The Story Behind The U2 Spy Plane And All Its Consequences – May, 1, 1960


1 May 1960: An American U-2 spy plane being flown by CIA pilot Captain Francis Gary Powers is shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. It crashes near the Ural Mountains.

5 May 1960: A statement released by NASA indicates that a weather research plane has gone missing; the USSR admits shooting down a plane over its territory.

7 May 1960: After the US authorities continue the cover story, Khrushchev reveals OR that the pilot has wm been captured y and the wreckage recovered.

11 May 1960: American President Eisenhower admits that spy planes have flown over the USSR but refuses to issue an apology, insisting that they are defensive flights. Khrushchev walks out of  the Paris summit after just one day, blaming US provocation and ending any hopes of reconciliation between the nations.

10 February 19262: Captain Powers is released in Berlin in a prisoner exchange. A captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, is released in return by the USA.

What was it?

U-2 Spy Plane

On 1 May 1960, Soviet air defences spotted an unidentified aircraft in their airspace at extreme altitude – 70,000 feet up. The intruder was shot down near the Ural Mountains. NASA claimed it was a weather research plane, suggesting that a problem with the oxygen equipment rendered the pilot unconscious over Turkey with the autopilot engaged, but the aircraft was actually an American U-2 spy plane tasked with taking reconnaissance photographs of military targets.

However, the USA was unaware that the pilot, Gary Powers, had been captured and that the plane was largely intact. When the Soviets announced they had interrogated Powers and released photographs of the plane, the cover story was blown. On 11 May, President Eisenhower admitted that there was a programme of spy flights over the USSR carried out under orders from the White House.

What were the consequences?

Khrushchev is shown some of the wreckage from the shot-down spy plane

The diplomatic fallout from the U-2 Incident soured relations between the USA and USSR, bringing to an end a period of peaceful coexistence and ending any hopes that the Cold War might be brought to a close through dialogue. The crisis erupted just before a summit in Paris during which both sides were due to discuss disarmament, but Eisenhower refused to apologise, insisting that the flights were necessary and pushing for an “open skies” agreement.

In response, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev walked out of the summit after only one day and withdrew an invitation to Eisenhower to visit the USSR. Tensions increased, with both sides acting more aggressively. Over the next two years, the USSR authorised the building of the Berlin Wall and the placement of missiles on Cuba, while the USA attempted a failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The Cold War had become a lot more dangerous.

Who was involved?

 gary-powersGary Powers

Recruited by the CIA, the U-2 pilot was released by the Soviets after two years in a prisoner exchange.


Dwight EisenhowerDwight Eisenhower

The US president personally approved U-2 spy flights over the USSR and was party to the cover story.


Nikita KhrushchevNikita Khrushchev

The Soviet leader had to appease hardliners in his regime and abandon attempts to reach out to the US.

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