managed to develop some of the film taken by the U-2's camera.

A very embarrassed White House was forced to acknowledge the spying missions, and Soviet-U.S. relationships deteriorated even further. Francis Gary Powers was convicted of espionage, and sentenced to three years of imprisonment followed by seven of hard labor. He was later exchanged for a captured soviet spy after serving 21 months of the sentence.

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