U-2 Spy Incident - Plane, 1960 & Definition | HISTORY (2024)

An international diplomatic crisis erupted in May 1960 when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) shot down an American U-2 spy plane in Soviet air space and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (1929-77). Confronted with the evidence of his nation’s espionage, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) was forced to admit to the Soviets that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been flying spy missions over the USSR for several years. The Soviets convicted Powers on espionage charges and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. However, after serving less than two years, he was released in exchange for a captured Soviet agent in the first-ever U.S.-USSR “spy swap.” The U-2 spy plane incident raised tensions between the U.S. and the Soviets during the Cold War (1945-91), the largely political clash between the two superpowers and their allies that emerged following World War II.

Peeking Behind the Iron Curtain

Alarmed over rapid developments in military technology by his Communist rivals in the USSR, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served in office from 1953 to 1961, approved a plan to gather information about Soviet capabilities and intentions. High-altitude U-2 spy planes began making reconnaissance flights over the USSR in 1956, giving the U.S. its first detailed look at Soviet military facilities.

Did you know? U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers carried a tiny needle filled with poison so that he could take his own life if he faced capture. Powers chose not to use the needle when he was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, which led some critics to brand him a coward.

Eisenhower was pleased with the information gathered by the flights. Photographs taken by the spy planes revealed that Soviet nuclear capabilities were significantly less advanced than had been claimed by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). Eisenhower learned that the U.S., rather than suffering a shortage of weapons or a “missile gap,” as many American politicians claimed, instead had nuclear forces far superior to those of its Cold War foe.

The Soviets were aware of the reconnaissance flights, because they could spot the spy planes on radar. For nearly four years, however, the U.S.S.R. was powerless to stop them. Flying at an altitude of more than 13 miles above the ground, the U-2 aircraft were initially unreachable by both Soviet jets and missiles. However, by the spring of 1960, the USSR had developed a new Zenith surface-to-air missile with a longer range. On May 1, that weapon locked onto a U-2 flown by 30-year-old CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers.

U-2 Spy Incident - Plane, 1960 & Definition | HISTORY (1)

Delve into celebrated espionage cases of the 20th century involving spies, moles, dead drops, disguises, gadgets and more.

Soviets Shoot Down U.S. Aircraft

Winging through the thin atmosphere at the edge of space, Powers was carrying out the type of top-secret mission he specialized in: flying a U-2 spy plane over the USSR to photograph military installations. If all had gone according to plan, Powers’ nine-hour flight would have taken him from Pakistan to a landing zone in Norway. Unlike previous U-2 missions, however, this one went terribly wrong.

As Powers flew over Sverdlovsk (present-day Yekaterinburg, Russia), a Soviet surface-to-air missile exploded near his plane, causing it to drop to a lower altitude. A second missile scored a direct hit, and Powers and his aircraft began to plummet from the sky. The pilot managed to bail out, but when his parachute floated to earth, he was surrounded by Soviet forces. Powers landed in the center of a major diplomatic crisis.

Eisenhower Issues a Denial

On May 5, Khrushchev announced that the Soviet military had brought down an American spy plane, but he made no mention of capturing Powers. Officials in the Eisenhower administration believed that little evidence of the plane’s espionage mission had survived the crash, so they responded that the aircraft was merely a weather plane that had accidentally flown off course. The Soviet leader quickly disproved that story, however, by producing a photograph of the imprisoned pilot as well as evidence recovered from the wreckage that conclusively showed it was a surveillance aircraft.

The U-2 spy plane incident occurred at a crucial juncture in U.S.-Soviet relations. Eisenhower and Khrushchev were scheduled to join the leaders of France and Great Britain at a summit in Paris on May 14. The American president had hoped the Paris summit would yield new agreements on nuclear arms production and testing, but he recognized that the embarrassing U-2 crisis posed a potential obstacle to that goal.

The Failed Summit

Before the world leaders opened their Paris meeting, the Eisenhower administration took responsibility for the spy flights and admitted that the weather plane explanation was false. But the president’s confession could not save the summit. The U-2 incident had convinced Khrushchev that he could no longer cooperate with Eisenhower, and the Soviet leader walked out of the Paris meeting just hours after it began. Soviet negotiators also abandoned talks on nuclear disarmament the following month. These events, which unfolded during Eisenhower’s final year in the White House, brought a new chill to relations between America and the USSR and set the stage for further confrontations during the administration of Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy (1917-63).

While world leaders squabbled about the spy flights, Powers remained in a Soviet prison. In August 1960, he was put on trial for espionage, convicted and sentenced to 10 years of confinement. He ultimately spent less than two years behind bars. Powers received his freedom in February 1962, when he and Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (1903-71) became the subjects of the first “spy swap” between America and the Soviet Union.

After returning to the U.S. and leaving the CIA, Powers eventually worked as a helicopter pilot for a Los Angeles TV station. In 1977, he died at age 47 in a helicopter crash and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

U-2 Spy Incident - Plane, 1960 & Definition | HISTORY (2024)


U-2 Spy Incident - Plane, 1960 & Definition | HISTORY? ›

The U-2 incident was a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that began with the shooting down of a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union in 1960 and that caused the collapse of a summit conference in Paris between the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France.

What happened in the 1960 U-2 incident? ›

Flown by American pilot Francis Gary Powers, the aircraft had taken off from Peshawar, Pakistan, and crashed near Sverdlovsk (present-day Yekaterinburg), after being hit by a surface-to-air missile. Powers parachuted to the ground and was captured.

What was the significance of the U-2 spy plane? ›

At the height of the cold war, as critics of the Eisenhower administration complained about the growing "missile gap," the United States secretly gathered data on Soviet missile capabilities through photographs obtained from U-2 reconnaissance plane overflights of the Soviet Union.

Was the u2 spy plane shot down over China? ›

But the Black Cats, like Powers Sr. two years before, were about to find out their U-2s were not impervious to antiaircraft fire. On September 9, 1962, Chen became the first U-2 pilot to be shot down by a People's Liberation Army antiaircraft missile. His plane went down while on a mission over Nanchang, China.

Why was the U-2 incident an embarrassment to the US? ›

On May 1, 1960, an America U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, causing great embarrassment to the United States, which had tried to conceal its surveillance efforts from the USSR.

What happened during the U-2 incident in quizlet? ›

Francis Gary Powers took off to go to Siberia, his plane was shot down over Russian soil. Russians told US that they had shot down one of our planes over their airspace. US told them, "No, you could not have. Must have been a weather balloon." Soviets told us it was certainly no air balloon.

Why did the U-2 crisis happen? ›

The U2 Incident

Just thirteen days before the summit, on 1 May 1960, an American U2 spy plane close spy planeA military aeroplane used for surveillance. , piloted by Gary Powers, was shot down over the USSR. The USA claimed that the U2 was a weather monitoring plane that had lost its way.

Are U-2 spy planes still in operation? ›

The U-2 is heading for retirement by 2026 due to budget concerns, according to a new report. While no replacement for the iconic U-2 Dragon Lady has officially been named, one likely candidate is the classified Northrop Grumman RQ-180 stealth drone, about which little is known.

Why is the U-2 spy plane so hard to fly? ›

With its long wings, light construction, and unusual landing gear, the Dragon Lady has always been a challenge even for the best pilots.

What happened to the U-2 spy plane that was photographing Cuba? ›

But the problem in the situation in Cuba is that any escalation could lead eventually to nuclear conflict. And this, of course, became a direct problem on the 27th of October 1962, when Major Rudolf Anderson piloting a U-2 on a reconnaissance flight over Cuba was shot down by a Soviet surface to air missile.

Why was U-2 shot down? ›

In 1960 the U-2 was at the center of international politics. CIA civilian pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR while photographing missile sites at Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk. The Soviets reportedly fired fourteen newly developed SA-2 surface-to-air missiles at his U-2.

What happened to the U-2 pilot? ›

Powers was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 "Guideline") surface-to-air missile over Sverdlovsk. A total of 14 Dvinas were launched, one of which hit a MiG-19 jet fighter which was sent to intercept the U-2 but could not reach a high enough altitude.

How fast does a U-2 plane fly? ›

With a cruise speed of 475 miles per hour and a wingspan of 103 feet, the Dragon Lady loves to fly. And when it comes to capturing data, flying at a high altitude is essential. The U-2 has demonstrated that the sweet spot for an ISR platform is 70,000 feet, and today's U-2 engine, an F118 GE 101, gets the U-2 there.

Was the U-2 shot down in the Cuban missile crisis? ›

And this, of course, became a direct problem on the 27th of October 1962, when Major Rudolf Anderson piloting a U-2 on a reconnaissance flight over Cuba was shot down by a Soviet surface to air missile.

What happened in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis? ›

In 1962 the Soviet Union began to secretly install missiles in Cuba to launch attacks on U.S. cities. The confrontation that followed, known as the Cuban missile crisis, brought the two superpowers to the brink of war before an agreement was reached to withdraw the missiles.

How high was Gary Powers when shot down? ›

In 1960, the Soviet Union shot down a lone American flying at 80,000 feet above its cities. The secret mission was to gather intelligence and was co-sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Air Force. The pilot was Francis Gary Powers.


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