If you weren't alive when Francis Gary Powers got shot down over the Soviet Union, you probably heard about it in high school history. But just in case you slept through that class, here's a quick recap: Capt. Powers had been working for the CIA, carrying out aerial espionage missions from the cockpit of the U-2 spy plane. The Lockheed U-2, which could fly to 70,000 feet (out of the range of most Soviet weaponry), was equipped to fly over military targets and take hi-res photos for U.S. intelligence.
The public knew nothing of these spy missions until the Powers incident, but the Russians had known for years when they finally were able to take down the "Dragon Lady" on May 1, 1960. On August 17, Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years of jail & hard labor. After 21 months in prison, however, he and another American were traded for KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher, a.k.a. Rudolf Abel, captured in New York in 1957.
That's as far as the story typically goes "“ Powers' role in the escalating Cold War effectively ended there. So whatever happened to him?
Plenty of Critics Were Waiting Back Home
It should be noted that the pilot tried and failed to activate the U-2's self-destruct mechanism before he parachuted out of the crashing plane. Following an investigation into the incident, the Senate Armed Services Committee vindicated Powers' actions, concluding that he had neither betrayed his country nor acted unprofessionally in the course of his capture.
(It's also widely believed that Powers had a Swiss Army Knife in his gear, which the Russians confiscated and put on public display as "CIA spy gear." However, I can't find any reputable sources to back up that claim, so take that story with a grain of salt).
The spy exchange that ultimately brought the pilot home happened just like something out of the movies. As Powers walked across a guarded bridge connecting East & West Berlin, Abel passed by, heading the opposite direction. Unlike most movie spies, though, the captain didn't emerge from the incident with oodles of hot Russian babes in tow. Nevertheless, Powers did soon find love, American-style, in that most romantic of places "“ back at the CIA.
An Office Romance & Life After the CIA
From 1963 on, he test-piloted planes for Lockheed, wrote a memoir of the incident, and became a traffic-copter pilot for a Los Angeles radio station. Powers died in 1977 when his helicopter crashed while on a routine trip. His son was 12 at the time. Gary Jr. would go on to found the Cold War Museum. Sue Powers died in 2004 at the age of 68.
It wasn't until 23 years after his death that Powers was awarded any military honors. On May 1, 2000, the 40th anniversary of the U-2 crash, his family was presented with a Department of Defense Prisoner-of-War Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the National Defense Service Medal.
And in case you're curious, we haven't found any hard evidence that U2 was named after the Lockheed plane, despite omnipresent rumors alleging as much. The rumors persist in part because Bono was born just a few days after Powers' capture. As best as I can tell, the Air Force also claims no responsibility for the lead singer's aviator goggles.
(Middle photo: Powers' flight suit, on display at the Atomic Test Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, taken by Craig Moran; bottom photo courtesy Gary Powers, Jr., and the Cold War Museum).