Soviet Air Force pilot Capt. Igor Mentyukov was sitting at a bus station in Perm when he was recalled to base and ordered to get into his Sukhoi Su-9 wearing whatever he had on. He was not wearing a flight suit or any other gear, and his fighter was currently unarmed. His orders from Moscow were to take off immediately and pursue an enemy aircraft flown by American CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers at high altitude – and ram it.
He headed toward his plane and took off, headed for certain death. Luckily for Mentyukov, he never made it that far. His onboard radar failed, and he couldn’t see his target. He switched off his afterburner and flew home, low on fuel.
Soviet’s Rocket Attacks At The Spy Plane Flown by American CIA Pilot Francis Gary Powers
The enemy plane flying above the Soviet Union that day was a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, flown by American CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers. Mentyukov may have missed Powers, but the Soviets fired eight S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missiles at the spy plane.
Powers had taken off from a base in Pakistan to fly over almost 3,000 miles of Soviet airspace to land in Norway. His mission was to photograph ICBM sites at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh SSR and the Plesetsk Cosmodrome north of Moscow. He made it as far as Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains. Soviet Air Defenses knew he was coming and were waiting for him.
None of the S-75 missiles fired at him scored a direct hit; otherwise, he would never have lived to tell his side of the story, but one of them exploded behind Powers’ plane. That was enough to bring it down and force Powers to bail out.
“The nose pitches forward, the wings snap off, and the fuselage goes into an inverted spin,” the pilot’s son, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., tells Together We Served. “Dad is hanging upside down by a seatbelt, his harness spinning out of control down towards the ground. If he engages the ejection seat, it’ll sever his legs off.”
Powers decided to open the canopy on the plane, which quickly went flying off into the air. When he unlatched his harness, he was sucked out of the cockpit but is still attached to the plane by his oxygen hose. As he’s being banged around the side of the fuselage, he tried to reach the self-destruct button, knowing he’ll only have 70 seconds to free himself once he hits it.
But he never got the chance. He broke free of the air hose and the airplane. At 15,000 feet, his parachute opened automatically. He landed in a farmer’s field in Sverdlovsk, disoriented and with a ringing in his ear. A farmer tried to help him, but speaking no Russian, he could not communicate. He was soon taken to the local police station.
Attempted Deception by the U.S. Government
Back in the United States, the U.S. government tried to cover up the incident by claiming a NASA aircraft from Turkey had gone missing and that the pilot might have blacked out with the autopilot engaged.
American officials had no idea if Powers was alive. He might have survived the incident, but he was issued a false silver dollar coin containing a potent neurotoxin to use in case of capture. They stuck to their story, but on May 7, 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev revealed that Powers was indeed alive and in Soviet custody – and so was the aircraft.
“Once he was captured, he had meager orders at best,” says the younger Powers. “He basically was told, ‘If you’re caught, you might as well tell them everything. They’ll get it out of you anyway. Expect to be tortured.’ But my father had made up his mind that he was not going to. The first seven days, dad was lying to his captors outright, holding back as much information as possible, misleading them any way he could.”
The same day Khruschev announced the USSR was holding Powers was the first time the CIA pilot learned about the incident’s notoriety and the press. The KGB gave him a copy of the New York Times that outlined the entire shoot down. The Times article also revealed that Powers had been lying to the KGB the whole time.
“So from that moment forward, my dad decided to tell the truth when he knew they could verify the information in the press. That would give him credibility. He lied to them when he could get away with it,” his son says. “It would be close enough to be believable, yet far enough away to keep other pilots out of harm’s way should the missions continue. He also did it to get a message back home to the CIA that he wasn’t telling the full truth.”
After three months of interrogation, Powers was put on trial, but he knew it was all a propaganda show. The Soviets were going to use the trial to embarrass the United States and claim a propaganda victory. That’s exactly what happened.
He was convicted and sentenced to three years of imprisonment and seven years of hard labor. He would only serve one year and nine months before he was exchanged for the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in February 1962. But Powers’ story doesn’t end there. The U-2 Incident disrupted a scheduled peace conference between the U.S. and Soviet Union, and Khruschev’s political trap forced President Eisenhower to admit to the U-2 spy program.
While he was in captivity, the American and British press printed unflattering, accusatory accounts. Some leveled charges that Powers had defected and given all his sensitive information to the Russians. Others charged that he hadn’t committed suicide like he was supposed to do. The fact that he wasn’t able to destroy the plane made it easier for the press to say everything short of accusing him of treason.
“It is easier to blame the pilot than it is to have to admit that the Soviets have the capability to shoot down the U-2 at 70,000 thousand feet,” says Powers Jr. “It was easier to blame the pilot than to continue to embarrass the President of the United States, who had to admit he had personally authorized these U-2 overflights.”
The CIA, it turns out, told President Eisenhower that no pilot would ever survive a CIA shootdown, but they never told the pilots that. The cover story about oxygen deprivation was also left out of the pilots’ briefings. As far as the suicide device is concerned, that was optional at the pilot’s discretion.
“I remember him telling me that he thought he could use it as a weapon if he had to escape,” says Powers Jr. “He could use it if he’s in a crash and bleeding out, or if in the event of torture he could use it under that circumstance.”
The only reason Powers kept the device at all was to keep it out of the hands of some poor Russian farmer who might come across it to keep it as a souvenir.
Francis Gary Powers was partially exonerated during a Senate Armed Services Select Committee hearing. He received his back pay of $50,000 for the period where he was held captive. CIA director Allen Dulles even offered praise for his performance in flight and in captivity. But the full story couldn’t be told until the full account of the incident was declassified in 2000 and 2012.
Sadly, Powers didn’t live to see it. He died when a KNBC News helicopter he was flying in Los Angeles crashed in 1977.
“In June of 2012, the Air Force posthumously awarded my father the Silver Star,” Powers’ son says. “So dad has been publicly recognized as a hero to our country. The United States government has officially acknowledged him as such and helped to dispel the misinformation. It took them 40 and 50 years respectively, but it goes to show it’s never too late to set the record straight.”
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